So you didn’t get a summer internship. Don’t blame yourself: There were fewer internship opportunities posted in the first months of 2021 compared to previous years, and it’s a common challenge any year. It’s not a direct measure of how hard you tried or how useful your talents might be to an organization. But what do you do?
There might be companies looking to fill last-minute internships, including through your school’s job fairs, job boards, and other career center resources. “Certain fields or smaller organizations that engage in ’just-in-time’ hiring may still be seeking interns,” says Maureen Baska, career counselor and assistant director at the Meruelo Family Center for Career Development at the University of Notre Dame. “If a student is very proactive with researching organizations, it’s possible something will materialize.” (If you’re still hoping to find an internship, you can find openings and apply right here on The Muse!)
That said, most organizations that list and hire summer interns will be starting their programs by the end of May or early June. And there are always students who haven’t secured a formal internship by then. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when you might’ve been dealing with remote learning and the stresses of a global health crisis, it’s not uncommon if you simply “haven’t had the time, ability, or mental energy in this last year to even delve into anything outside of [your] coursework,” says Nathan Slusher, the director of career education and outreach at the American University Career Center.
But there are plenty of other options if you’re hoping to take advantage of the summer months. The key is to do something: “By doing nothing, you’re missing out on huge opportunities,” Slusher says. Here are 10 internship alternatives you can pursue this summer (or, really, any time of year)—many of which can be accomplished in a few hours a week but have important benefits for your future job search.
1. Find Part-Time, Full-Time, or Freelance Work at a Company
There are plenty of organizations that don’t have official internship programs but likely could use some extra assistance. Focus first on these questions: What’s your desired industry? What role do you hope to get? If you don’t know exactly, what position would you like to try, even just to determine whether it’s a good fit? If you like coding and think you might like working for a small tech startup, for example, isolate companies that fit that description and see whether they work with freelancers, temps, and/or part-time employees—if so, they might be interested in working with you, too.
Once you’ve narrowed your interests and done some research, make a list of companies you’re reaching out to, and start connecting directly. Sometimes there’s an HR contact on the website or you might find someone who’s in a managerial role on LinkedIn. Try to find a specific person’s email, and politely reach out.
Tim Birmingham, a career coach for both private clients and students at St. Michael’s College, lays out a basic email structure:
- Write a brief introduction and reason for interest in the company. This should be specific and target each company.
- Highlight relevant experience, skills, education, and qualifications for what you think they might need. This doesn’t need to be a complete summary; keep it short and strategic.
- End with a good call to action, including availability to talk by phone and contact information. For example, you might write: “I’d like to explore the value I could offer XYZ this summer and am available to talk by phone this week at your convenience.”
This format can work any time you want to reach out for a potential opportunity, so long as you tailor it to the person and context.
2. Complete a Microinternship (or Several!)
As remote work and gig work have increased in the workforce, microinternships have increased in popularity. Microinternships are small, project-based internships that encompass about five to 40 hours of work but can often offer payment. “This gives students something project-based to get actual experience, develop skills, and have something to show for it at the end,” Slusher says. In practice, you might be writing a 1,200-1,400 word article for a company’s marketing blog, identifying 25 qualified candidates for a role a company’s hoping to fill, or studying competitors’ social media accounts and writing reports identifying what they’re doing successfully.
These microinternships can usually be done remotely and if you don’t like the work, it doesn’t usually last long. You can do several of them over the summer—which can help you explore roles, companies, and industries you’re considering—and it’s great for building your professional network with hiring managers.
3. Get a Local Summer Job
Seasonal industries and other local businesses might need short-term workers. Never underestimate the value of working at an ice cream shop, a nearby museum that draws tourists, a venue that needs caterers for events, a local clothing shop looking for retail associates, or even a babysitting gig for a neighbor’s kids.
This might not sound as exciting as a prestigious internship but it will add to your skill set and show that you’ve developed a work ethic. In case you’re skeptical that this kind of summer job will be resume-worthy even if it’s not connected to your major, Baska emphasizes that the key is to bring the right attitude to the work, and that “skills from those sorts of experiences can be translated to a future internship or full-time job (think communication, teamwork, professionalism, etc.).” Slusher says he works with students who have this type of experience all the time: “It’s all about thinking about the skills you’ve used there. Let’s communicate that in a way employers will value.”
