Deciding on your next steps can be hard when you’re just leaving school. Some of your friends may be pursuing higher education, while others may be taking a gap year. It’s also likely that some of your classmates have no plan at all!
If you’re thinking about finding work experience in the near future, you can read all about the process here and what you can gain from it. Without further ado, here’s why work experience is a smart move that future-you will thank you for – followed by a step-by-step guide to help you secure a placement.
What is work experience?
Work experience refers to the process of gaining practical knowledge and skills through work. As opposed to undergraduate degree courses, which can get heavily theoretical, hands-on experience gives you a real-life preview of a specific role or field. That’s not to say that one is better than the other – you’ll need a bit of both to eventually land your dream job.
If you don’t have a dream job yet, don’t be discouraged; work experience is never wasted. Many of the skills you’ll learn in one role can be made use of in another – more on that in a minute!
Though work placements and internships vary in duration, it’s common for them to last a few months to one year. To summarize, work experience is typically a short-term affair in which you build precious skills and get a flavor of the industry you’d like to work in.
Why work experience is important
Work skills can be divided into two categories: hard skills (also known as technical skills) and soft skills. A work placement will allow you to develop a well-rounded skillset consisting of both.
While the first group is role-specific, such as learning a piece of software used by the company, the latter includes things like communication and time management. As a result, the soft skills you learn can be applied to different types of work in the future, meaning they will always come in handy.
At the same time, doing a work placement before enrolling in a degree also has its benefits. Though working short-term for one company is by no means representative of an entire industry, you’ll get a feel for the type of work you’ll be doing. It’s better to get an idea early of what you’ll be signing up for!
Where to find work experience
Though getting a job is the most obvious way to gain work experience, there are other options for you to consider. Think about what other priorities you have right now: is it to earn money, help out your family, or contribute to your community? Based on what’s important to you, you can decide on one of the following:
Part- or full-time jobs
Getting a full-time or part-time job is an excellent way to gain knowledge, acquire new skills, and put some money aside. If you know what industry you’d like to work in, you can look at companies offering relevant work placements near you. Alternatively, you can find a job that can teach you broader skills and earn you some cash.
Internships are an excellent way of gaining work experience in your field. However, they often pay little or nothing at all. If money isn’t a forbidding factor, going after an internship can help you learn valuable skills and broaden your network. The more people you meet in your field, the more opportunities you can be presented with in the future.
Much like internships, volunteer work isn’t the way to make money. It can, however, be extremely rewarding in other ways: research has shown selfless acts to benefit overall health and even increase people’s lifespans. So, if you want to enjoy a sense of accomplishment while strengthening your skillset, volunteering is right for you.
Many people gain their first workplace skills by helping out at a family member’s or friend’s business. As we’ve seen, this can be useful, regardless whether you’re planning on taking over the business later in life. Plus, work shadowing, which means closely observing an experienced employee at work, might be less awkward in a familiar setting than a big corporation.
Starting a business
From tutoring to pet sitting to affiliate marketing, there are many ways a young adult can go about becoming their own boss. In addition to the main skills you’ll be using, starting a small business can teach you leadership, time management and organizational skills. If it goes well, you’ll be able to add it to your résumé, showing future employers just how driven you are.
Steps to finding a work placement
Landing a work placement is preceded by a series of steps, such doing some research and preparing your résumé. Let’s look at these steps in detail:
Step 1: Decide what job you would like to try
As a school leaver, it’s probably hard to figure out what exactly it is that you want to do for the rest of your life. You might decide to study a specific subject and end up in an entirely different industry altogether — like half of all UK graduates.
By completing a work placement in a job you’re interested in doing in the future, you’ll be able to identify whether it really is the kind of career you want to pursue. For example, if you’re interested in art, you could volunteer to work at an art gallery. Or if you aspire to become a journalist, consider working for your local newspaper.
If you ultimately realize that it’s not the route you want to follow, the good news is that you’ll be better equipped with making more informed decisions about higher education.
Step 2: Prepare a résumé and cover letter
Now that you’ve discovered what kind of work experience you would like to gain, it’s time to start preparing your résumé and cover letter to send to the organization you’d like to work at.
Meanwhile, if you’re worried you don’t have any relevant experience to put on your résumé, don’t be: you can simply add details about any social clubs you were a part of or any voluntary work you completed. Do remember, however, to tailor your résumé to the industry you’re looking to gain experience in, and make sure you have a captivating cover letter to go with it — especially if you’re targeting a large company that receives hundreds of applications.
