Making the most of your summer | Careers on The Gateway

Making the most of your summer

How could you fill the time between now and October with experiences that will teach you new skills, challenge you (in a good way) and, most importantly, make you more employable? To find out, we spoke to two experts - university careers consultants Mark Armitage from the University of Exeter and Dominic Laing from the University of Manchester.

As a first step, Dominic suggests you take a step back and think broadly about your existing skills and past experience: "Do an audit to see what skills you're lacking", and only then start thinking about what new experiences would best help you to acquire them - for example "you could try to gain technology skills, foreign language skills, project management skills or commercial awareness through training, volunteering or work shadowing". Then it's time to look closely at your options...

Internships

If you've identified a sector where you might like to work, Mark suggests that your first step should be to check in with your university careers service, which may have opportunities available in your chosen field specifically for students at your university. For example, the University of Exeter careers service runs a business programme to help Exeter students find work experience for their holidays. Mark also points out that there may be work available on campus - some universities even offer finance or PR experience to interested undergraduates.

Many big organisations will have filled their internship places by now, but if there's a particular high-profile employer you've got your heart set on, it's always worth checking their website or with your university careers service to see whether they have anything still available. Dominic says: "Don't assume closing days will have passed - a lot of employers do all year-round recruitment and are willing to look for summer interns right up to the last minute." And if there's no work experience available with them, he suggests you could try some of the parties they work with - for example, their clients, suppliers or professional advisers.

Another good option is to explore the possibility of spending some time at a smaller organisation, perhaps one based in your university town or near to your home. Their brand might not be as well known as those of the biggest graduate recruiters but they'll still be able to offer you some great experience. Says Dominic: "Now is a good time to target smaller companies, medium-sized enterprises, and perhaps the charitable sector." These organisations, says Mark, are often open to giving students short-notice informal work experience - but you have to approach them in the right way: "Get to know somebody there or make contact with them through LinkedIn, as it'll make your chance of getting work experience much better. Chat to them about what they do, and then see if you can go in."

And if you fail to secure any work experience at all in the field you want to get a job in, don't panic! Says Dominic: "There are lots of ways that you can develop your employability without having to do a formal summer internship - getting involved in professional associations or related charities could be useful. You could also look for relevant networking events and meetings."

Summer jobs

The financial pressures on today's students mean that you may find yourself opting to spend a large part of the summer working in a shop, pub, or call centre to fund your way through your next year of study. But don't forget that while you're earning your keep, you're also gaining some great experience too. "Don't undersell these jobs," says Mark " - you're gaining customer care skills, you're getting responsibility, you've got to be diplomatic, and you may well have to market and sell things. It also shows you can balance study and work. So the job says something about you and can look good on your CV." If you present these roles well, employers will take an interest - Mark adds that a graduate recruitment manager at a Big Four professional services firm recently told him that he encourages students to push these jobs forward on their CVs.

Dominic gave us some tips on how to approach your holiday job to get the maximum CV mileage out of it: "Show initiative and develop your role within the business - maybe when new staff are taken on you could offer to help with induction and training, or you could get involved in staff meetings, or with specialist departments. It's also useful to have an eye on a career area that you've got in mind. If you're interested in law or finance, you could spend a day in the finance department or the legal department, work shadowing people and getting a wider insight into how the business operates. "

Other opportunities

There's plenty of other ways to spend your summer beyond the workplace that will also look good on your CV. Says Mark: "Employers really rate voluntary work, and not just if you want to work for a charity - it's also good for business and law firms." For Mark, the advantages of voluntary work are that it's usually flexible - "you can do as little or as much as you want" and that it gives you opportunities you can't easily find elsewhere - "often you can get involved with quite demanding situations which can challenge you and take you outside your comfort zone".

Travelling is also a popular option, and you may be hoping to spend some of your summer abroad. If you're away for just a couple of weeks, it's probably not going to do your career any harm if you focus your attention on getting a suntan, but if you're planning a longer stint of globetrotting, think about how your trip could help you with your career plans. Says Dominic: "It's really important to have some objectives for while you're away - perhaps to find out more about the culture and languages, and maybe even organisations related to your career choice. It's also useful to do some volunteering, work shadowing or training." Mark gave us some idea of the kinds of paid work you could undertake: "Consider doing a TEFL qualification, so you can teach English abroad. There are childcare opportunities. There may even be seasonal work like crop-picking, or to do with food production." Once you're back, think about how to build your experience into your CV and don't forget, Dominic says, "all your planning and organising, like getting injections, making travel arrangements and dealing with foreign currency" - these show the "organisation skills and attention to detail" that employers will want you to demonstrate.

And finally...

Some top tips for getting the most out of your summer, career-wise: Mark says "set goals - have a good time, but say to yourself that for at least some of the holiday I'm going to do something that will help me with a graduate career and my own personal development". And Dominic advises that once the summer is over you should "reflect on everything you've been doing and identify transferable skills, such as leadership, team working and initiative". And if you follow all that, we think you're definitely allowed to devote a day or two to sundaes, shoe shopping, surfing, or whatever your idea of summer fun is, before October rolls round again.

