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It’s midterm time. Coffee, review notes, lack of sleep: check, check, check.  Summer position lined up: wait, what?

That’s right folks. You may be busy with school right now, but employers are finalizing their summer positions. Student unemployment rates during the summer months are notoriously high, and you don’t want to be among the 7 percent aged 20 to 24 (according to 2011 Statistics Canada data) who are left unable to find work.

Let’s take a look at your options, and then how to make them happen.

Seasonal paid work

Here’s a classic. These jobs sync perfectly with the student schedule, give some monetary relief, and provide skills development. It can be a one-off gig, or something you build on over several summers.
Take Ben Ornstein, a student majoring in Microbiology at the University of Toronto. For the past six summers, he has worked as a camp counselor at Camp Robin Hood. His steady involvement with the camp provides a reliable employer and letter of recommendation. And it complements his student schedule. “Since I have a two semester program, I can easily do this in the July-August period,” explains Ornstein.

This summer position has helped hone his communication skills. As Ornstein points out, kids have a short attention span, so getting your point across quickly is a talent. “And,” he adds, “it's a very active job that's good after being cooped in all day during school.”

The internship

Don’t turn your nose up quite yet.  This very well could be the most powerful of all the options. Most internships are career-related, so there’s a nice résumé booster right off the bat. Even if it’s not career-related, skills you develop in these positions can be.

And best case scenario? You’re hired afterwards. Take Stephanie Wiriahardja, a recent grad of the Interactive Arts and Technology program at Simon Fraser University. She started off as intern at HootSuite and now works full-time for the hot social media management company as Community Program Coordinator. Even though her internship started in the fall of 2011 and coincided with two courses, the value and possibility of promotion still applies to summer internships.

“To me, internships are like going through post-secondary. I learned so much and gained real life experience without paying any money or doing any silly exams. That's more valuable than any schooling,” Wiriahardja said in a Skype interview from Bali. Her advice is to act like an employee from Day One and you’ll be treated like an employee. In her case, she was hired as one. “Don't ever pass on a chance to intern at a company you care about if the position is unpaid,” she said. “The experience and the network you gain is a great investment.”

Volunteer work

If you think volunteer work isn’t valuable, think again. Some employers may appreciate this more than anything else, because it can reveal true passion. And again, there’s serious potential for skills development.

Stephanie Smith, an International Development Studies major who graduated from Dalhousie University in 2010, spent one of her summers volunteering part-time with the Halifax Refugee Clinic.  She wrote background research reports on specific countries. Sounds simple enough, but the knowledge she gained then is helping her significantly now, as an ESL instructor at Study English in Canada Inc.

“Culturally, (that research) helps me a lot because I have background information on certain countries,” says Smith. “Just by knowing history you can understand how people act a certain way.”

She points out that this is very useful when she interacts with people from different corners of the world every day.  To top it off, she felt like she really made a difference in peoples’ lives. “I think it's always a good idea to volunteer,” said Smith, “because you might find out something that you didn't know, either about someone else or yourself.”

Choose and Attain

Do any of these options appeal to you? Hopefully one of them does. Robin Nurse, director of the Career and Leadership Development Centre at Dalhousie University, advises that although students may be exhausted from studying throughout the rest of the year, it’s critical to do something during the summer.

“It's still really important to work, and preferably to work in an area that’s building upon the knowledge and the experience you've gained throughout the year. Whether it’s through your academics, or projects that you've worked on throughout the year, you need to add onto to that. You need to put theory into practice.”

She recommends attending a career fair. These are great opportunities to network and meet with companies that are definitely hiring students. The best thing you can do is come prepared, Nurse advises. Most career centres will post which companies will be at upcoming fairs, what positions they’re trying to fill, and what skills they're looking for.

“It's up to the students to do further research into that,” says Nurse. “Don't just take everything at face value. Read the posting, understand what the position is, and then do further legwork.”