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5 Steps For Getting The Most Out Of Your Summer

A group of children and their lemonade stand.

What do you do when you have the luxury of “having the summer off”- bask in the sun, work on your career, or something in between?

Whether it’s by choice (you’re taking time off after earning your degree) or not (you were laid off or you just completed a contract project), there are countless opportunities to use your time for personal and professional pursuits that are productive yet don’t compromise all your fun time. Even if you don't have the summer off, you can still find ways to give your career a boost!

How to do it? Start with these simple steps:

  1. Identify what you want to learn or explore
  2. Review activity options (before the summer actually starts)
  3. Decide which you want to pursue (and why!)
  4. Craft a calendar that maps out when you’ll be participating in the activities you’ve selected
  5. Fine-tune as you go along

Identify what you want to learn or explore

While it’s great to have an open mind or go wherever the wind takes you, it’s helpful to pinpoint a few topics that you want to explore and why you want to learn about them. You might not necessarily know how they will fit into your future career path right now, but start to reflect on how exploring a particular area will make a difference in your life (personally, professionally, or both) in the long run. What’s prompting you to learn about this particular topic or explore this particular skill? Also ask yourself how much time you realistically have to engage in your summer exploration and what else you’d like to do during the summer months.

Review activity options

There are several different types of activities you can engage in, from the more structured to the more fluid. Read through the categories listed below to familiarize yourself with the types and start to envision which you might want to engage in during the summer months. Keep in mind the amount of time you are willing to devote to your exploration and how fluid of a calendar you’d like to keep for the summer months. Note that some activities will be more time-intensive and/or will require a more rigid schedule than others.


This one is probably pretty common to most Idealist Careers readers, and you may have already been engaging in this type of activity. Maybe you first got involved in volunteering to show support for a cause that is meaningful to you or you currently volunteer to support neighborhood initiatives. In any case, volunteering is a great way to explore a new career.

When you’re being intentional about learning and exploring over the summer, be sure to select volunteer projects that touch upon your career areas of interest and rely on skills you might need in those types of jobs. If you’re having trouble deciding, try thinking of one cause that has really touched you that you might want to learn more about. After identifying a few organizations that serve that cause, review their “About Us” and “Our Team” pages to get a better idea of what they do and how they do it. Take a look at their volunteer opportunities and see what their needs are and how your skills might fit.


Similar to volunteering, an internship will give you hands-on experience in a cause area and career field. Most internships will have a set period of involvements (ex: 6 weeks, 3 months) with an actual end date, whereas you might have the opportunity to volunteer indefinitely if there is still work to be done at the organization (and most likely, there will be!). Remember that many internships are sometimes reserved for current students, but there are several organizations who accept recent (and even not-so-recent) graduates into their programs. When deciding whether to intern, find out if you will need to be eligible to receive college credit to participate. If the organization offers both volunteer and internship programs, review each and see which fits your needs better and for which you qualify.

Also note that Internships usually involve an application process. Be sure to keep application requirements and deadlines in mind if you are selecting this option. It is likely that you might need more lead time to get your application in order and continue through the selection process.

Go entrepreneurial (or take on a pro bono project)

The “side hustle” has become a popular buzz phrase in recent years. If you have the summer off, it can be a great time try out your entrepreneurial skills. You don’t have to get a full-fledged business off the ground, but think about the type of work you like to do and how your skills can fulfill the needs of your community. You may want to consider hiring yourself out as a freelance graphic designer, coder, blog writer, or even closet organizer!

Another way to test your entrepreneurial skills (and explore a new career at the same time) is to take on a pro bono project. Select some organizations in your cause area that you would like to work with and find out what their needs are. You may find an Idealist listing for a pro bono project at the organization, or you can pitch your own project idea! If you’re still having trouble finding the right opportunity for you, review listings on a site that makes matches between organization needs and individuals offering pro bono services, such as Catchafire or Taproot.

