A very smart woman once told my freshmen students, "The summer before you started college was your last 'free' summer." I agree with her. While summers in the past may have been happy-go-lucky and/or filled with more silliness than structure, there is a different expectation for you as a college student.
Basically, every summer from this point is a chance to propel yourself forward in your major or profession and/or to position you for as many options as possible after graduation. For some people this means taking classes, but I generally suggest students work, conduct research, or volunteer in their area of interest. Unless not having a particular class will keep you from moving forward in your major, I say take the class later. Meaningful summer experiences outweigh taking an extra semester to graduate. Summer experiences will allow you to affirm whether or not what you have chosen is right for you.
There are three main categories of summer opportunities: internships, research programs, and volunteer positions. Internships are generally paid positions where you work as an entry level employee for a company in your industry. However, there are fields like journalism, mass communications, and political science, where internships are unpaid. (Find out before you apply to know what to expect.) Summer research programs, which are typically held on university campuses, match students with a faculty mentor in their area/major to assist with the research they are conducting. They cover room and board (meals) at the host university and many times also come with a stipend. While internships and summer research are generally formal programs with an application process, volunteer positions may be formal or informal.
Many applications open in October and November, so it’s important to start looking now. As a matter of fact, the more you can identify now, the more you can work on your applications during the long Thanksgiving weekend. The application deadlines may not be until mid- to late spring, but the earlier you can get a jump on the process the better. Some programs hold all applications until the deadline, but other accept students as they apply. You want to be in the early pool of applicants.
So how do you find these wonderful summer opportunities? The first place to look is student services. However, you can also check on the websites of companies that are of interest. Check with the student chapter of your professional organization, bulletin boards in your department, and instructors with whom you have relationships.
You can also use your network from church, civic groups, athletics teams, or your high school. Put feelers out and let people know you are searching for summer opportunities. Be clear that you are not simply looking for a summer job. You want something closely related to your major that moves you toward your academic and professional goals. That’s not to say there isn’t room to branch out, but if you do that be intentional about what a seemingly unrelated experience will and will not get you.
Lastly, if you can’t find anything, create your own experience. Ask someone you know to shadow them for a few weeks and perhaps even rotate people to get multiple perspectives on an industry. Use your talents to volunteer in your community or put together a program yourself. If you can code or work with robotics, create a program at your community center or YMCA. Lend your tech savvy to senior citizens and teach them use their smartphones or devices. The possibilities are endless.