My summer: I studied in China and India

James Cheung - Third year, BSc Mathematics & Economics, LSE

James took part in the 2010 Study China programme and the 2011 Study India programme. Study China and Study India are organised by the Chinese and Indian governments to help British undergraduates learn about their nations through a few weeks of cultural immersion in a Chinese or Indian university city

I applied for Study China because I wanted to have something productive to do at the end of my first year. I liked the idea of the organised activities and then having the chance to travel afterwards. To apply you have to complete an application form which is largely questions about your interest in the culture of the country. They want people with an international outlook who will be ready to join the workplaces of the future where we're going to be working alongside China and India as they become more important in the global economy.

On Study China I visited Shanghai, and there was a focus on language learning. We took Mandarin lessons in the mornings, and in the afternoons and evenings we'd have lectures from academics or business people, for example, on how economic growth in China is affecting everyday life. There were also trips to Chinese students' homes, visits to businesses, and fun activities like an evening cruise along the river. Chinese students came with us on these excursions, so we had the chance to talk to them and make friends. We also had some free time, so we could explore the city by ourselves. We went to see the World Expo, a huge global exhibition which was taking place in Shanghai while I was in the city.

My Study India experience in Mumbai mainly consisted of lectures and workshops with a focus on social enterprise - one of the speakers had founded the first private ambulance service in India, which was pretty inspirational. We also took part in a trading game and went on tours of the city. In the final week, we went on work experience placements. I worked with an educational NGO in the slums, while other people volunteered at different NGOs or worked with companies. Study India really gave me an introduction to the country's social issues. Our hotel was right next to a hospital and there were people sleeping on the streets outside, which shook me - you couldn't ignore these things because they were right in front of you. We also saw lots festivals happening while I was there, which was exciting.

What ties both programmes together is the international outlook that you build. You learn about the business world and how China and India are going to have such a large impact on it. It was also really interesting to hear about the initiatives students out there are involved in, like starting charities.

I built up wide array of skills from the programmes, and they also open up your CV to international opportunities. People I know from Study China have continued their Mandarin studies or have gone to China to work. Many Study India people have become more aware of social issues and have gone on to do more volunteering in India afterwards. If I'm working with people from India or China in the future, it'll be good to have been to both countries.

My summer: I set up my own business

George Boamah-Brown - Second year, BSc Banking & International Finance, City University

After not managing to secure a internship in his first year, George decided to create a clothing company, BANT-ARR!!, to showcase his skills. This year, he received multiple internship offers, and will be spending summer 2012 at a leading investment bank

After not getting on to a spring week programme at an investment bank in my first year, I wanted to find a way to differentiate myself so I could get an internship for the summer of my second year. It all started with the word "banter". I just like saying it, and I use it a lot on Facebook and Blackberry Messenger. I woke up one morning, and thought I'd try to make a T-shirt with it on. So I made one with my friend who lives across the road, wore it around uni, and everyone said, "I want one!" From there, I started taking orders, and by the end of the summer, I'd sold over 200 of them.

One of the biggest challenges has been getting exposure. Every time I went to a party, people would say they liked my T-shirt and I'd think that if everybody had a chance to see my products, I'd have a lot more sales. But it's hard to compete with the brands already out there because they've got huge budgets behind them. However we've worked with some rappers, singers and comedians who've worn our clothes in music videos and interviews, which has helped us get the brand out there.

I've learnt so many things from setting up BANT-ARR!! First of all, how to manage processes and make them more efficient. For example, my first supplier went away for two months so I couldn't process orders for that time, and even when he was here the T-shirts were taking weeks to make. So I realised I had to look for another supplier, and now I've got one who lives in Walthamstow, which is an hour away from where I live, but it seems to work much better. I've also learnt how to negotiate. I started off paying £15 per T-shirt, but when I switched to the supplier in Walthamstow he charged me £10, then I got it down to £9, and now it's down to £8. Interpersonal skills are something else I've learnt, as I have to encourage people to buy T-shirts.

In my internship interviews this year, I tried to link the business to banking. I told my interviewers about what our costs and margins were, and about all the skills I'd learnt. I even showed them the T-shirts, and they seemed to like them! I told them I didn't give up after getting turned down in the first instance, but thought of another way in, and they seemed to respect that too. I showed them something that some candidates with first class degrees couldn't - a business. There are a lot of societies at every university, so everyone can be a vice president, but there are not many students running businesses.

Don't put your head down - there are opportunities out there. And don't get disheartened if things don't go well at first - when you first start a business, people might say they're going to buy 20 products and then don't buy any, or you might go for an interview and not get the position. You've got to pick yourself up and learn from your mistakes. If you're passionate about something, stick at it.

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