The spring typically marks the final stages of internship search season for the upcoming summer, as college students are conducting interviews and accepting offers. This year, however, the landscape continues to be dramatically altered by COVID and to this point there are far fewer internship roles available – especially for college Freshmen and Sophomores.

Despite the challenges posed for this summer, it’s vital that you make your Summer 2021 about you, and not about COVID. Even if you haven’t been offered a formal role, there are steps you can seize to take ownership of your summer. If you are a college student or soon-to-be graduate, you need to adapt and create a summer strategy to productively move towards career launch, even if the traditional internships are not available in your industry. Use this framework to make sure you effectively leverage your time this summer to achieve your career goals.

Step One: Set Goals to Get Ahead

Start your planning by identifying skills needed to add value to your current academic work and skillsets, then seek opportunities to apply those skills to solve real-world problems. You can jumpstart your thinking by looking at our Skills Guide. You will want to understand what skills are sought after by employers in your industry, and devote time to researching your options to build those required skills; ranging from online courses or taking credit-bearing classes through your college or other academic institutions.

Alternatively, you can start by identifying problems that need to be addressed by organizations or people you know and determine what skills you will need to build or enhance, to achieve the solutions required. Reach out to professors, friends, family, and people you are connected to locally to see what issues you can address that speak to your values and interests. You can use search tools, like Parker Dewey for micro internships, or, and, either for concrete leads on ongoing volunteer initiatives, or ideas of what projects others are implementing that you can relate to groups near you. Not only will this approach help you give back and develop concrete skills – in the process of this outreach, you’ll also develop your networking skills; a great investment as 70%+ of people find new jobs through networking.

Step Two: Get Organized and Get Going

Once you’ve researched avenues for skill-building, create a project plan to implement what you’ve learned. Concretely lay out what skills you need to develop, how you will go about doing so, and who you need to work with. If there are preliminary skills you need to build before starting your journey – such as familiarity with Microsoft Excel – make a plan to address these upfront.

Understand how you’ll be allocating your time and resources this summer – for example, maybe you can get part-time paid work outside of your professional focus area, and make skill-building your “passion project” in off hours. With a project like this, you are in the driver’s seat – you can structure your summer in whatever way that will provide a bridge to what you want to do in the future while maximizing your energy and effort in the coming weeks.

You may not even have to look to outside organizations for help – for example, a business major could help a group of biology majors at school learn to quickly create pivot tables so that they could analyze and utilize the data they’re collecting. By reaching out to the chair of the department, it’s possible such a business major could parlay this into a larger-scale project working with biology students.

If you’re going to be reaching out to an individual or organization, you’ll need to prepare a pitch. A simple pitch might include your resume and a cover note that explains very specifically how you might help an organization. For example, a marketing major might offer to do competitor research, perform mystery-shopping studies, or develop a pricing analysis. A data scientist might offer to design operational dashboards or summarize historical data about the organization’s performance over time and locations.

If you’re having trouble with either organizing your research ideas, implementing your plan, or creating a pitch, reach out to a mentor or advisor for support. At Priority Candidates, we work with clients throughout this process, from identifying skill-gaps, to refining their pitch, to helping break down executional steps; and we strongly believe an outside mentor can be a hugely valuable part of the process – whether that’s a career consultant or simply a professor with whom you have a relationship.

Step Three: Chronicle Your Journey

As you work through the effort to develop your skills further, be sure to seek feedback from others, including peers, on how things are going, and what you need to reduce or enhance. You may find that additional technology tools are required in your industry, or that you need to work on soft skill areas – providing more concise updates, improving proofreading skills, or strengthening presentation skills. Both hard and soft skills will be evaluated by your partners in the project and will weave into your longer-term career development story.

As this work unfolds, you should take time each day or at the end of the week to document how things are going. Make observations about what you are enjoying, what is surprising to you, and any refined objectives you need to set for the coming week, and log your incremental progress. This document, a journal of sorts, will prove valuable to you in the future when you need to look back and summarize your personal development over the summer; as well as to integrate your accomplishments into your resume, LinkedIn and story.

Step Four: Reflect to Move Forward

Skill-building will be an ongoing experience and won’t simply end when September rolls around. However, at the end of summer you should be ready to confidently talk about the full range of work you completed. Articulate how you chose your project(s), including how they relate to your personal values, as well as skill-building and career goals. Reflect on how you executed the work and what you would do differently in the future. Consider creating an online portfolio or find ways of incorporating samples of the work in your LinkedIn profile.

Ask people you collaborated with to provide formal recommendations to you on LinkedIn, or possibly serve as references when you go into the full–time job search stage of your career. For the technical work that you performed, be prepared to address detailed technical questions in future interviews.

We all need to reframe our thinking about experience and skill-building, moving away from the pre-COVID-19, traditional sequential context: School, Internship, School. Now, it is up to you to drive toward a continuous learning mindset to be ready for anything. Most importantly, it is worth noting that while 87% of college students feel well prepared for their job upon graduation, only 50% of employers agree. Creating opportunities to demonstrate your applied skills concretely counts as experience in most employers’ eyes. By effectively leveraging your summer – even when traditional avenues aren’t available – you can build the skills that will eventually help you get hired.