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College students should work summers...but not always for somebody else

By Christopher Steiner  •  Feb 15, 2017

College students looking for ways to build and burnish their resumes before entering the job market often get consumed with piling up as many experiences at blue-chip companies as possible. Clearly, this approach makes a lot of sense, and it often yields great job opportunities for graduates.

But that’s the path most traveled. Two other great options exist, and should be considered by all college students:

  1. Building one's own startup during the course of a summer. This option can be the most rewarding of all.
  2. Spending a summer as an intern at a growing startup.

Start your own

The first option may not seem like an easy one to execute, but it can pay off in ways that other internship and employment options can't. Students who pick this route, if they can offer a well-defined explanation of what they accomplished, how they benefited, and how their enterprise grew and improved, receive a resume bullet that, by itself, can be invaluable when trying to distinguish oneself from a pack of other well-qualified strivers.

We'd be remiss not to acknowledge that spending a summer this way may not be possible for all students. Many people depend on the income earned during the summer months as vital to getting through the school year. Putting that money stream at risk in favor of a venture that may or may not result in earnings isn't a strategy that can work for everybody.

But for students who can find a way to pursue it, an intense three-month dive into building a startup can provide rich education, experience, and, in some cases, a startup that lives on beyond college.

Students should think of their startup summer as an intense submersion into learning. The more hours students can put into their companies, the more rewarding the entire experience will be.

It's especially helpful if students can form groups of startups and meet with fellow summer founders on a regular basis. This kind of arrangement and cadence can make for a kind of self-administered Y Combinator experience. Students won't get the $120,000 or the world-class mentoring, but by tapping mentors and professors at their school for help, they can bridge some of these gaps, and realize some of the same kinds of personal gains.

Some universities are already providing framework for this. Northwestern University, where I mentor student startup teams, has a summer program called Wildfire administered through its technology accelerator, The Garage. Wildfire provides 20 student startup teams with a place to work, a network of mentors, including some full-time staff, $10,000 to put toward living and company costs, and a community of students doing the same thing.

Other programs like this, not all of them offering cash, are popping up at universities across the country. Much of this movement originated with the Harvard Innovaton Lab , which offers a 12-week incubation program for student startups.

College applicants might want to consider these kinds of opportunities when making a school choice.

Jared Scharen, a former McKinsey consultant who is now pursuing an MBA at Northwestern, went through NU’s Wildfire last summer with his own startup. He relished the opportunity for focus and the chance to know if the switch from corporate life to startup life was for him.

“Most students who are working on startups are trying to juggle many elements – school work, clubs, social life, meaning the startup may only get 50% of your time,” he says. “Working on a startup over the summer allows you to put in that 100% time you wanted to. As you’re working on it full time, you find yourself asking “is this something I’d truly be interested in doing full time after graduation, or is this just a pet project?”

Engineering majors who take this route not only increase their aptitude in all manners of building applications, but they'll also get up to speed on what it takes to market an application—SEO, paid search, content, PR, community building—and on the nuances of UI/UX, and other parts of of the startup wheel: sales, business development, resource management and framework provider options.

Non-technical students can either dive in wholesale, and learn to build an application as they go, or they can build alongside a technical co-founder, handling marketing and other tasks while also learning to do front-end development work.

The best outcome of all—that the summer startup results in a business that perseveres and grows profitable—is a rare one. But the experience of seeing what’s necessary to build a company from scratch is invaluable.

Entrepreneurship is about pairing the right idea with execution. The latter part of that comes easier to those who have done it before, which is why many venture capitalists greatly value the opportunity to invest with founders who have started something in the past—even if the first venture didn't produce a big exit.

Interning at a startup

Anybody who has worked for a startup immediately realizes the value here. Just as with any employee at a startup, interns are simply asked to do more. They inherit tasks that, at bigger companies, are usually the province of seasoned employees who have been around several years.

Through startups I've founded and been involved in, I've watched interns quickly grow to the point where losing them at the end of the summer is quite painful for me and the company. The interns had become quite valuable.

One intern who had worked for me between her sophomore and junior years at Carleton College in Minnesota, was by the end of summer handling social media, our own content stream, a separate data project, and authored an article, created from our data, that ran in USA Today. Needless to say, the exercise was a satisfying success for both parties—and one that helped the intern land a great job the following year.

Being an intern at a startup often means being able to make up one's curriculum. There will usually be some predetermined duties that interns will inherit, but for the industrious those tasks won't take up the entire week. That gives interns time to suggest tasks or to build and work on a project that they devised themselves.

Executing something like this offers interns the opportunity to learn about a subject they're interested in, or simply shore up a hole in their resume with the requisite type of experience. It's harder to tailor experiences at bigger companies, which often have in-place programs for interns that are are less flexible.

A diversity of experience still wins

It would be remiss of anybody to blow off the opportunities available at big successful companies. If a student's goal is to gain employment at company such as Google, the best path usually involves an internship at the company, as the big tech companies basically treat their intern programs as recruiting platforms.

Even for those who don't want to end up at Microsoft or Facebook, spending a few months submerged at one of the most consequential tech companies in the world can only enhance a résumé, and help a student develop better practices and a greater understanding of high-level execution and the challenges of managing a large organization.

The best course for many people may involve a taste of each of these worlds: a summer with a big company, a summer at a startup, and a summer grinding on one's own project. For engineers looking to pad their Github repos, there's nothing better than spending a dedicated period of time creating a new application from scratch.

We've had many tech CEOs tell us that they prefer to hire engineers who can show a wealth of work on side projects. For aspiring marketers, project managers, and salespeople, the experience from building out a startup is just as valuable, as it provides an intimate understanding of how all the parts of a business work with each other, and, most important, an intense lesson on how to get things done.