NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Students and recent graduates hoping to land that dream summer internship will likely face an improved, but still mixed, job environment this year. The private sector has boosted the number of job openings available throughout the year, but budget problems at the state and local government level continue to force the public sector to cut the number of positions available to students.

To be sure, there is certainly no shortage of internships posted to job sites like Internships.com and SimplyHired.com – the latter of which currently has more than 40,000 posted – but getting chosen for the more desirable internships could still prove difficult, in part because of the ever-growing applicant pool.

“The competition for internships has been growing, not diminishing, so you really have to run a sharp search campaign,” said Jacques Aboaf, vice president of strategic development for Vault.com, a career website. Aboaf notes that students are no longer the only ones vying for coveted spots. These days the pool includes graduates who have been out of school for several years and are looking to make a career change, as well as older and more experienced workers who may have lost a job to new technology or the economy and are therefore looking for a fresh start elsewhere.

So if you don’t land your dream internship, don’t feel too bad about it. That being said, don’t let one or two rejections stop you from using your summer to boost your career. MainStreet asked several career experts for their advice on how one can get valuable job experience this summer even if you’ve been turned down from all the internships to which you applied.

Create Your Own Internship

If all of the internships you’ve found on career sites and job boards have proved unresponsive, it may be time to take a more proactive approach and create your own internship by reaching out directly to companies you’d like to work for, whether or not they have positions advertised.

“Most jobs – and especially internships – are not formally advertised,” said Daniel Greenberg, chief marketing officer at SimplyHired.com, in part because companies often opt not to pay to advertise their part-time positions or internships. “So you need to identify hiring managers inside the organizations you’re interested in and submit the resumes to them directly… as this could be forwarded along to someone else to fill a temporary need.”

If you still can’t land a position, you might take this strategy one step further by crafting a formal proposal outlining a specific project you could pursue as an intern at the company of your choice.

“Even if a company you’re interested in doesn’t have an internship for you, you can still approach the company with a proposal to develop your own,” said Suzanne Helbig, assistant director of the career center at the University of California, Berkeley.  “Write a proposal laying out a project that you’d like to do for them, and spell out the basic work terms – how many hours you can do, what your qualifications are and how the project in question aligns with the company’s needs.”

In this way, you not only open a line of communication with the company, but clearly demonstrate your interest and knowledge of the organization, which can only help your chances at getting a shot at a position.

Reach Out to Small Businesses

One of the major mistakes that students make when hunting for internships is to focus solely on the elite companies in their profession – whether it be the New York Times for aspiring journalists or Google for engineering students – but these positions are the most desired and therefore the hardest to get.

“What we find is students typically look to brand names for internships,” said Robin D. Richards, chairman and CEO of Internships.com. “But a lot of times you can get greater experience by working at smaller companies, and that experience can help you get hired later.”

So if you can’t get an internship at Google, do some research to find new startups in the same field that might have a need for cheap or unpaid interns, as these companies may ask you to handle a wider variety of tasks that could help build up your resume.

If that fails, Richards recommends reaching out to companies near where you live, even if they may not directly relate to your desired profession, to see if there are any needs you can fill. In particular, he suggests that students focus on their “native skills,” by which he means the basic computing knowledge they have, whether it’s typing fast or social media experience.

“One hundred percent of students we see know social media, they know the Internet,” he says. “So they have an incredible value proposition to offer these small and medium sized companies who are just now waking up social media and its power.”

With this in mind, you might consider reaching out to marketing representatives at nearby companies and offer to help build or manage their Facebook or Twitter pages.

Freelance (Emphasis on the ‘Free’)

Amid all the rush and competition to land an internship, some students might forget just how tedious these positions can be. Even coveted internships at the best companies might offer applicants little more than the opportunity to fetch coffee for an uptight boss or do grunt-work assignments.

"Doing a formal internship may work out, but most of the time it’s limited and doesn’t pan out to anything,” said Charlie Hoehn, author of the Recession-Proof Graduate. Rather than follow this route, Hoehn recommends that students and recent graduates use a tactic he calls “free work.”

“The better alternative is to approach individuals who might normally be out of your reach and offer to do free work in exchange for getting the kind of work experience that would typically be unobtainable to someone of that age and lack of experience,” he said.

Students interested in pursuing this would effectively follow some of the same steps to establish a freelance relationship as they would when trying to create an internship: find organizations or prominent individuals you’d like to work for, research the direction of the company and any needs you think you can fill and then contact them with a proposal for how you could help. But in this particular case, the goal is not to land an internship, but rather to build connections that either lead to more assignments or perhaps even a paid position.

“Even if you’re off base, the fact that you demonstrate you’re trying to research them is enough of a reason to hire you,” Hoehne said.

Volunteer

Whether or not you’ve landed an internship, volunteering at a nonprofit organization is always an excellent point to add to your resume. Generally (though not always) these positions are easier to get, and according to Richards, one has the potential to “kill three birds with one stone” by volunteering.

“Volunteering gives more breadth to your resume, gives you the opportunity to get more experience in the industry you’re interested in and shows that you’re actively engaged during the summer,” Richards said. What’s more, though one can volunteer on a full-time basis, you don’t necessarily need to, since hiring managers will rarely if ever ask you to spell out the number of hours you worked. So you can potentially volunteer for five to 10 hours a week, and pursue some of the other options on the list at the same time to continue filling out your resume and your summer.

Vacation (Responsibly)

During any given summer, there will be always be the temptation to travel, and perhaps more so if students have failed to land a job or internship that would give them a reason not to go away, but as Helbig points out, traveling just for the sake of traveling might not be the best idea.

“There is something to be said for using that time off in college to take a break… but if you just lay on the beach for the summer, I wouldn’t imagine that vacation experience will make its way onto your resume,” she said.

Instead, she suggests finding ways to combine travel with experiences that can further your career in some way later on.

“Perhaps include a volunteer stint on your trip, or go on a vacation that aligns with some academic interest of yours that you can parlay into academic work in the following semester,” Helbig said. Alternatively, one might consider taking advantage of a summer study abroad program so they can get some time away but show they were working as well.

Work A Seasonal Job

For some students, “retail” may be a dirty word, but working a seasonal job over the summer is a great way to build experience and make some extra cash at the same time, regardless of whether you’re working as a host at a restaurant, a salesperson on the floor at Abercrombie & Fitch or a cashier at McDonald’s.

“There’s so much value in these jobs,” Helbig said. “You learn customer service, troubleshooting skills, interpersonal skills and more, all of which make your resume more competitive.”

Of course, just like with internship, there’s plenty of competition for seasonal positions too, from students and older workers alike, but as MainStreet has reported previously, several sectors have shown an increased demand for hiring this summer, including the travel industry, restaurants and pools, which are hiring more lifeguards this year than in 2010 [attribute]. With all these options, there’s no reason students should be stuck watching TV on the couch this summer.

For more options where students can work in the coming months, check out MainStreet’s roundup of the best summer jobs for teens this year.

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