Katy Hopkins

Summer's here. After months of papers, all-nighters, and seemingly endless study sessions, 12 gloriously free weeks stretch ahead of college students.

But once the allure of three months without homework and tests wears off and boredom inevitably takes hold, you'll likely want to focus on making this summer as productive as possible. And using the time to boost your résumé is vitally important; though the job outlook brightened for college graduates this year, subsequent job reports show the economy is still struggling. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report indicated just 54,000 jobs were added in May -- far less than the predicted 170,000 positions -- and a recent government study showed that there are fewer jobs for teens as old as 19.

If you haven't landed a summer job or internship, it may not be too late to find a position, notes Heather Huhman, career author and founder of PR firm Come Recommended. Approaching a local organization with a proposal for how taking you on as an intern will benefit the company may prompt them to create a new position, Huhman says. But for those who still don't have an internship or job, there are ways to use the next three months to strengthen the chances you'll succeed in school and get hired in the future.

1. Work on your personal brand

In a job market that's both increasingly tough and increasingly virtual, establishing a personal brand is key to standing out from the hordes of other college students with similar GPAs and glossy résumés. Creating a personal blog is an easy and free way to showcase your accomplishments and perspective, notes Jason Matthew Murphy, who launched his personal brand right after graduating from Bowling Green State University in 2004, and is now an account executive with the deal website Groupon. Though personal branding and blogging may not be immediately rewarding, "you have got to keep adding content," Murphy recommends. "It's like exercise; you just have got to keep doing it, and one day it will pay off for you."

Branding also involves understanding social media: Find ways to use Twitter as a job tool, Murphy says, and consider restricting Facebook to more of a "backyard patio" atmosphere of updates for friends and family members, rather than a virtual résumé left open to judgment from employers. "Perception is everything," he notes.

2. Consider community college

For students at four-year universities, attending community college during the summer is often viewed as a less expensive way to satisfy general education requirements -- provided the credits you earn transfer to your home institution. Taking a summer course at your local community college can also serve as a trial run in a subject you suspect you'll struggle with, such as an advanced math course or organic chemistry, notes Bob Roth, author of College Success: Advice for Parents of High School and College Students. That way, students "have at least gone through it before they actually need it," Roth says. "It's another way to boost your proficiency, your capabilities, and to make sure you do a better job in the class." You'll also likely be more focused on the material if it's the only course demanding your attention.

3. Tap into your local network

You're at home for the next 10 to 12 weeks; use the time to make some connections. "If you're a student, it's really important to dial into local networks," Murphy says. You never know who you'll meet at a community event -- where attendees are likely "just as gregarious" as outgoing college students, Murphy notes -- and where that connection may one day lead. Look to local chapters of national organizations, he recommends, and use the meetups to develop your own networking skills, too.

4. Turn a weakness into a strength

Struggle with public speaking? Wish you were a better writer? In the coming years, you'll likely be asked to explain your weaknesses in job interviews -- and the next three months offer a great chance to tackle what challenges you now. Consider volunteering at a local camp to work on your leadership ability and people skills, or sign up for a letter writing campaign to U.S. soldiers or for another cause you support. "If it's over-the-summer work, it has to be somewhat exciting or building on a student's innate interest," says Dan Lichterman, a writing coach at prowritingtutor.com. "Bringing creative writing exercises into your summer routine can help you feel more comfortable and fluent with your prose."

5. Find a mentor

Many students are ill equipped to navigate the job market after they graduate, claims Come Recommended's Huhman. "Colleges definitely don't do a good enough job of teaching young professionals how to job search," she says, and students often go to the wrong sources for advice. While your parents may not be familiar with hiring processes, Huhman says there's likely someone in your circle who is. Reach out to a professor you're close with or a faculty member who advises a student organization on campus, she recommends.

Be upfront with a potential mentor about what you're seeking: career advice and a learning opportunity that needn't make much extra work for them. With expert advice, you may have a better chance of finding a job during the summer that really counts -- after graduation.

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