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Often it’s a tough situation for students who can’t get a job without experience but need a job to get that experience.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Welcome to our Gen Y money blog, where a recent grad chronicles her real-life journey to becoming a financially independent adult.

Much of my post-university job hunting success stems from the experience I gained working various summer jobs.

As a student, the summer provided me with a chunk of time to work. That allowed me to help pay for university, as well as gain professional experience and make connections. I worked every summer from the age of thirteen through to my final year in university, holding positions that ranged from office co-ordinator to corn detasseler.

My initial motivation for working in the summer was money – mostly a desire to graduate with as little debt as possible. And it definitely helped. The summer after my first year of university, I saved almost $7,000 for my tuition by moving back home and working at a local greenhouse.

It wasn't until the summer after my second year that I decided that it would be a good idea to use my extended breaks to gain skills that would help launch my career. I knew that the positions listed on my resume (which included an impending Bachelor of Arts degree, babysitting and the greenhouse job) wouldn't make me a competitive candidate for an entry-level marketing position.

So instead of focusing on the paycheque, I sought out industry-related work experience. I scoured student job boards and landed a paid internship at a small media network in Toronto. Now, two years after graduating and working full-time in my desired industry, I can pinpoint that moment when I was hired as the point in time when I struck work experience gold.

Not only was I happily thrown into the marketing industry, I was accountable for writing reports and asked to contribute at strategy meetings. Beyond the skills and sense of responsibility I gained from having my first "real job," I also started to build my network. I was learning specialized skills, producing results, and I wasn't asked to fetch coffee once.

Of course, earning slightly above minimum wage while living in downtown Toronto didn't exactly swell my bank account. I saved less than half of what I had earned while living at home the previous summer and had to rely more heavily on loans to get me through the following school year.

Although my internship experience was not the most financially lucrative, it was a crucial step in my career path. The experience allowed me to map out my career aspirations with more clarity and I gained valuable references. The return on investment was realized as I started my post-graduation job hunt and could actually back-up my resume with professional anecdotes.

I was mostly fortunate to have been hired so quickly. Finding a summer job isn't easy, but there are plenty of positions created especially for students who have little professional experience.

If you are one of the many college or university students currently looking for summer work, and struggling to decide between potentially well-paid work outside of your chosen field and a job that could open doors to a future career, here are my two cents:

  • Come up with goals for what you want to accomplish through your summer job. Is it work experience? Is it a certain amount you want to save? Crunch the numbers – find out what you need to make to live comfortably and/or save for school, and make sure that the position will meet those requirements. Ideally, of course, a job would allow you to make plenty of money and gain work experience.
  • Plan and apply as soon as possible. You might be in the middle of exams, but don’t wait until the May long weekend to get your resume out. The summer is only so long, and you’ll need time to get through the learning curve and get the most of your experience. You also don’t want to get beaten to the punch.
  • Don’t overlook smaller wages if the experience is worthwhile. I’d advise against unpaid work, but if you’ve done your research and you know for a fact that a certain position will help you get the experience you need to launch your career, consider it. (Don’t, however, succumb to job hunting desperation. Read more on that here.)
  • Use student job boards. I received a much higher response rate from student job boards – in particular, the University of Toronto job board – than other corporate job boards, possibly because it was operated through the university. It’s a smarter, more targeted way to distribute your resume.
  • Reach out to the professors or companies you’d like to work with. I know of a few people who managed to get hired simply by asking if the people they wanted to learn from were willing to take on assistants or interns. Just because they’re not advertising doesn’t mean that something can’t be arranged.

For me, launching a career was the biggest priority. I'm still paying down my student debt, but I'm on track to having it fully repaid in the next two years.

My summer jobs may not have paid a whole lot, but they helped me gain the experience I needed to get hired in an entry-level role when I finished school. In the long run, that turned out to be more valuable than a big paycheque.

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