Last Updated: Aug 14, 2020
Chris Toomey had an unusual summer job in high school. While other students worked in local coffee shops, or didn’t work at all, he spent two nights each week in a restaurant—performing magic tricks. As the “house magician” at Brian’s Place in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, he performed 5–10 minute tableside shows of close-up card magic while people waited for their food. It boosted the restaurant’s business, and Toomey got paid to do what he loved.
The job also helped Toomey in an unexpected way when he applied to colleges. Not only did it stand out on his college application (there aren’t many teenage magicians out there), but he had a great topic for his admission essay. Toomey says he strongly believes his summer job helped him gain a full scholarship to Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, where he graduated from in 2009. Plus, it taught him about professionalism, self-promotion, and the importance of confidence. Summer jobs, unpaid internships, and volunteer experiences—they can all help you figure out what you want in college and a career. They also make you a well-rounded college applicant. So don’t look at it as “giving up vacation time,” and gain some life-changing experiences this summer.
“Opportunities exist in all shapes and sizes,” says Debbie Davis, an independent educational consultant who works with high school students. “Hospitals, animal shelters, historical societies, parks and recreation programs, nursing homes, radio and television stations—you name it, it’s out there.” Davis says the benefit of taking a summer job is two-sided: it’s a practical experience, because you gain maturity and transferable skills, and it’s also a highly personal experience, as you learn about yourself and what you want out of life. This demonstrates the kind of ambition and personal development admission counselors love to see.
How do you snag one of these great jobs? “It’s actually very easy,” Davis says. Your high school might already partner with local businesses, coordinating summer jobs for students; just ask your school counselor. Or you can talk to your friends, family, and neighbors. Find out what they do, ask questions, and see if they know of any job openings. (Talking to your family and friends to find job opportunities—networking—is an invaluable skill. You will need it later in life, so you might as well practice now.) Finally, you can always do a simple job search online or ask local companies if they hire high school students. “People are very open to having young adults come in and try things out,” Davis says, whether that’s shadowing someone for a day, participating in a two- or three-week experiential learning program, or applying for a full-time summer job. Even a short-term experience can help you figure out what you do and don’t like about an area of work.
If you’re interested in journalism, contact local newspapers and magazines, as well as news blogs, to see if they need freelancers. If you know there’s an aerospace engineering company close to home, ask if they have summer jobs for high school students. Political offices and law firms are always looking for interns and volunteers. You might be surprised by how approachable big companies can be about hiring young people. And even if you see yourself in an unrelated field, like book publishing, you can work at that aerospace engineering company. From any work experience you’ll learn “transferable skills,” foundational skills like how to prioritize, research, and multitask that you can apply to future positions. That’s true of most summer jobs. Whether you’re a lifeguard, a retail sales associate, or short-order cook, you will leave those positions with transferable skills.
Guarding a beach full of swimmers? You’re an authority figure with a great deal of responsibility. Helping customers choose outfits? You’re developing people skills. Managing a grill while taking orders and interacting with other team members? You’re displaying teamwork, organizational, and time management skills all right there. It just depends on how you look at it. The difference between “just a summer job” and a great, practical, and applicable experience is all in your interpretation. When you apply for jobs and internships in college or after graduation, you’ll have a leg up on the competition because you’ll be that much more experienced. “Colleges are impressed that these students are taking risks,” Davis says. “Colleges see that they’re motivated, that they’re intellectually curious.” That curiosity is one of the top things colleges look for these days, according to Davis. Colleges want to know if you’ll be an interesting addition to their campus. And if you’re eyeing the most selective schools, there’s no doubt about it: you need to set yourself apart as an applicant.
Related: Video: Summer Jobs for Students
During the academic year, you might only be able to intern for five to 10 hours each week while balancing classes, homework, club meetings, practices, and perhaps even a second job. At a summer internship, you don’t have to split your focus, and you can work full days instead of three- or four-hour blocks after class. The extra time lets you dive into the experience, connect with your coworkers, and take on bigger projects. With a formal internship you’ll see how different the working world is from the classroom. Jobs aren’t defined by major or academic subject as much as by interest and skill set. “That new concept, knowledge and skills organized by function, is something students need to experience,” says Vicky Sawyer, Associate Director, Internship Coordinator and Master Career Counselor, at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. The things you learn in school, like how to perform research, take a different form.
It’s hard to define what the typical intern does, since the role can vary so much from company to company. It’s pretty safe to assume you’ll start with small tasks assigned by a supervisor. But internships tend to be more related to your career interests than the average summer job, and there’s a learning curve. You’ll take on new projects and responsibilities with time. You can count on plenty of guidance, teamwork, and “checking in” from your superiors to make sure you’re on track. “I encourage students to do anything and everything they can to get experience,” Sawyer says. “Employers are excited about any experience.” But it’s still your responsibility to relate that experience to your potential employers.
