There’s a frustrating conundrum facing graduates starting out in the workplace: ‘You need experience to get a job. You need a job to get experience.’ So, where do you start?
Building up relevant experience is not only essential for landing your first graduate job in this competitive market, but it is equally helpful for deciding on career direction. There are plenty of options available from paid internships to informal shadowing, but before you leap in, follow this guide on how to plan work experience, so you choose wisely, secure the placements you want and reap maximum benefits from your time at work.
Planning Work Experience – How to Start
Just as for any job search, it’s important to prepare well before you start applying: make an action plan, create a good impression with a strong CV and online profile, consider your options and research each company that interests you, so you can customise your applications.
Have a plan
Firstly, know what you want to get out of the experience, what skills you hope to develop, what industry you want to explore and what types of work will suit your needs e.g. internships, work placements (many of which are now paid), volunteering, shadowing, freelancing or part-time jobs. A clear strategy will make it easier to do your research, and write a convincing cover letter and CV.
Write a list of companies that interest you. Consider large organisations and SMEs (Small to Medium-sized Enterprises), as they can offer very different but equally valuable experiences, so ideally try to work in both. Large, high profile companies will give you formal training on bigger projects. In smaller companies, the training might be less structured but more hands-on. You could benefit from greater responsibility and exposure to more areas of the business, all of which would make you an attractive proposition for a larger employer, if that was your ultimate goal. (Also, there will be less competition for places in smaller organisations!)
It is recommended that you start looking at least 6 months before you want to do a placement or internship, because they often involve a lengthy competitive selection process, and you may need to send a lot of applications to receive only a few replies. Bear in mind the top company schemes are in high demand and get booked up fast, so if you’re interested, be sure to check the deadlines and apply early.
If you’re still at university, summer internships are a good place to start and an increasing number of organisations offer them, even for first and second year students.
Sort your social media profile
Social media is a key tool for most recruiters, both to search for potential candidates and to screen applicants. A positive social media presence is just as important as a strong CV!
Set up a professional profile on LinkedIn, so you can be easily found by employers.
If you are a creative, Instagram is a free and simple platform to display your online portfolio.
Employers will often search your personal profile (Facebook, Twitter etc.) to check if you would be a good fit for their company; make sure your accounts have appropriate privacy settings, so they won’t stumble across anything that could be regarded as ‘unprofessional’!
See more tips here on how to make sure social media helps rather than hinders your chances.
Prepare your CV
Construct a good basic CV, which you can then adapt to each job application; you will need to highlight your skills and experience that are most relevant for the role. (See how to tailor your application below.)
Keep your CV brief – maximum 2 pages (1 page for financial CVs – do check the norm for your industry).
Make sure it is well-presented, with no spelling mistakes nor poor grammar.
Provide a couple of references to strengthen your application e.g. past employers or university tutors.
See our guide on creating a strong CV.
Tailor your application
Don’t be tempted to fire off loads of vague, generic applications, as it suggests lack of interest and effort, and won’t get you very far.
Research each company and role you apply for – understand the business, core values and job requirements. Then use your research to show why you are keen to join and how you would be an ideal fit, from both a professional and personal point of view.
This approach is important throughout the job selection process – for your CV, applications and interviews. Emphasise those skills and attributes that match the job specifications and company culture. Provide evidence with specific examples from previous work experience, your degree course and also from extra curricula activities/hobbies/sports, which will show you are a well-rounded person. Describe what impact you made, providing measurable results if appropriate. Try to structure your points using the STAR technique* explained below:
Situation > Task > Action > Results
Here’s an example that demonstrates several skills: teamwork, leadership, listening, analysis, decision-making and effective communication:
‘(Situation) We were doing a group presentation at university and there was some disagreement on what our final recommendations should be. (Task) I was responsible for writing and presenting our conclusions. (Action) I listened to everyone’s views, weighed up both sides and made my decision. (Results) The presentation went well and we were commended for giving clear, concise recommendations.
Tom, a recent graduate from Nottingham University
* This technique is also known as PAR: Problem > Action > Results
Write a cover letter
If you are applying to a small company, you could simply phone to ask about opportunities. But in most cases, an application will require a CV and cover letter.
The purpose of a cover letter is to introduce yourself, and spark an interest in finding out more about you. A clear, concise, well-written letter can motivate the employer to read your CV and offer an interview. Using your research, explain why you are interested in that particular company, what you could offer and how you would benefit from doing work experience with them.
Find out the name of the manager responsible for internships/placements and address your letter directly to them, as it creates a good impression and has more chance of being read.
If you don’t receive a reply after a couple of weeks, there is no harm in following up with a phone call – if nothing else, it will register your enthusiasm and determination.
For more tips on writing a speculative cover letter, click here.
Whether you have met someone for an informal chat, an interview, a day’s shadowing or a month-long internship, always follow up with a written thank you (email or letter). Not only does it show good manners, it will help make sure people remember you. And don’t forget to reaffirm your interest and enthusiasm for the company!
Things to Check Before You Sign Up
Before you accept an internship or placement, do ask savvy questions to ensure the experience will meet your objectives – you don’t want to be filing or photocopying for a month!
Find out what you might be working on, what responsibilities you would have, and whether there is any chance of securing a permanent position at the end.
Although recent legislation prevents unpaid internships, there are some exceptions and grey areas, as explained below. Whilst most businesses behave decently and pay fairly, unfortunately, research estimates that still around a third of internships are unpaid.
Whether you are doing a placement year as part of your degree, an internship or work experience, it is important that you are clear about your employment terms (including payment), before you sign up.
An increasing number of top employers are offering paid work experience schemes and most interns should receive at least the minimum wage. (Exceptions relate to charities or students doing an internship as part of their university course.)
Whilst there’s no legal definition of an ‘intern’, your rights depend on your employment status: if you are required to work set hours and perform set tasks, you would usually be classed as a ‘worker’ and must therefore be paid at least the minimum wage, whatever the length of your internship/placement.
However, if you are only ‘shadowing’, the company is not obliged to pay you (i.e. you are observing other employees and not required to complete any tasks).
Be aware of potential ambiguity, where the position is:
For a ‘volunteer’ – rather than an intern
Flexible hours – when the reality proves to be regular hours like other paid employees
‘Shadowing’ – but you are actually performing tasks like a regular worker
If an intern can prove they were a ‘worker’ but were paid less than the minimum wage, it may be possible to claim ‘back pay’ via HMRC, even if they had agreed to work unpaid at the time:
Find out more about payment:
The Law on Unpaid Internships: Know Your Rights – Target Jobs
This guide to interns’ rights sets out when students & graduates are entitled to the National Minimum Wage & explores the issues around unpaid internships
Find out more about work experience & internships:
Why work experience is important
A key tool for securing a job, but find out why else it’s worth getting work experience…
Where to find opportunities
Internships, placements, volunteering & more
Get the most out of work experience
Tips to make sure you gain valuable learning & impress your employers