No Summer Internship? No Problem. Here’s What to Do Instead

Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

During the spring of my first year in journalism school, I watched my friends land amazing summer internships.

New Facebook announcements popped up each day: One was going to work at the New York Times. Another would intern at Real Simple.

And then there was me, hearing crickets in my inbox.

I didn’t land an internship that summer, and, at first, I was crushed. But then I sat down with my favorite professor who, as always, offered great advice: Don’t give up and sit around all summer. Instead, take a class.

If you find yourself without an internship, know you’re not the only one. Also, don’t worry too much. Sure, internships are important and can teach you a lot — but so can other experiences.

Can’t Get an Internship? Here are 5 Productive Routes to Take Instead

If an internship doesn’t pan out, it’s OK to cry a little — but then be proactive.

For ideas on what to do, I chatted with Kim Vogel, The Penny Hoarder’s talent acquisition manager. She oversees our hiring process — from interns to senior analysts.

Combining my recent experiences as a college student and Vogel’s years of professional insight, here are five alternatives to internships that’ll help build your career.

1. Take a Summer Class

After much debate, I took my professor’s advice and stayed on campus to take a class. Sure, it wasn’t New York City, the “concrete jungle where dreams are made,” but I did my best to soak up the learning experience.

I opted to take the “magazine staff” class. It was considered one of the most time-intensive, tear-inducing classes in Missouri’s magazine program, but it promised a “real-world” experience. By enrolling in the class, I became a department editor for the local magazine.

After three grueling months, I felt like I needed a week’s worth of sleep — but I also felt like I could conquer any challenge thrown my way. I also left knowing I’d finally chosen the right career path.

I gained great connections, too. In my experiences, summer classes tend to be smaller, so you can connect with your professor and classmates more than you would in the spring or fall. In fact, that professor acted as a reference for me when I applied to The Penny Hoarder — which helped me secure this job.

I also saved a ton of money that summer: I didn’t have to move to a new city for an internship and rent another apartment, and I received a discount on my summer tuition because I worked as a teaching assistant at the university.

If you’re browsing your course catalogue and don’t see one of your required classes offered during the summer, pick something fun or interesting! I could have graduated without taking the magazine staff course, but I knew it’d offer me a wealth of experience and knowledge.

You could also consider pairing up with your favorite professor and shaping your own class in an independent study.

If you don’t want to stick around a deserted campus, that’s OK, too. Look into taking a class at another campus or a community college back home. One summer during undergrad, I signed up for two classes at the community college in my hometown. The pass/fail credits transferred to my college, the classes were a lot cheaper, and this strategy cleared up my schedule the following semester so I had more time for career-boosting extracurriculars. Plus, I saved money by living at home.

And there are tons of online classes, like massive online open courses (MOOCs) or the options on sites like Udemy. They might not give you college credits, but they can equip you with important skills. For example, I considered signing up for an affordable $100 design class to sharpen my skills outside of school.

2. Get a Job

By securing a summer job, you can make money and learn something new, which is a win-win in my book.

Vogel says when she’s wading through internship applications for The Penny Hoarder, she doesn’t necessarily judge a resume by relevant experience. Rather, if she sees someone who has experience in customer service or the hospitality industry, for example, she knows they’re up for anything.

It’s all about how you treat the job and what you want to get out of it. The Penny Hoarder senior writer Dana Sitar is a great example. She gained super valuable experience in the years she worked as a barista.

And if you have summer travel or other obligations already lined up, you don’t have to give up the prospect of making money. Try one of the tons of flexible side hustles out there — from driving for Uber to crafting for Etsy to walking dogs.

3. Complete That Project You’ve Been Meaning to Finish

Throughout college, I attempted several times to build my own website as a self-marketing tool. In the writing world, it’s important to have one — a “this is me, here are some photos, check out what I’ve done” schtick.

It wasn’t until a free summer that I actually had time to complete this task. From there, my site was easy to maintain with my latest resume and newest writing samples.

I included this website in all of my graduate school applications, as well as internship applications and eventually job applications.

Is there something you know you need to do to help you eventually snag a great job? Perhaps you want to boost your folder of freelance writing clips or coding samples, or maybe you want to build that portfolio of photos, designs or art.

Think about what your future employer will want to see, and use your free summer to focus in on that.

4. Rub Elbows with Professionals in Your Field

Vogel also suggests you reach out to professionals in your area or even local alumni from your college. Ask if you could treat them to coffee — or even shadow them on the job for a few hours.

When you meet up, ask questions, and seek advice. You’ll find there’s no singular path you can take to success — and that oftentimes those who you look up to didn’t get their ideal internship either.

If you don’t know where to start, Vogel suggests joining a local meet-up. You can find one for any field — from technology to business to leadership — through sites like Meetup.

And, yes, this kind of networking can be intimidating. I recently met up with a fellow Missouri alum, and it felt like a blind date. But as soon as we sat down, chatting about our school, our industry and our goals, the pre-meeting butterflies melted away.

5. Volunteer with a Nonprofit in Your Field

Volunteering is another great opportunity to make connections and hone some of those valuable life skills. Plus, you get to help others along the way.

Vogel suggests volunteering at a nonprofit relevant to your career field. For example, if you’re interested in business and technology, check whether your city has a startup organization. Helping out there could introduce you to a lot of up-and-comers and even give you an inside look at starting a business.

You could also consider a volunteer role that will teach you skills you can eventually use to earn money, like contributor Steve Gillman did. While volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, he learned to paint houses — a skill he eventually turned into a part-time job.

Not Getting an Internship isn’t the End of the World

Take a deep breath. You’re going to be fine.

I turned out OK after not getting an internship that summer. Certainly, I was heartbroken, but I took an invaluable class and went on to land an incredible internship the following spring. From there, I landed this job as a junior writer for The Penny Hoarder.

Internships are wonderful, and you should be open-minded and apply to as many as you can. But if it doesn’t work out, you have plenty of other options.

Your Turn: What’s your best advice for students who don’t get an internship?

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Looking back, she knows everything in her young career has happened for a reason. She also realizes how cliché that sounds, but she doesn’t care.