To land a local job, you can either try to find a contact form if there’s a website, walk in with a resume, or call the person who would hire you if you’re able to find their phone number. And once you’re in the door, you could potentially ask to do something more specific to what you’d actually like to learn, from updating a website to developing a sales plan.
4. Assist a Researcher or Another Professional
You could help a professor or researcher at your school (perhaps you like their work or have taken one of their classes) or assist a professional outside your institution whose work you admire. If that individual writes papers and books, for example, you could ask if they need help with background research, proofreading, fact-checking, transcribing, or completing other tasks for their latest project. Or if they’re a web developer with their own freelance or consulting business, perhaps you could help route client inquiries, do some coding or other site setup tasks, conduct research, or write up a few case studies or testimonials to feature on their site.
You’ll need to do some proactive outreach. Use a modified version of the template Birmingham lays out above, demonstrating interest and expertise in the specific subject matter and your ability and willingness to help. See if you can figure out where their need is greatest and try to fill in the blanks—help them see the value you can provide, and make it easy for them to have you jump right in.
You may have to reach out to more than one prospect here, since some academics and other professionals may receive multiple requests like these, some may be too overwhelmed to respond, and some may just not see how to direct you appropriately.
5. Work on an Independent Project
This requires perhaps the most work on your part but could also be highly fulfilling. Think of this as akin to a senior year thesis or independent study. Could you develop an idea in an area you find fascinating? Or can you build on a topic you’ve touched upon in class but haven’t been able to pursue in depth? If you took a course on digital privacy and are eager to learn more, for example, a summer project might delve into the long-term impacts of recent data breaches based on available news sources. Your goal could be writing a paper, putting together a presentation, building a diagram, or testing a hypothesis and recording the results.
It might be helpful to consult with a faculty member to make sure your time isn’t wasted and determine what your research question should be—and you can even ask if they’ll advise you throughout the process—but it will be entirely on you to see the project through.
The key here is to set up a schedule and stick to it even if the hours need to change over time. “[Students should] pretend like they’re going to work every day. [They should] have set start/end times and have a quiet space where they can get work done,” Baska says. “They can talk with a friend or family member about goals they hope to achieve and give them updates—that will help them stay accountable.”
6. Do Online Coursework
It may be too late to sign up for a summer course at your college or university, but you can always turn to massive open online classes (MOOCs), some of which can be taken anytime or have open enrollment. “Many likely require a subscription, but students should check with their institution because it’s possible the school has a subscription so that students can access these classes for free or at a reduced cost,” Baska says. (EdX is one such platform that provides memberships for participating universities.)
There are also platforms where students can learn all sorts of specific skills: programming languages, web design, social media, and even drawing and painting. Employers love to see skill development. “The vast majority of employers hiring for the vast majority of entry-level positions are looking more at the skills you have than they are at your major or even GPA,” Slusher says. “It’s all about skill development and how you articulate the skills that you have and how you’ve used them.”
Read More: 14 Best Sites for Taking Online Classes That’ll Boost Your Skills and Get You Ahead
Nonprofits don’t necessarily have the funds to pay an entry-level worker or summer intern, but they often need volunteers. You could work for organizations such as your local pet shelter, a food bank, a tutoring service for kids who need it, an organization that supports civics in the classroom, or a group that dresses women who need business-appropriate clothing. The work itself can range from talking to potential donors and encouraging them to give money to working on marketing campaigns to spreading awareness about a particular initiative. You could work directly with the animals or people who need your help or volunteer virtually to help an organization outside of your immediate area. When there’s a cause you care about, this can be quite fulfilling work.
If you have a nearby nonprofit in mind, check their website, give them a call, or stop by to inquire about volunteer opportunities. Your university’s community service office can also help since, much like your career center, it may be open during the summer and willing to talk to you about available opportunities.
8. Conduct Informational Interviews
This is an even lower level of commitment than asking someone for a job or microinternship: Simply reach out to someone who’s doing work you want to do and ask for 30 minutes or an hour of their time to tell you about what they do every day and what advice they’d share with someone who wants to follow a similar path. You might be surprised how happy people are to share, especially if they like their work.
