There was a time when summer opportunities for high school students extended from the local ice cream parlor to the neighborhood pool. But in today’s high-pressure world of college admissions, working in ice cream retail and lifeguarding have been replaced with an extensive search process that can culminate in grandiose adventures – from service learning trips to South Africa to scientific research at the local hospital.

Daunting though these prospects may seem from the outset, today’s version of the summer internship can be truly invaluable. “High school internships provide students with opportunities to explore occupational interests outside of a classroom setting, gain valuable work experience, learn how professional organizations run, and begin to make contacts within their chosen field,” says high school counselor Tina Maier. Forget resume padding for college applications: the ideal summer internship offers a two-month crash course in responsibility, time management, and the daily life of the working world.

Where to Begin:

Before asking your teen what he wants to do this summer or, even more overwhelming, what he might want to do with the rest of her life, start by talking with him about your various job experiences, beginning as far back as possible. Even babysitting and ushering at the movie theater will help to start the conversation. This approach has at least two helpful aspects. First, given the wending ways which most of us come to our careers, it will highlight the fact that next to no one marches straight from summer internship to CEO. Second, it may present at least one semi-interesting idea. You delivered newspapers? Maybe it would be fun to work at a community paper.

A few other brainstorming tips: talk about the academic subjects and extracurricular activities that are most exciting. Consider the various possible jobs that correspond with these avenues of interest. If you’re still having trouble coming up with some broad ideas, look for additional resources: a career or college counselor, internship books, and websites aimed at high school students.

How to Identify a (Good) Opportunity:

Once you have a general idea about the area your child is considering, start narrowing the field. Are you looking for part-time or full-time opportunities? Paid or unpaid? Six or eight weeks, or possibly continuing into the school year? Answering these questions is particularly important if your child is not interested in a structured program, as they will all help to outline the specifics of what he or she proposes to do. Even within a structured program, there is often a fair amount of flexibility. For example, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit organization providing Native health services, offers a variety of internship opportunities. Students gain work experience in a range of medical professions, and a long list of support services, including finance, human resources, health records, computer technology, engineering, maintenance, and housekeeping.

The best way for you and your child to identify a satisfying internship, structured or individually crafted, is to speak directly to the people with whom your child will be working. Contact possible mentors via email or phone. Arrange a time to visit and meet the various important people as well as see the space. If possible, talk with former interns; good mentors usually maintain some contact with their former mentees, so asking for the email address of a former intern or two should be an easy request.

In all of these conversations, be sure to ask about the specifics of the intern position. Certainly, you want to know about the mentor’s job as well, but it is important to make sure that the specific duties of the internship are appealing in and of themselves. This is, after all, what will comprise the summer. We may have left the days of ice cream scoops and lifeguard suits behind, but there is no reason why summer has to be any less fun – with the right internship, it will be even more so.