Orchids, Waffles and Landing a Summer Job

Columnist Zina Kumok helps you navigate the summer job circuit with tips from her own first job experience in the greenhouse at 15 -- and beyond. Step 1: Use your extended network of family and friends to find out if anyone’s hiring. Read More

by Diana Drake

Whether you’re searching for your first summer job or your third, check out these useful tips from KWHS columnist and personal-finance blogger Zina Kumok, who, now in her 20s, has been hard at work since age 15.

The first job I ever had was entering data for my dad’s friend. She was in her 70s at that point, and I helped her input and delete records related to her personal greenhouse, where she grew hundreds of beautiful orchids. She paid me above minimum wage for helping to manage the greenhouse data, and I didn’t have to worry about paying taxes. I didn’t have any babysitting experience and since I was 15, I was too young for some places to hire me. Working on the computer was a great way to get experience, and I learned how to sit still and work for eight straight hours.

Find Out Who’s Hiring

My second job was working at a family friend’s private medical practice. I was stationed in medical records, which meant that I spent my day pulling and organizing patients’ charts and taking down messages for the doctors and nurses. It was a busy job. The practice had five different doctors who tended to a steady stream of patients, especially people coming in to get their summer physicals.

For most of you starting out, using your extended network of family and friends is the best way to see if anyone’s hiring. These are positions that are unlikely to be posted anywhere, and if you don’t have experience, it can be hard to get an interview anyway. Ask your parents if they might have any suggestions of places that you can work. Most of us got our start that way, and people are typically happy to help out the next generation.

The summer before college, I was determined to make as much money as humanly possible. I dressed up and drove around to local businesses handing out my résumé.

At some of the places I applied to, like the nearby Waffle House, I was awkwardly overdressed — heels and hash browns don’t mix. But either way, wearing nice clothes shows that you respect yourself and the position that you’re applying for. It shows that you care about this possible opportunity and that, if given the job, you will take it seriously. Even if you’re applying at a place where you’ll wear a uniform, it’s still important to wear something presentable for the interview.

That summer, I ended up working at Waffle House from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and then in retail at PacSun from 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. I would get home from Waffle House around 2:30 p.m. and count my tips, still smelling like pancakes and bacon. Then I would shower, relax and head to work at the mall. Sure, I made good money, but more importantly I learned important job skills — things like multi-tasking, communicating effectively with customers, problem-solving and successfully balancing a loaded tray of plates and glasses without it ending in disaster.

As you tackle the summer-job circuit, you should follow a few key steps. For example, once you are able to land a scheduled interview, research the company. Now that I’ve hired my own interns, I realize that managers want to hire someone who seems to know what they’re getting themselves into. As employers, we don’t have time to hold your hand and walk you through every detail of the job.

The best intern interview I conducted was with a freshman in college who had clearly done her research. She knew just what questions to ask and she already understood some fundamental aspects of the job. A good interview can greatly improve a limited résumé, while a bad interview can erase even five good years of job experience.

You have to remember that you aren’t the only one applying for jobs this summer. The competition is stiff, and it can take a few weeks to land a gig. Start as soon as you can, if you haven’t already, and go hard for a few days.

Asking around is a great way to begin, but you don’t want to rely too much on other people doing the work for you. Ask for an introduction to a company you’re interested in, and write a follow-up email. As much as people want to help, they also want to see that you’re willing to engage and reach out to people personally.

Experience Is Golden

Once you put in the initial effort, wait a week for a call back from them. If you don’t hear anything by then, go ahead and reach out. Résumés get misplaced all the time, and busy managers don’t have time to search for yours if they have 20 others to look through. If you don’t give up, you’re likely to find a job that works.

If you’re having trouble finding work, consider volunteering or pursuing an unpaid internship. I spent a summer working for a local state representative. It was his first term in office and even though he couldn’t pay me, he wrote a great recommendation for my first-choice college, his alma mater. I drove around and planted campaign signs in people’s yards, conducted research and called people asking for their votes.

Even though I wasn’t getting paid, it was a great addition to my résumé. If you’re eager to work in a museum, volunteer at your local art gallery. If you want to practice law, see if you can shadow a lawyer for a few days. Use your summer to get a trial run in what you want to do. Even if you’re not paid, the experience will be priceless in helping you figure out more about who you are and where you want to be. Once you’re on a career path, experience can be just as – if not more – valuable than a paycheck.


Conversation Starters

Did you work a job this summer? What did you do? Did it help you at all figure out your future path? How so?

Zina Kumok suggests that once you are able to schedule an interview for a summer job, you should research the company. How might you go about this? Why is research so important? What are some of the ways you might use the information you learn?

In this connected world, it feels like we are always communicating with each other. And yet, nothing can replace face-to-face contact. What do you think Zina means when she says, “A good interview can greatly improve a limited résumé, while a bad interview can erase even five good years of job experience.”

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