10 Ways to Stay Productive If Your Summer Plans Have Been Derailed

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did your summer internship offer get withdrawn? Did your study abroad plans get canceled? Did the start date of your full-time job get pushed back? Here are 10 options for staying productive this summer:

1. Start a startup or personal project:

Just because you don’t have a formal internship doesn’t mean you can’t still build your resume. Think of the “Experience” section of your resume as five plots of real estate: (1) brands (e.g. “Airbnb”), (2) job titles (e.g. “Design Intern”), (3) verbs (e.g. “authored,” “developed,” “presented”), (4) nouns (“minimal viable product,” “HTML,” “CSS”), and (5) numbers (“increased conversion rate by X%”). If you team up with some friends, design a website, conduct market research, and build and test a prototype, you could emerge from the summer with just as—if not even more—impressive a set of resume bullet points than if you had worked full-time.

2. Pitch a pro bono project

The organizations you want to work for may not be hiring, but they still need help. It’s just that they can’t pay you and have even less patience to hold your hand. Find a small business or startup you are interested in and ask yourself, what could they be struggling with right now that I can help with? Then, Google for the CEO’s email and cold email them with a proposal for a two-month-long project. In your email, introduce who you are, what project you are proposing (including the objective you’ll try to achieve, the final output—the “deliverable”—of your project, the timeline of your work, and what you need from the company). Put yourself in the shoes of your recipient. It’s easy to ignore a stranger who submits a resume to your already-flooded application portal. It’s much harder to say “no” to someone who shows up saying, “I also went to ______ college and, like you, also ______ and ______. My summer internship unfortunately got canceled, but I am eager to earn some work experience and would love to help you develop a marketing strategy for reaching young people given ______ and ______. I am happy to work pro bono if you wouldn't mind offering me 30 minutes of your time for a check-in every two weeks until Friday 8/21. Would you be open to chatting further about what a project might look like? My availability is as follows: ______.” Don’t copy the exact wording, but take the general idea and run with it.

3. Take a credit-bearing online course

Not even university administrators know what the fall semester will look like yet. But if the fall ends up being Zoom University 2.0, then there will hardly be a difference between a course you’ll take this summer and a course you’ll take this fall. You might as well get a head start on any required coursework for your major. This is your chance to take a particularly difficult or time-consuming class like organic chemistry now—rather than alongside three other classes later. You’ll not only end up with a higher grade, but you’ll also be less stressed out along the way.

4. Study for graduate school

GMAT, GRE, and LSAT scores are all valid for five years. If there is a non-zero chance that you will apply to graduate school during or shortly after college, you will have to take these tests sooner or later. You might as well get them out of the way now when you have fewer distractions and when you’re still in student mode.

5. Learn a technical skill

Google for the full-time jobs you’d like in the future, open 10 different job descriptions, skim the skills and qualifications sections, and observe any patterns. What technical skills are listed? In what coding languages or tools do employers expect proficiency? Then, look for any online courses you can access for free using your university email or ID. It can often be difficult to learn a new skill without being able to apply it in real life, so pair your learning with a personal project for greater effectiveness.

6. Find a mentor

Go on LinkedIn and your college’s alumni database and search for people at several decades older who make you think, wow, I want to be you someday! Then, ask for an introduction (if you have a mutual connection) or send a cold email. In your email, introduce who you are, what you have in common, and what you are curious about. Ask for a 30-minute call and list your availability for the next two weeks to save your recipient from the scheduling hassle. Keep the email short and sweet: “Hi ______, My name is ______ and I am a ______ at ______ studying ______. Like you, I ______ and would love to follow in your footsteps. Might you have 30 minutes in the coming days to share your experiences with me? I’d love to learn more about how you ______. My availability is as follows: ______. Looking forward to hearing from you.” If they don’t reply, try one follow-up after seven days. Send a thank-you email after your call: “Thank you for taking the time to chat. I appreciate ______ and ______. Looking forward to staying in touch.” At a time when many of us are longing for human connection and ways to give back, there is no better time to reach out. Best case scenario: you build a relationship with someone with whom you connect every few months—and who ends up introducing you to a future job. Worst case scenario: they don’t reply. There’s nothing to lose.

7. Reach out to "near peers"

Though older mentors are helpful because they can help you think long-term, people who are one to five (or even ten) years older can be just as, if not even more, helpful in the short-run. These are the people who’ve been in your shoes not too long ago and who are now in jobs that you’ll eventually apply for. Look for anyone who can see you as a younger version of themselves, whether because you both attended the same high school, came from the same background, studied the same major, and/or participated in the same activities.

8. Follow the latest trends and develop your own point of view

The oil and gas industry has collapsed. Retailers are facing a reckoning. The travel and tourism industries have been thrown into a freezer. Colleges—institutions that think in years—pivoted to online education in weeks. Consumer spending is shifting. The world is changing. As stressful as it may be to chase headlines constantly, you also can’t not follow the news—not when the future is unfolding right before your eyes. Identify a few domains you are interested in—whether it’s digital marketing, sports, or cybersecurity—and set a daily or weekly Google Alert. Search for podcasts. Follow thought leaders on social media. Most importantly, ask yourself three questions: (1) “Where do I see this industry going?” (2) “What might a career look like in this space?” and (3) “What trends am I excited about (and could even turn into a personal project)?”

9. Refine your personal story

When life returns to normal and the job search frenzy resumes, you can be sure that you’ll be asked the following questions, whether at a job fair or in an interview: (1) “Tell me about yourself,” (2) “Where do you see yourself in five years?” (3) “Why this job / industry?” and, inevitably, (4) “How did you spend your time during the pandemic?” This is your chance to craft some thoughtful answers to these unavoidable questions.

10. Build good habits

Establish a consistent sleep schedule. Block time off in your calendar to meditate and/or exercise (it could be as simple as downloading a 7 Minute Workout app, which is what I do). Make a goal to meet at least one new person each week. Without the structure of classes to tell you what to do when, now’s the time to develop good habits—ones that will keep you healthy and happy long after life returns to normal.

As disappointing as it may be for the world to hit pause just as you were about to step into the real world, this pandemic is also a blessing in disguise. Think back to all the times you were overwhelmed by that rapidly approaching midterm, job fair, or interview—and how badly you wanted even a 24-hour extension. You’ve just been granted an extension—not for 24 hours, but nearly 90 days. Take advantage of the opportunity.

*This article was originally published Spring of 2020.

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