Summer learning

Summer is a great time to enroll in a course or workshop. You can select a specific, intensive program (such as one that results in a certification), enroll in an adult learning summer camp, or craft your own “program” by identifying local classes and workshops in your area based on the topic of interest to you. Remember that when you’re exploring new careers and developing new skills, you don’t need to spend a lot of money. There are many free or low-cost options that you can find locally (such as your library) and online (check out Skillshare, Lynda, Udemy, and Coursera).

While you may tempted to immerse yourself fully in your studies and savor all the new things you learn, don’t overlook or avoid your classmates. Remember that being in a classroom setting is a great opportunity to make contacts (simply call them “friends” if you’re networking-phobic). Get to know your peers, their strengths, and their stories. Share your own with them as well. Add some classmates to your “informational interview” list (see below for description).

Informational interviewing

This isn’t at the end of the activities list because we thought you would find it the most boring. While the term itself may sound staid, you’ll probably find that the activity is anything but... especially if you think of it in terms of listening to someone tell their unique story. It can be a great way to learn about careers and the skills necessary to embark on them. We’ve written about this topic before and you might gain some additional inspiration from Megan Gebhart, author of 52 Cups of Coffee, who devoted a whole year to have coffee with a new person each week with the goal of learning lessons about life and careers.

Each of these activities will require some additional legwork should you pursue them: researching organizations and possible (volunteer, internship, or pro bono) opportunities, reviewing course schedules and workshop descriptions, outlining your freelance “pitch” to potential clients, identifying people for informational interviews.

Decide which activity you want to pursue

After reviewing the broad ideas for the types of summer activities you can pursue, it’s time to decide which to select.

Before deciding whether you will take on informational interviewing, an internship, or a pro bono project, get an idea of the specific options that are available to you or that you can craft on your own. Search Idealist, read your local newspaper, Google your favorite organizations, go through your list of contacts and identify people to interview, and think up ideas for side work or a pro bono project. Add all the ideas that interest you to your list and organize them by the broader activity areas discussed. For example, you may discover:

  • A local soup kitchen is seeking a volunteer blog writer
  • A family member who told you about a curator internship at a museum
  • A great idea for a pro bono project
  • Interest in knitting scarves for the homeless on the side
  • Continuing education opportunities at your local community college
  • An adult learning camp
  • Interesting people you want to set up informational interviews with

If you don’t have an activity for each category, that’s okay. You might want to only choose from one or two options. Know the goal is not to overfill your days with required activities but rather to use your time in the ways that best meet your needs and goals. Keep your calendar open with some spots to unwind and recharge!

Match the items on your list to the amount of time you’re willing to devote to your exploratory pursuits. After reviewing specific opportunities in each of the different activity areas, you may have a more realistic view of the time commitment required for the types of activities you want to pursue. It’s also a good idea to prioritize your activities so that you don’t have a scheduling conflict or feel bogged down by too much of your time being spoken for.

Craft your calendar

Now that you’ve decided which activities you want to pursue, be sure to map them out on your calendar. Start with the activities that have a structured time frame and set them as recurring events. This might include work, family obligations, or even planned vacations. Be sure you don’t have any overlaps or conflicts. If you like to see “empty space” on your calendar, leave some areas blank!

Reflect on your experiences and fine-tune as you go along

Whichever activities you’ve selected, be sure to take a moment to reflect on what you’re learning and how you can apply it in the world of work. What surprised you about your exploration? What strengths have unexpectedly come to the forefront? How have you connected with your peers? What resume-worthy projects have you been working on?

Also take inventory of any setbacks or areas that could still use some work. Which activities were difficult to stick to, and why do you think that is? What activities can you add to your calendar to supplement any deficiencies? What else would you like to learn, and which of those activities can you realistically take on? If you’ve selected any structured activities that are coming to a close, are there any new activities you’d like to take on for the remainder of the summer?

With a little thought and scheduling, you can use your summer strategically for exploration, learning, and discovery.

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By Victoria Crispo

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