BackFor students: a guide to placements / work experience
Students: how to find it and how to be successful on it
Work experience helps you learn about the industries you’re interested in, and gives you meaty things to write about in future applications. For some sectors - education, for example - admissions and recruiting staff will 100% expect to see relevant work experience when you apply. This guide will help you find and be successful on work experience.
Thinking of ideas for work experience can be a challenge, and if you don’t live in an urban area, it can feel like there are very limited options. Rather than trying to find the ‘perfect’ opportunity, look for a placement that ticks as many boxes as possible.
Instead of focusing on one specific job role, consider the wider career industry. For example, it may not be possible to shadow an anaesthetist, but you could explore other roles in the healthcare industry like working in a dental practice, nursing home, or GP clinic. These will all give you relevant experience that you can still learn from and reflect on in your applications. For ideas on work placements specific to each industry, take a look at our Get on the ladder series of Know-how guides, such as Get on the ladder: science, Get on the ladder: writing, editing, and publishing, and Get on the ladder: financial services. See all the guides in the Series here.
You could also think about the transferable skills that are relevant across industries to help you find a placement. For example, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to find work experience as an air steward, but you could reach out to customer services departments as the staff will use very similar skills in their day to day jobs.
Or you can think about experiences that are relevant to the school subject that is most related to the job or industry you’d like to go into.
- History and Classics: museums, archive offices, National Trust sites, and archaeological digs
- Art and Design: galleries, workshops, branding departments, and architectural firms
- Drama and Performing Arts: talent agencies, local theatres, local events spaces, and drama departments in schools
- English and Modern Languages: foreign language classes, translating companies, local newspapers and radio stations, broadcasting companies, libraries, publishing houses, advertising agencies, blogs, and local councils
- Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry, and Engineering: water works, research and development departments at a local factory, energy/oil/gas companies, local pharmacies, local airports or aerodromes, local astronomy observation centres, automobile and aviation manufacturers, and science museums
- Medical Sciences and Human Biology: pharmaceutical companies, dental practices, nursing homes, local hospitals, GP or walk in clinics, opticians, chiropractors, and podiatrists
- Computer Sciences: app development companies, IT security companies, programming companies, tech start-ups, and school IT departments
- Maths: finance departments, accounting firms, insurance firms, tax firms, HR departments, and banks
- All subjects: primary schools, local blogs and magazines, local societies or study groups, supermarkets, department stores, libraries, and local councils
Finding contacts and how to message them
When organising work experience, try to be realistic. You are unlikely to be allowed access into the head office of a national organisation with no prior experience. Look for local businesses or people with whom you already have a connection - like the parent/carer of a fellow pupil, a family member, a friend, etc.
If you don’t have any contacts, or aren’t sure where to start, speak to your careers officer or adviser at school; they may be able to suggest organisations where pupils from your school have previously worked and made such a good impression that they’re keen to have another student.
Once you’ve decided where you want to work and have a contact, you actually need to contact them. Don’t rely on a parent or your school to contact them for you! You need to show that you can be confident and professional, even if you are nervous!
Write either a formal email or letter - even if you know the person you are contacting - and have someone else read it before you send it to check it for errors. Make sure you include:
- the days or dates on which you would like to complete your work experience - make sure to give them plenty of time; you can’t ask for your experience to start tomorrow!
- why you would like to complete your experience at this organisation- what do you want to learn? What do you want to experience? Some research would help here - maybe they have great customer reviews or are among the top ranked businesses locally? Maybe they have created a new way of doing something and you want to learn how managed this?
- what you can offer them - that’s right: you can’t get something for nothing, so bowl them over with your skills and how your time with them will benefit them, even if that is admin support or helping out busy employees with their workload
Remember to use an appropriate email address if you have chosen to write an email over a letter. If you don’t want to create a new account, your school email address is a good alternative.
You should include a copy of your CV with your email/letter to offer more detail. You can actually build your CV directly on Unifrog and get lots of help and guidance as you write - click here to get started.
If you need some specific examples of CVs to gain work experience placements, check out these:
Preparing for your placement
Once you’ve been accepted, it’s time to prepare! Put the dates in your phone so you don’t forget when you’re meant to be in, and send an email a week before you start to double check they know you’re coming! You may also want to check any finer details like what you need to wear, where to go on your first day, and who to ask for at reception if there is one. Be aware that some placements require extra preparation that you need to be responsible for - for example, a copy of your ID documents, a DBS check, etc.
Work experience is about learning new things, so you don’t need to know everything before you arrive. You should, however, do some research to find out exactly what the organisation does and the purpose of the department you’ll be working in. Have a look on the company website and check out its aims, values and founding story to give you some background information before you arrive.
You should also have some questions prepared - not only will this help you get the most out of your work experience, but it will also show the employees you are shadowing or working with that you really want to be there. Think about exactly what you want to learn from this experience and who you want to talk to.
You might ask, for example:
- What made you want to work in this field?
- What is the best part of your day?
- What is your biggest challenge in this role?
- Was there a particular reason you chose this organisation? How does it compare to other places you have worked in?
- What route did you take into this profession?
- Do you have any advice for someone wishing to enter this field?
If you work through the placements journal (link below) you'll cover some basic questions, but think about what you yourself really want to know.
Starting your placement
Make a good impression by arriving on-time and dressing appropriately. Be friendly and polite to everyone you meet and remember to thank anyone who offers their time or assistance. Complete any task you are given willingly and to the best of your ability. If you can show you are a committed and professional individual, you may be invited back for more work experience or possibly even a future job.
Even if you are a naturally shy person, be brave and try to talk to the employees you are working with, and the ones you aren’t! You have all your questions to ask - make sure you get your answers! You can also use any interesting conversation you have as material for a discussion in an interview or in your future personal statement or applications. You might also find that someone you speak to is a valuable contact for the future - again, be brave and ask if they’re happy for you to contact them in the future. Networking is so important and that person you stay in contact with could be a future colleague or employer!
You should also keep a record of your experiences. Ask your school if they have a work experience journal you can use, or commit to jotting down 3-5 key things you learned everyday - try to avoid listing your duties and focus on learning points or interesting things you’ve found out. Noting down all your findings and observations will give you useful material for your applications for jobs, apprenticeships, or university.
Fill in the Unifrog placements journal
Start using this journal in advance of the placement to record important stuff like what you need to wear, and then continue using it during the placement to work through useful activities like interviewing people at the employer.
- Download it as a word doc here
- And as a pdf here
When you're done, remember to upload it to your Locker.
After it’s all over
Even if you didn’t enjoy your work experience, always send a polite thank you email to your main contact and/or the person you spent the most time with. You never know when those contacts might come in handy in the future, and other students at your school may be able to take advantage of your good manners next year when they need to find a placement.
Reflect on what you learned during your placement using the notes you made about what you learnt (e.g. using the placement journal) and save it somewhere online so you can find it again - you could use your Unifrog locker for this.
If you’re stuck on what to reflect on, try and answer the following questions:
- What did you enjoy about your work experience?
- What did you not enjoy as much and how could it have been better?
- What skills have you developed?
- What do you want to learn more about?
- How has your understanding of the profession/industry changed or developed?
- How does your experience affect your plans for the future?