“Tapping into a school’s alumni network is an excellent way to start with this,” Baska says. Plus, you can turn to connections you might have through friends and family members (friends of your parents, parents of your friends, etc.), supervisors and colleagues you met at previous internships, and even people you don’t know at all but whose work intrigues you. You may need to reach out to a few people before you land on someone who has the time and bandwidth to chat. You can also do multiple informational interviews over the course of a summer to gather in-depth insight into your chosen career or to explore a multitude of potential career paths.
Even though this might not sound as impactful as summer work, you’re still showing a commitment to learn from others, ruling out jobs you don’t like, and honing your focus. You can also set up informational interviews in conjunction with a summer job, independent project, or other options on this list.
Read More: 3 Steps to a Perfect Informational Interview
9. Job Shadow
Interested in a certain kind of job theoretically but unclear what it would actually mean to do it in practice? You might benefit from seeing for yourself. “Some schools do formal job shadowing days, or you could explore doing it on an informal basis,” Slusher says. For example, if you really hit it off with someone at an informational interview—and it’s safe to do so—ask if you can join them in their workplace for the day.
This isn’t just about seeing what a job is like day-to-day: You’re also building your professional network. You can count anyone you’ve shadowed as a connection, so make sure you ask to shadow politely, be gracious if they say no, and thank them effusively if they do give you the opportunity.
“Most jobs are not found through job boards—we need to leverage the people in our networks as part of our search,” Slusher says. “[The summer] is a great time to be building connections in a professional capacity. You don’t need an immediate return—plant the seed, then when you’re ready to job search those job connections could be critical.”
10. Pursue Personal Creative Work
If you’ve been eager to explore your creative side and haven’t had the chance to do it during the semester—or if you’re in a creative field and you’d like to have a portfolio of work to show potential employers—there are a ton of ways to scratch that itch. You could start a blog or a vlog, create a podcast either alone or with a friend, do some creative writing for yourself or to submit to a writing competition, make a series of paintings or multimedia collages on a theme, or do some other form of creative work. The sky’s the limit, but treat it in the same way you would an independent project: Set up a specific goal, give yourself time limits, hold yourself accountable, and aim to have an end product.
Know that by taking on a creative project, you’re also working on your grit and resilience—especially if it turns out to be tougher than you expected. “Through the process you can develop a mindset of: I’m learning from this process, here’s why I’m doing it, here’s where my inspiration comes from, here’s what happens when I hit a wall,” Slusher says. “Even if...at the end it’s not what you thought it would be, what did you learn?”
A Few More Tips To Make the Most of Your Time
So you’ve settled on one or a few internship alternatives and you have the beginnings of a plan. What now? The experts we spoke to had a few more tips to balance productivity and self-care.
- Develop and refine your LinkedIn profile. Take the time to ask yourself questions like: What really interests me? What skills are really motivating to me when I get to use them? What roles, companies, and industries do I think I might want to target next time I’m searching for an internship or job? This is the perfect time to build or update your LinkedIn profile with the answers to those questions in mind and add all the connections you’re meeting this summer. (Not sure where to start? Check out our best LinkedIn tips!)
- Start small and build on your work. It could look and sound like this: “If I spend one hour a day working on my resume, then LinkedIn, by the end of two weeks I should see some serious progress,” Slusher says. “We really underestimate breaking things down into much smaller, manageable steps. And summer provides the opportunity to build in some fun reward systems.” Do you want to have a game night with your friends? Take a day trip to the beach? Set up clear and concrete “prizes” for when you’ve completed your work.
- Get help from your school’s career center. Most university career centers are still open during the summer, and Baska says they’re always invested in helping students. This could involve mock interviews, a resume review, a skills analysis, or help crafting a future job search strategy. They can even help students find “people at organizations and/or alumni who may be able to help them as they are exploring projects” or while they’re working on them.
- Practice self-care. Build rest into your process and be gracious with yourself as you work, Slusher says. No matter what you end up doing, it’s normal for you to not meet your goals sometimes. Treat yourself as a friend: How would you love and support someone if they fell short? Learn from the failure and take important lessons from it.
- Stay positive. “It’s competitive out there,” Birmingham says. “Be proactive and look forward. Didn’t land an internship this summer? Start focusing on finding one this fall.”