Be sure to share your passion for the industry and to highlight the soft skills that would be of interest to the employer. You can use real-life experiences to showcase these and your most relevant professional skills through your letter.
Step 3: Find out when is the best time to apply
There’s no set right time for applying for an internship or work placement, and it will vary depending on the particular situation. For example, if there’s a deadline for applications, then it’s best to submit yours as soon as possible.
However, if there’s a specific time that you’d like to gain experience — for example, during the summer holidays when you’re not studying, it’s best to apply at least six months in advance. By doing so, it ensures that you have enough time to find another placement if you’re not successful in your first choice. It also gives employers enough time to pencil you in and change their schedule around if necessary.
If you’re still unsure about when to apply, don’t be shy to pick up the phone and speak to someone at your target company. You can explain what you’re interested in doing, and you might even get a direct answer on the phone. If the latter is the case, make sure to follow up afterwards with an email to confirm everything you discussed.
Step 4: Ask for help from family and friends
It can often be quite tricky to get a foot in the door of the company you’re targeting, even if it’s just for a few weeks of experience. And this is where a useful source could come in — somebody that works at the company or knows someone that works there who can put in a good word for you.
Be sure to speak to your family and friends and ask them if they know someone that could help you. You’ll be surprised what opportunities can arise once you start talking — it’s all about growing a network and finding key contacts that you can keep for a lifetime!
Step 5: Source your own contacts
If you’ve been unsuccessful in the referral department, it’s time to devise opportunities for yourself. You can begin by handing out your résumé around town at places that you would like to work.
Alternatively, you can look at online job boards and company websites to find the contact details of the person that you would like to address your email to. This is also where that well-prepared résumé and cover letter of yours come in handy. Just be sure to contact personal email addresses (such as [email protected]), not departmental ones (such as [email protected]).
Step 6: Send your application
Now that you’ve sourced your own contacts and completed all the groundwork, it’s time to press the “Send” button and wait to see if you’re successful. But before doing so, make sure that you triple-check all the information for any typos or grammatical errors — remember: you want to come across as professional as possible!
Alternatively, some companies will have their own online application form that you must complete. Make sure you carefully answer all the questions. You should always be honest in your answers, giving a clear indication of who you are, where you’re at in your life and why you want to complete a placement with the relevant company.
Step 7: Be proactive
Now that you’ve sent your first application, don’t just sit around and wait for the magic to happen! Be sure to keep the search going and to look and apply for other opportunities just in case your first choice doesn’t work out. Plus, if you happen to bag a few weeks at different companies, it will make your résumé stand out even more!
You could also look into building a professional online presence and getting rid of or hiding any information that you wouldn’t want an employer to see — like a selfie of you sticking your middle finger up to the camera!
If you don’t hear back from the organization in a few weeks, meanwhile, don’t be hesitant to pick up the phone and follow up! This will effectively show your initiative.
Step 8: Get interview-ready
You may be invited in to the company for a casual interview or even have a scheduled telephone conversation where you’ll be asked all sorts of common interview questions. If you do, make sure that you’ve equipped yourself with responses that show how your studies relate to the questions you’re being asked, effectively impressing the interviewer in the process.
And be sure to dress professionally! Even if it is just a telephone interview, get out of your PJs and into something that you would wear to a career fair or an open day. When you look the part, you feel the part — and as a result, you’ll feel more confident and in control of the situation.
Work experience is a great way to add value to your résumé, build your professional skills and get your career rolling. It will help you expand your knowledge, as well as get to know more about the world of work and decide what career path you want to follow.
To summarize, these are the main points you should remember from this article:
- Having previous work experience will make landing your first graduate job easier in the future.
- From paid positions to voluntary work to side hustles, there are many ways you can gain work experience.
- Many skills are transferable, so it’s fine if your first job doesn’t align perfectly with your future dreams or aspirations.
- When applying for any position, make sure you tailor your résumé to the application, highlighting your most relevant qualities.
Before you’re off, there’s a final point we’d like to make: applying for work experience placements can be tricky, so if you happen to get rejected, don’t lose heart! Rejection is part of any application process, and it can often be a learning curve.
We wish you best of luck in your job placement search!
Got a question? Let us know in the comments section below.
Originally published on September 26, 2018. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.