Newsletter: Why Mowing Lawns is Better than Your Summer Internship

Ryan Kelly

Why Mowing Lawns is Better Than Your Summer Internship

You read that right. I genuinely believe most people would be better off mowing lawns than pursuing a summer internship.

It might sound crazy, but it’s one of the many strange truths I’ve learned from my 11+ years of helping students get into college and medical/graduate school.

Why Most Summer Internships Fall Flat

The other day, I was helping a college applicant brainstorm and outline his University of California (UC) essays.

There was one essay prompt that his parents and high school counselor were keen on him answering:

Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity.

It turned out that he had done a summer internship at a well-known law firm in his local area.

I was admittedly skeptical, based on years of similar conversations, but I wasn’t going to write it off immediately.

“That sounds cool,” I said. “Do you think you could capture it well for the reader?”

“Pff,” he said, laughing. “Probably not. It wasn’t very exciting.”

He told me that the firm couldn’t give him very meaningful tasks as a high schooler, so he spent most of his time sitting in on meetings he didn’t really understand, stuffing mailers into envelopes, and running mindless errands for the staff.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I was super grateful to them. But I don’t see how I could write about it in any significant way.”

I empathized with him, since my summer internship at age 17 with a marketing team at a hospital system had gone pretty much the exact same way.

When it comes down to it, summer internships are vastly overrated for the following reasons:

  1. You often don’t fill any meaningful roles or responsibilities
  2. You often don’t have any interesting stories to tell
  3. There’s an opportunity cost and lost time for potential better activities

And some honorable mentions:

  1. You will often not get paid
  2. You’re often too young to know what you really want to do with your life (Marketing team at a hospital? Who the hell did I think I was?) 
  3. You may come across as privileged to employers/admissions committees (more on this later)

OK, but is mowing lawns really a better option?

Why Getting a “Crappy Job” is Better

For our purposes, the term “crappy job” will cover everything from retail, to restaurants, to landscaping, to customer service.

If it’s not obvious by now, I do not think these jobs are crappy and have great respect for them.

But this term captures the general attitude many have towards them, especially regarding their potential to make you a more competitive applicant for college or less “crappy” jobs.

I’m here to argue that these “crappy jobs” are not only good for the soul (i.e. character-building), but also for standing out and earning some clout as a job/college applicant.

I’m speaking from personal experience. For five summers, I was a maintenance worker and groundskeeper for my old elementary school. It was quite the change of pace from my time discussing motifs of Macbeth or the oeuvre of Thomas Pynchon in my college English classes. Let’s just say I entered the job with pretty soft hands and a starchy white collar.

For this job, I cleaned gutters, painted stairwells with the tiniest roller imaginable, and removed gum/trash from beneath the gymnasium bleachers, among other unglamorous tasks. But I also learned how to till soil, edge flower beds, use a chainsaw, wax floors, and innumerable other practical skills. Not to mention taking home a check and getting a decent workout on the job. Perhaps best of all, I worked with people much different than myself–older blue-collar guys from various ethnic backgrounds who became friends and mentors.

I would be remiss not to mention other benefits as well. I wrote a personal essay about this work experience that not only helped me get my job as a Resident Assistant at my college (free room and board), but also earned me a writing award/modest check from the English Department.

So, just to recap, here’s what I gained from my “crappy job”:

  1. Awesome memories, friendships, and stories to tell/write about
  2. Practical skills I otherwise would have never learned
  3. An unexpectedly useful item for my resume
  4. Lots of spending money (or saving money for future tuition fees)
  5. A greater appreciation for a hard day’s work (cliche, but true)

OK, good for me, right? But can I say with any authority that employers and colleges will care about your crappy job?

I did some research into college and grad school class profiles, and here’s what I found:

  • Occidental College specifically mentions having students who worked at Target, Starbucks, and Shake Shack.
  • Providence College states that 79% of incoming students held part-time jobs.
  • UNC states that 59% of incoming students held part-time jobs, only 17% had internships.
  • Johns Hopkins emphasizes that many incoming students worked part-time jobs.

I believe this is good evidence that colleges are becoming more interested in equity, or that they at least don’t want to appear elitist in the students they recruit and accept.

I think schools understand that many typically coveted resume-fillers, like internships, are often obtained through the privileges of nepotism and networking, so they’re committed to rounding out their classes with “bootstrapping” students who have had to work to support themselves. Or ones who were at least willing to get their hands dirty.

