For some college students, summer is synonymous with vacation. But for those trying to pay off thousands of dollars in student loans, summer means work.

B
ut a summer job doesn’t have to be a dreadful, tedious, 9-to-5 experience. With the growing number of stimulating, flexible summer jobs targeted primarily at college students, there’s time to hit the beach, read a couple of novels, party and make some good money in the process.

The key is to begin the summer job search early.

“Anyone looking for a summer job should start thinking about what kind of experience they would like to have and where they would like to have it, as early as November,” says Austin Jackson, CEO of Decision Partners, a nonprofit company that manages a
summer jobs Web site and offers financial aid and personal finance courses for students.

Hiring for summer jobs often is often wrapped up by January, Jackson says. By springtime, the only jobs still available tend to be in the food service industry, he says, “and you may have to live with your parents.” For many students, that may be the ultimate motivation to get their job feelers out early.

Summer in November
Snagging a summer job can be competitive. Students must be proactive in their job search to access the best opportunities. At the minimum, they should visit the campus career center. “Career centers are a clearinghouse of summer job opportunities — they start getting inundated with flyers around Thanksgiving,” says Tim Luzader, director of the
center for career opportunities at Purdue University in Indiana.

In addition to sifting through the center’s print publications, he suggests checking out the career center’s Web site, which is often chock-full of listings that aren’t available anywhere else. Students should ask if their campus offers summer job fairs, which are another valuable resource.

It’s also important for students to differentiate themselves from the competition. They can do this by “focusing on what their interests, skills and values are and how they relate to their career choices,” he says. Ultimately, he says, the students who are resourceful and use the career center are the ones who will be employed.

Another effective tool to jumpstart the job search is networking. Luzader says students should use all of their accessible networks, which include their parents and their associates, friends and relatives. Campus administrators can also be of help. Students who are involved in on-campus organizations often find that a conversation with the groups’ advisers might lead to a summer opportunity in a field of interest.

For students interested in more experiential jobs, such as working in an Alaskan cannery, wrangling on a dude ranch in Colorado or serving as a tour guide at a national park, there are plenty of these opportunities available. These jobs will appeal to students looking for a quirky, nontraditional summer experience. But they require more research.

“Most career services offices promote internships, which are often unpaid, and career placements, which often prove more valuable for seniors,” Jackson says. “Experiential jobs are not high on their list of priorities.”

Many of these jobs pay a stipend of several hundred dollars per month with free room, board and food. Students can easily make $4,000 to $5,000 in a six-week period, Jackson says. “They often allow for personal growth and they enable students to meet people they wouldn’t ever meet otherwise,” he says. “It can be a more rewarding experience than taking the summer off or traveling abroad.”

Then there are those summer jobs that allow students to determine their own work schedule and wages. Students can work as sales representatives for companies such as Mary Kay, Avon or the
Southwestern Company, which helps students finance their education by selling books. Students serve as independent contractors, running their own businesses by purchasing products from the company at wholesale and selling them to customers at retail.

Students who participate in these kinds of programs can also earn college credit. “It’s a way for companies to build their brand and target a younger population while allowing students the opportunity to become more entrepreneurial,” says Deborah Chereck, director of the
career center at University of Oregon. Furthermore, it’s a way for students to get an “in” with a company and build a relationship with it, she says, which may lead to future opportunities.

Cool summer jobs
Determined to avoid flipping hamburgers all summer? Check out some of these ideas:

  • Cruise ship employee:
    Work aboard ship as a beautician, bar steward or photographer. Just don’t apply if you are susceptible to seasickness.
  • Camp counselor
    : Recapture your youth by
    working at a summer camp making lanyards, eating graham crackers and drinking apple juice, and playing in the pool with kids. Counselors can make about $200 per week
  • Tour guide
    : The
    National Park Service, which has parks across the country and in Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, hires more than 3,000 seasonal workers each summer. Often, they pay a stipend of several hundred dollars per month with free room and board.
  • Theme park staffer
    :
    Work at a theme park in food service, security or as a lifeguard in a camp-like atmosphere. On-site housing (with low rent) and meals are usually provided.
  • Resort worker
    : From Hawaii to South Carolina, you can
    work at a beach resort as a lifeguard or water sports instructor.
  • Trail guide or wrangler
    : Connect with nature and horses by
    working at a dude ranch and earn about $1,500 per month while you’re at it.