What’s the best way to get work experience?

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Finding work experience can sometimes be difficult, but it’s important to keep at it, as choosing the right placement or internship and making a success of it can be the golden ticket to the job you want.

Not all internships go the way of Tom Wagg, the 15-year-old schoolboy who discovered a new planet the size of Jupiter while doing work experience with an astrophysics professor at Keele University in 2018. However, whether you’re looking to arrange a week shadowing a senior bookkeeper or you’ve landed a year-long placement at a “Big Four” titan, it’s still possible to stand out and gain that first step on the employment ladder.

Here, Sophie Baldry, senior marketing executive at RateMyPlacement (ratemyplacement.co.uk), provides a step-by-step guide to finding work experience opportunities and making the most of them. 

Create an online professional profile 

Before applying for any work experience placements, build your personal brand online to give you a competitive edge, Sophie advises. “Tailor your CV to the employer and create a LinkedIn profile. You could also try networking on LinkedIn by following employers, getting involved with conversations and publishing articles to show you’re an accountancy expert.” 

Finding the placement 

“If you’ve identified the organisation you’d like to work for, you can absolutely approach them directly – perhaps by contacting their HR manager on LinkedIn,” says Sophie. “You can also head to RateMyPlacement, a one-stop shop for work experience placements. We’ve got over 2,500 employers on there, including many accountancy firms. You can set up alerts for when opportunities become available, or read reviews from previous interns to find out what the company is really like.” 

Ask about payment 

Sophie notes that you really shouldn’t offer to work for free. “We only advertise paid placements on RateMyPlacement, but sadly, there’ll be some industries/companies where you may have to explore unpaid roles to get a foot in the door. Travel expenses are usually covered though – find out first.” 

Do some pre-placement research 

“Landed a placement? Great. Before you start, research as much as you can about the company,” Sophie advises. “It’ll show commercial awareness, and help you create an impact straight away.” 

Don’t worry if you’re a mature intern 

Sophie urges students not to let age deter them from applying. “Don’t let age put you off! It’s about talent, plus many employers actually do look for older interns. I read about a 79-year-old apprentice recently – and don’t forget that Prince William did work experience at M15 when he was in his late-30s!” 

Surviving the assessment day 

“Some firms will expect you to complete an application form and/or attend an ‘assessment day’ with other candidates,” Sophie explains. “If you get summoned for an assessment day, expect group exercises/tasks, psychometric tests and delivering a presentation. How to survive? Remember, employers look for ‘soft skills’ – how you interact with your peers and approach conflict – so showcase these if you can.” 

Making a good impression  

While undertaking your work experience, making a good impression is paramount. “Be enthusiastic, willing and curious – ask as many questions as you can to show you’re eager to learn,” says Sophie. “Also, even if you hate the team, don’t show it. Just put a smile on your face and be a good team player. Once you feel confident enough, feel free to volunteer yourself for projects and suggest ideas.”  

Networking is also important. “If somebody in the office asks you to attend a social event, absolutely go. However, if it’s 9pm on Friday, you’ll still need to be professional. If you misbehave, everybody will remember you on Monday morning.” 

How not to become a tea-making dogsbody 

“Sadly, there’ll always be a menial aspect to work experience,” Sophie notes. “But if you are making cups of tea and grabbing people’s Pret orders all day, it could be time to speak with your manager about how this isn’t helping your development. Don’t be afraid to push back if you think it’s necessary.” 

Coping with virtual placements 

In the current working environment, virtual work experience is common. “If you’re doing work experience at home, it can be difficult to be self-motivated,” says Sophie. “Try to be proactive and ask lots of questions of your team to stand out.” 

Made a mistake? Own up to it 

“We’ve all made mistakes on work experience,” says Sophie. “If this happens, the worst thing you can do is lie. Taking ownership of everything you do is part of the learning process, plus it shows your integrity and that you’re a trustworthy employee. Lie and it will be a downward spiral…” 

After the placement 

Remember to ask for feedback to help with your development. “The company might have a feedback process for interns, but if there isn’t, feel free to ask,” Sophie advises. “Try to stay in touch with any contacts you made at the firm, on LinkedIn or the occasional text. And to make your CV glisten afterwards, don’t just list the work experience role – highlight any projects you were involved with, any great feedback you received or challenges you faced.” 

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