At the end of the internship, think about the transferable skills you developed. How might they apply to the next job or internship on your radar? Write them down. Even if you spent half your time stuffing envelopes as a business intern, you probably learned about meeting deadlines, managing a project, and working with others. These are great skills to include in future résumés and cover letters. Again, you can apply those transferable skills practically anywhere else. Another plus to summer work is the opportunity for mentoring. See if you can meet with your supervisor or your school counselor to discuss how your internship fits into your future plans. Sawyer also recommends asking your work colleagues where they went to college—it may help in your college search. You might even be able to cash in your summer internship experience for college credit, but you have to speak up and connect to find out. These are all great reasons to network with your supervisors and coworkers—you never know where a connection might lead you in the future!
Like summer jobs, there are summer volunteer opportunities for practically any interest: environmental work, human rights advocacy, education—anything. “It’s a great first experience coming out of high school,” says Genevieve Brown, Executive Director of the International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA). “Volunteers can put that on their résumé.” That volunteering gig might also help you explore potential future jobs. For example, if you think you want to work with children someday, volunteer at a local daycare center to get a preview of daily work there. You can fit in weekly or biweekly volunteering sessions on top of part-time or even full-time jobs. Or you could spend one week on a large-scale project, like rebuilding houses in New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity. Like summer jobs and internships, volunteer organizations are easy to find online or through your school counselor. You might sign up independently, or through your high school or place of worship. On college applications, summer volunteering shows students are committed to giving back, thinking about their future, and interested in the global community, says Brown. Admission counselors look upon those qualities very highly.
An international twist
Summer vacation means travel—why not work or volunteer abroad while you’re at it? Overseas internship and volunteer opportunities are different from studying abroad, though you still get some of the educational and “touristy” experiences. International companies often look for summer interns, including high school students from the United States, and working overseas gives young applicants that extra edge of adapting to a different culture. For many students, it’s their first job or work experience, and it may be their first time traveling internationally too. That kind of challenging, unique learning experience on a college application (or your résumé) gives you a competitive edge. “It really says you can adapt,” says Kris Holloway, Director of University Relations and Marketing for CIS Abroad. It also demonstrates ambition, patience, and a sense of responsibility. “When I’m hiring people, that’s what I’m looking for,” she says.
Holloway says overseas employers love hiring U.S. students because they have a strong work ethic, ask questions unabashedly, and make friends easily. And they know students didn’t shell out all that money to travel thousands of miles just to sit on the sidelines. Working at an international company will test your abilities—you’re not going there to get coffee and make copies. From figuring out how electronics work to adjusting to a different culture, when you work abroad, “that newness is tenfold, because everything’s new, not just the job,” says Holloway. It’s also a different office culture, she says. For example, in Spain, office workers may dress more formally and take different breaks. It puts a new spin on the social aspect of work too. Making friends is harder when you don’t speak the same language!
In that all-new environment, you’re bound to discover things, make mistakes, meet different people—it’s a six- to eight-week long constant learning experience. It shows you are self-reliant, maybe even fearless. “You’re going to meet challenges and grow from that,” Holloway says. “You survived. You can do anything.” High school senior Katie Rice spent two weeks in July 2010 in Palampur, India, working in a government-sponsored daycare center. “Our jobs were to work with the children to teach them English, shapes, colors, and numbers. We made lesson plans to target these areas and also led activities such as coloring, singing songs, and games,” she says. “I really enjoyed the work, and I think it did give me a chance to see a part of India that I would not have seen if I had only visited India as a tourist.” Rice coordinated her trip through Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) when she was 17 years old. “By going abroad by myself at such an early age, I gained a great deal of confidence in my own capabilities of being able to go and do things,” she says. “Before, I always thought I’d want to do a semester abroad, but now I am absolutely certain. In fact, I’d like to do more than one if possible.” She says the experience also helped her figure out what she doesn’t want in a career.
Instead of interning abroad, you could volunteer. Brown says volunteering abroad is especially valuable for younger people. There are many different opportunities, and it’s a great way to prepare for college. Like domestic volunteering, you’re limited only by your interests. Search the Web or ask your school counselors if they know of any opportunities. With work opportunities, you can even ask family members if their employers have offices abroad that might hire you. Working and volunteering abroad also means coordinating the necessary travel papers, which is a learning experience in itself. Requirements vary by country, though you will need a passport. Applications generally take a minimum of six weeks, so start planning in advance. You may also need a visa; however, some countries don’t require them if your program lasts less than 90 days. Either way, you’ll need to do some research. The U.S. State Department has a helpful website devoted to student travel, and it should be one of your first stops. If you’re younger than 18, be sure to check the programs’ minimum age requirements too. Many are 16 or 18 plus, but you may still be able to participate if an older family member goes with you.
What did you do this summer?
Colleges sometimes ask that question right on their application. “They want to know how you’re spending your time,” Davis says. Even A+ students can fail to make the cut if they send in an application with no outside activities. Colleges are looking for something more. They want to know: Are you a standout student? Can you teach your peers? Would you make a difference on campus and off. Bottom line: try to do something with your summer beyond vegging out on the couch. Part-time jobs, international internships, and local volunteer positions are all steps you can take to figure out where you want to go with your education and career. Colleges and universities want to see that you’re involved with something other than your Xbox 360. In four years or so, when you start looking for a “real” job, you’ll be glad you did.
For more summer jobs and opportunities advice, check out our Internships and Careers section.