How to get the most out of your College Summers

I get this question all the time:

What did you do during your college summers? You clearly aren’t the type to have worked at the grocery store in between smoking blunts while playing Modern Warfare. I’m curious as to how what you did contributes to what you do.

While I love the way this particular question is worded, I get variations on this question all the time from both college & high school students and their parents. What follows is how I spent my time and energy during my summers at college.

Pre-Freshman year:

I was a lifeguard at the local YMCA in Dallas, TX (keep reading – it gets better). I had to wake up at 4AM to open the pool by 5AM. Not fun. I got a great tan and vowed to never work as a lifeguard again. I figured out what making $7.25 an hour meant. I never even saved anyone’s life – well not at the YMCA, at least. I SHOULD have taken a class at my community college like I did after my junior year in high school.

Post Freshman year:

Took Organic Chemistry 1 & 2, plus both labs… I did in 10 weeks what typically takes an entire academic year. The professor actually called me “insane” and wished me good luck. I was the only person to take both classes and both labs that summer and one of the few to get A’s in all 4 classes. Very few people like OChem and this was a great example of ripping off the bandaid and getting something painful over quickly and early.

Post Sophomore year:

This isn’t glamorous, but I took more classes after my sophomore year of college. It was the only way I was going to graduate with both of my degrees in four years. I hustled and took Analytical Chemistry, Thermodynamics, & two American Lit classes for my Liberal Arts degree. All A’s. I also did research at a fuel cell lab on campus to get a taste for that. Research wasn’t fun for me but I got to learn that lesson first hand and I got my first academic paper published as a result. No complaints, except summers in Austin are hot.

It’s worth mentioning here that I’d recommend that you intern during summers if you can. The reason that I didn’t after sophomore year was that I had already spent 5 months at Exxon that year as a co-op in the spring and I actually needed to get back to my degree.

Post Junior year:

Co-op #2 at ExxonMobil in Baytown, Texas. I worked as a Unit Engineer in Oil Movements (starting job for most ChE’s in the Oil & Gas industry). I don’t recall the specifics, but I do remember that I justified replacing a bunch of expensive stainless-steel pipes & tubing by estimating how corroded they were. I visited all of the furnaces on site for some study we were doing and organized the reloading of catalyst into one of our diesel desulfurization units. Kinda boring stuff actually, but I made a ton of money, learned on someone else’s dime, and made the decision to go to grad school. I also read Gödel, Escher, Bach and wrote like a mad man which helped me figure out some difficult life stuff.

Post Senior year:

I traveled to 14 countries in 6 weeks with 2 good friends. After that, I hung out by the pool in Austin, read, wrote, and prepped for my move across the country to start grad school at Stanford. After 4 years of really hard work, I gave myself a big break and reminded myself that it’s important to celebrate your victories.

1) I figured out what making $7.25 an hour meant.
2) I ripped off the bandaid on some painful work I needed to do (Ochem).
3) I experimented with a possible career path (research in a lab) & learned it wasn’t for me.
4) I learned valuable skills while getting paid and I made huge life decisions.
5) After achieving my goals, I took a break & gave myself a reward and some time off.

Bottom Line: I used my college summers to experiment with new things and advance towards my goals. I tried academic research. I gave corporate America a second try. I quickly suffered through some tough classes for my degrees. I traveled the world and chilled out (after graduating). But I also paid my dues at the local YMCA as a lifeguard when I didn’t have these great options. There’s no secret here. If you want to make the most of your college summers, then you’re going to have to hustle.

COMMENT BELOW: If you’re looking for productive ideas on how to spend your upcoming summer, tell me about yourself below in a comment and I’ll do my best to give you some ideas on how to hustle towards your goals.