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Finding work experience (both paid and unpaid) is not an easy task and it often involves a great deal of research, several phone calls and a handful of interviews before you find something that is right for you. Many students worry about finding work experience which is relevant to their university course or future career, however, we all know that finding these opportunities can be difficult. If you do find work relevant to your course then that’s great and well done you, but if you can’t, then don’t despair. Finding any type of work experience which builds upon your key skills is far better than nothing at all. It’s about the skills which you develop whilst on your work experience that counts more than the place at which you are working. As long as you have the right attitude and work hard throughout your placement, then that’s the most important thing of all.
Many past Pure Potential students spend most of their gap year or their summer holidays working or dedicate some of their time to travelling or volunteering abroad. There are several companies and organisations which offer volunteering opportunities abroad. Volunteering is a great way of seeing the world, whilst raising money for charity or helping in a school or orphanage. Not only do you get the chance to experience new cultures you also get to give something back to the country you are visiting. Universities and future employers think very highly of students who spend their gap years and summer holidays doing something productive whether it’s helping on a conservation project in Borneo or spending two months working for a law firm, and it certainly beats spending your time watching day-time television!
On this page, you will find information on how to apply for work experience, the different types of work experience you can do as well as a list of several work experience websites, internship programs run by companies and a range of volunteering organisations where you can find all the information you need.
What is work experience?
All work gives us some kind of experience. Don’t dismiss the bar work or the nights behind the counter in the video shop just because they didn’t specifically involve aspects of the career you want in the future. Here, however, we’re going to look at sector-specific work experience, which can be divided into three main categories - voluntary work, student placement schemes and informal internships.
Do you need work experience?
Work experience can help you make more informed decisions about which career you want to pursue, can teach you new skills, can help you make contacts and will also give you some extra cash when the loan is running out! Although it can sometimes seem like an unnecessary and unwelcome stage in the process of getting a job, a candidate without any work experience on his or her CV will certainly be at a disadvantage when it comes to getting hired. For this reason alone, it's definitely worth getting some work experience under your belt as soon as possible.
The final type of work experience is a little harder to define, and places can be much harder to get. They tend to be the norm in creative industries where there is a looser and smaller structure to the business, such as film and television production, publishing, journalism or art sales. The danger with this type of placement is that it can often be unpaid and involve a lot of photocopying/coffee-making without much real experience. Even if you don’t get that much responsibility, however, these internships can be great in terms of the contacts you make and people you meet. Generally speaking, getting this kind of internship requires a little bit of research and a great deal of persistence. Identify an individual at an outfit you respect and write to them personally asking for the chance to shadow them. Adopting an approach such as this is referred to as making a ‘speculative application’.
Doing voluntary work with a registered charity or non-governmental organisation shows passion and integrity, as well as a practical mindset. The main reason for undertaking voluntary work is a desire to improve some area of people’s lives, but a subsidiary benefit is that it will always impress an employer, and in many professional areas (such as politics, medicine or law) experience through voluntary work can relate directly to the career itself. For example, doctors may be able to cite voluntary work as proof of the basic altruism which forms part of their professional code, and they may also use it to gain insight into the health challenges facing a particular sector of society, such as the homeless.
Placements / Internships
This kind of work experience is the most readily available and accessible, and generally has a simple (though often highly competitive) application process. It consists of a fixed period of paid work within a company, during which students will often be given quite a high degree of personal responsibility. This is a well-established route into industry, law, business and financial services. Investment banks, for example, tend to run summer placements and most big law firms have an equivalent programme called a ‘vacation scheme’. Students typically do these placements for 4-12 weeks over the summer holidays before starting their final year. Application deadlines tend to be several months in advance, so don’t leave things too late.
Gap Year Programmes
Some firms offer programmes where you can work in your gap year, enabling you to earn some money, acquire excellent skills and get a taste of the working world. These programmes are not only an excellent addition to your personal statement, but also will stand you in good stead when it comes to finding a job once you have graduated. Participating in one of these programmes will show you have ambition, are motivated and take your career seriously, and who knows - if you excel during the programme the firm may offer you a job after university.
Tips on how to Apply
Details of these schemes can be found on the individual website of the company, or, if you’re not sure what kind of business experience you want, submit your CV to http://www.step.org.uk and they will help you find the right placement. This type of work experience is ideal as it is paid (usually about £160-£200 per week) and gives you a real insight into working in your chosen industry, as well as teaching you new skills. In addition, no company or firm ever forgets a talented and enthusiastic intern, and it can be a great foothold when it’s time to apply for a full-time graduate job.
Work experience isn't restricted to these categories however, and if you ask around you'll be able to find something useful even if you're not sure what you want to do yet. For example, you could ask at your university for a placement in the marketing department or in the administrator's office; ask your old teachers if they have any useful contacts or see if any of your friends' parents can help to secure places at their companies. Whatever you do, as long as you approach your placement enthusiastically you'll learn valuable skills and employers will respect your motivation.
- Do the research. Identify the field of work which you wish to enter, be sure that the company you write to offers the role that appeals to you.
- Go on to the organisation’s website. Look for a jobs/careers section- you could apply for an advertised vacancy. Read about their culture and latest developments.
- Be specific: always address your letters to a person rather than a ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. You are more likely to get a response. Alternatively, telephone the organisation and ask if they need any temporary help.
- Send a CV with a cover letter or covering email. It’s important that you have a concise CV (2 pages is the maximum) and a letter no longer than 400 words. The next two pages will go into further details on what to include.
- Inform the recipient that you will contact them with a follow-up telephone call a week later, this shows enthusiasm. Be sure to contact them and have your letter and CV in front of you when you do. Be polite, but don’t be too ready to accept the brush off.
- Have the letter and CV checked by another person before you send it so they can look at it objectively.
- State your availability. Give a potential start date and indicate for how long you can work.
- In the event that your letter ends up in the hands of the wrong person, it would be a good idea to request that your letter be passed onto the appropriate individual.
For useful help and advice on all aspects of work experience, plus a search engine to help you find current opportunities, check out the following related links.
If you are interested in gap year opportunities, why not visit our Gap Years page in the university section of our website where you will find tips on how to plan your gap year as well as a list of organisations who offer a range of opportunities.
Work experience organisations/ companies:
- Internship Help provide free online guidance to graduates and undergradutes who are searching for internships, summer placements, and vacation schemes
- Social Mobility Foundation work with Year 12 students who are interested in exploring top professions and organisations by offering them the chance to be mentored by a professional in the career area they are interested in
- British Council offer an exchange programme for students who are enrolled at a Higher Education or a Higher Education/Further Education (HE/FE) Institution the opportunity to study, do a work placement or be a language assistant in several countries within the EU
- London Youth assist in the personal and social development of students in the Greater London area through a comprehensive sporting programme and offer a range of projects throughout the year
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