“Crappy Jobs” Give You Real Competencies

Colleges and graduate schools (not to mention employers) typically use certain competencies as a rubric or selection criteria for their applicants.

A quick Google search about competencies gave me a list of 15 from Arizona State University that I feel is pretty representative. 

Down below, I’ve provided a breakdown of various “crappy jobs” that would help illustrate these qualities about yourself (all of them are jobs held by my former students):

Examples of “Crappy Job” Essays That Got Students Accepted

Some of the most memorable essays from my past students have centered around their part-time jobs. And they’re not only memorable; they’ve reaped great admissions results! I’ve included a few excerpts below to help make my point:

Job: Vons Deli Worker

Student Accepted into Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine

“I want 2.37 pounds of turkey, thinly sliced.” I nodded at the middle-aged mother of two.

One of my jobs was at a deli, and I learned by my third week that people often have odd requests. At the deli, I prepared sandwiches, fried chicken in huge drums of cooking oil, and mounted raw chickens on spits to be cooked in industrial ovens. There were downsides, like getting soaked with dirty dishwater, or disposing of barrels of frozen lard. But the whole time, I continued to work without complaint.

I enjoyed learning on the job, but my job strengthened my drive to become a physician because it was missing continuous stimulation and growth. However, the experience taught me to have a strong tolerance for continuous work, which I put to use in order to thrive in college.

Job: Starbucks Barista

Student Accepted into Georgetown University School of Medicine

“This isn’t nonfat!” a customer screamed. “Grande, triple, half caf, NONFAT caramel macchiato, extra caramel! Not that hard!”

Tim, the frazzled new barista, stammered “I’m so sorry, ugh…”

As a barista trainer, I must remember what it’s like to be a novice. Although the difference between nonfat and 2% is second nature to me, it was not to Tim. Similarly, patients may not realize their blood pressure reading is high, or that they are taking medication at the wrong time. Although these are immediate red flags to physicians, it’s important to evaluate the patients’ understanding and teach them why these things are important. You must know the appropriate time to step in and give a solution, but also the time to help others grow in their agency. 

Job: Rubio’s Cashier

Student Accepted into UCLA, UVA, Northeastern, and Clemson

This Rubio’s taco shop was located off the freeway near Mission Bay, a stark difference from the tranquil cove of my neighborhood in La Jolla. Where La Jolla has oceanfront mansions, Mission Bay has outdated apartment complexes. Where La Jolla has pristine gardens, Mission Bay has trailer parks. Where La Jolla has housewives on their way to pilates, Mission Bay has homeless people dumpster diving behind 7-Eleven.

I felt out of place as the only employee under 20, and the only one who had the use of a car to drive to work. I was further humbled when I realized my precious education had not taught me basic customer service skills. My coworkers worked 60-hour weeks to provide for their families, and I didn’t even know how to answer the phone. Feeling a bit embarrassed, I initially considered quitting. Suddenly the summer seemed like an eternity. 

However, over time, my mindset shifted as I learned about my coworkers. Carlos lived in a trailer behind the restaurant, but couldn’t move because he didn’t have his driver’s license. Angelo was taking English lessons outside of work to improve his opportunities. Jasli was attending community college and hoped to become manager before graduating. I was gaining unique, humbling, and irreplaceable insights into other people’s lives. Rather than putting in my two weeks’ notice, I decided to keep my job through the school year and following summer.

This was one of my first experiences being the one who’s different. I didn’t have many ways to connect with my coworkers, which I now realize is how many people feel every day when faced with adversity or marginalization. Beyond gratitude for my privileges, I’m now more comfortable putting myself in unfamiliar situations where I stand out or feel displaced. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve been completely humbled by the literal blood, sweat, and tears my coworkers put into their jobs. I was only living a partial life in my La Jolla bubble. In hindsight, that life may have been easier, but definitely not better. The understanding I have gained from this experience is priceless, and I will continue drawing on its lessons in every aspect of life. 

Some Final Notes:

I am not trying to say that ALL summer internships are bad, but rather that they shouldn’t be viewed as the expectation or the norm.

Not sure whether a summer internship is right for you?

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  • Ryan

For over 11 years, Ryan Kelly has guided hundreds of students towards acceptance into top colleges and graduate schools, with an emphasis on standing out while also staying true to themselves. Read more about Ryan here. Or book a free intro meeting with him here.

Next week Ryan will be sharing his perspective about the pros and cons of Voluntourism.