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Summers were once defined by days at the cottage and road trips across the country. For students, there were summer jobs, of course – by the pool, behind the cash, at the camp – but they were a means to an end, a way to fund the summer fun.

Not any more.

Today, summers are prime time for different reasons, and "missing out" refers to lost opportunities of resume-padding placements and intense networking sessions. Students are expected to be making productive use of those vacant months, by all means necessary, and not just for fun.

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Internships and other professional work experience during university have become essential to getting a job right out of school, and while a soul-searching backpacking trip still has important merits, it won't provide the skills that match keyword-activated screening systems or concrete examples of work projects for interviews.

"Take the United Nations as an example," said Catherine Stace, a career adviser at McGill University. "They have an algorithm that checks how many months of work experience someone has. A four-month-long internship is calculated as two months of work experience. They'll pre-evaluate the candidate like this beforehand, and you're not being considered if your time working doesn't add up."

Student applicants with previous work experience show that they are achievers eager to get ahead, an important indication for recruiters. They are also more familiar with organizational processes and dynamics, which for employers translate into assurance on how they'll perform to workplace expectations.

In a competitive job market where good academics and extracurricular activities are a given, work experience also lends itself particularly well as a metric for cut-off, and large organizations that receive high numbers of qualified applications aren't afraid to use it as such.

"From an employer perspective, on paper everyone looks more or less like clones of each other. They all have similar degrees from similar schools," said Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, a job platform connecting students and employers. "So the recruiter wants someone they can most easily picture in the role, and that's where having relevant work experience comes in."

Across the board, employers are showing their preference for students with work experience. In a 2013 survey conducted by the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE), the most valued prescreening criteria for new positions was work-integrated learning, which includes internships, co-ops and like workplace experiences.

In 2014, an American research project sent out hypothetical resumes that included or excluded internship experiences, and found that having work experience gave students a 14 per cent higher chance of getting an interview even three years after the student supposedly graduated. The research authors estimate that the effect would be even higher immediately after graduation – and that's not taking into account students who get hired by the firms they interned for.

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"Employers are not overly concerned about how students get the experience. It could be a summer job, co-op, or internship, but what they do value is the fact that people have had that experience in the workplace," said Paul Smith, executive director of CACEE.

That's why so many large companies intend their internship programs to feed directly into entry-level positions.

TJX, the company that owns Winners and HomeSense, offers a merchandising internship of which on average 75 per cent of interns end up joining the company full time, said Doreen Thompson, TJX's vice-president of global communications.

At RBC, "there is a strong focus on converting interns into full-time employees," said Lisa Kramer, director of talent acquisition. "Our converts rose by 20 per cent last year." And the same tradition holds at PepsiCo Foods Canada: "In a perfect world, all of our new grads would have completed internships with us first," said Dave Moncur, vice-president of human resources.

All of which explains why so many students are willing to work full-time hours for free, getting paid instead with coveted experience.

"By the time a student is in fourth year, they should have had at least two or three internships or work experiences," said Evangelia Hountalas, vice-president of human resources at CGI Group. "And these should be experiences that scale up, that we see they are challenging themselves in."

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Tanya Wolfgram, a University of Ottawa student who graduated last year spent her summers working for the City of Ottawa, moving up from an assistant role to a clerical one. "I wanted to do something with my time that would help me in the future, and I wanted to start early," she said.

After Wolfgram graduated last April, she flew to Thailand for a vacation before returning to a full-time job with the city in June. Though she has moved on from the position since, she credits her easy school-to-work transition to her summer experience.

"My sister is in university now, and I tell her this all the time. She should figure out what it is she likes, and then go get work experience in that industry."

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