Summer break marks a unique opportunity for many students: a few months every year to test out jobs and consider potential careers.
Over the years, I've had a chance to both observe the behaviour of summer hires at many of Canada's largest employers, and also to hire and manage summer students.
While many students make the most of these career-building opportunities, others fail to take advantage – or worse, damage their reputations – through inappropriate behaviour. If you are a student embarking on or in the midst of a summer assignment, here are the top three mistakes students make in their summer jobs and suggestions for what to do instead.
Mistake No. 1: Treating your job like 'just a job'
Many students underestimate the value of their summer jobs, particularly if the work doesn't take place in an office. Common summer jobs such as working in retail, hospitality or at a camp are often written off as "just a way to make money" and not as what they really are: serious career-building opportunities. Unfortunately, this often results in these experiences being underplayed or even left off of future résumés and not leveraged effectively during interviews.
What to do instead: First, at the entry level, almost any work-related experience, positioned properly, is valuable in building your reputation – your brand – and setting you apart. Include it unless it somehow detracts from your ability to tell a cohesive story.
Further, all work gives you the chance to get to know yourself. Like I've said in previous articles, knowing yourself – what you like, what you don't like, what you're good at and what you're bad in – is your early-career superpower. That knowledge will help you figure out which jobs and career paths you will be most suited to when you graduate.
It will also arm you with intelligent and thoughtful responses for many of the tough interview questions you'll inevitably face, such as popular situational questions that start with "Tell me about a time when you …" and the classic: "What is your biggest weakness?" Regardless of what you do this summer – whether it's working in an office, leading canoe trips, cleaning washrooms, or starting your own entrepreneurial venture – use the experience to get to know yourself beyond what you've observed of yourself as a student.
Mistake No. 2: Missing the opportunity to build your network
Have you ever applied to a job and felt like your application disappeared into something resembling a black hole? Have you ever wondered what it's really like to do a job or work for a specific company?
Networking can help – on both fronts. Yet, many students miss the chance to get to know others at their place of summer employment.
What to do instead: When I was a recent graduate and starting my business, I found that many people that I reached out to were willing to meet with me and provide guidance, whether we had a common connection or not. While networking may feel scary, it doesn't have to be. Thoughtful reach-outs stand a good chance of receiving positive responses.
The key is for these communications to be both genuine and personal. A well-researched note to a recent graduate a few years ahead of you in a career you're interested in, establishing a common tie and showing a demonstrated interest in her or his job, career or story, is a great way to make a connection. A cookie-cutter e-mail sent to many people with few personalizations is not. Further, once you've established a time to meet or connect, a list of thoughtful questions and a demonstrated genuine interest in your new connection are a must. Asking for a job when you're only supposed to be having a coffee is a must-not.
If you're looking for an ambitious but totally do-able goal, try to meet at least one new person each week. In a two-month period, that's eight to 10 opportunities to meet someone who may be able to help you stand out if you apply to a job at their company, learn about a career path, get insider information into jobs you think you might be interested in and, of course, expand your network.
Mistake No. 3: Doing your job (and just your job)
Congratulations – you've scored a summer job. Whether you've been hired to help out with marketing, help develop new software, mow lawns, or teach kids to swim, it's a major missed opportunity to only do the work you were specifically hired to do.
What to do instead: One year, my company hired a summer student to help with developing content. She was skilled at her job, but also quickly took initiative to learn new things and found "white space" – opportunities to contribute over and above what she was hired to do. As a result, this student was increasingly assigned more meaningful work and was offered an opportunity to join the company again in the following years.
While your job description may contain a narrow list of tasks, few employers will turn down the chance to have you work outside the lines – finding ways to help out over and above your mandate. The benefit to you? You'll gain new skills, learn about different parts of your employer's business and, particularly if you work at an organization that hires many summer students, you'll stand out from the pack.
Finally: Once you enter the work force, most jobs don't feature "summer breaks." These conveniently packaged periods of time you have as a student are ideal for building your career confidence and readiness – they give you the chance to narrow down your career choices, build your network, and learn new skills. Make the most of it.
Lauren Friese is the founder and former CEO of TalentEgg, a campus recruitment website. She is now at RBC focusing on the employee digital experience.