How to choose and apply for the right work experience

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Work experience is invaluable. Whether you do one week at a local firm, a summer internship for a large company or a work placement during your studies, they can all ultimately lead to bigger things, such as your first full-time job in accountancy and finance. AAT regard the value of practical experience to the extent it’s a pre-requisite for membership.

“It’s very common to receive hundreds of CVs that are nearly identical, so an internship or similar work experience is a great way of differentiating yourself from other applicants,” says Chris McKendrick, associate director at Grant Thornton Australia.

It’s a great way of testing the water to see if you actually want to pursue a career in that space. At Grant Thornton you can choose which area of the business you’re interested in: audit, tax or advisory.

“We have a great programme for vacationers and the passionate participants’ spring front of mind when junior positions become available in the firm,’ McKendrick. ‘Furthermore, it helps you to start to build your professional network, the importance of which can’t be overstated.”

But where to begin?

It’s vital that you give work experience some thought, so that you can make the right decision, after all it could set you on a path that will last your entire career. “If you’ve already planned your career path, try looking at the specific requirements for a role you’d like to take in the future, and try to undertake suitable work experience,” says Ben Rosen, CEO of Inspiring Interns.

“If you’re not so sure, don’t be afraid to gain work experience anywhere that interests you. It will always be better than a blank space on your CV and you may even stumble into the career of your dreams.”

Rob Jones who is AAT qualified and now founder of recruitment firm RJF, has three tips to help make the right choice:

1. “See yourself in the future. Where would you like to be in 10/20 years’ time.”

2. “Choose what you enjoy most. If you don’t enjoy it or don’t have any passion for it, you [won’t succeed].”

3. “Speak to people in the positions you’re aspiring to and ask them how they got there. People generally like to talk about themselves and I always found it inspiring when talking to people in positions I see myself in.”

Does it matter if you go to a big or small firm?

There really is no one-size-fits-all policy for finding the correct size of firm. It’s all about what suits your aspirations and your personality.

“Bigger firms typically have more established training programs and managers who are experienced in working with interns,” says Rosen.

“On the flip side, smaller firms can seem a little more like you’re being thrown in at the deep end, and you have the chance to develop a wider range of skills and take responsibility early. They also tend to be more open to innovation and you’re often able to progress quickly up the career ladder.”

How to write a killer application

The most important rule when writing an application is that you always tailor it to each individual employer and role. Remember, you need to stand out so you don’t want to be generic, or to give the impression this isn’t as important to you as a permanent role.

“Do your research and never use a template,’ says Rosen. ‘Hiring managers will have seen thousands of applications in their time and they’ll see a copy and paste application from a mile away. Always provide evidence of times you showed certain skills rather than blankly stating them. It will be much more impressive.”

Karen Young, director at Hays Accountancy & Finance, has these tips on what a strong work experience/internship application should have:

The right balance of educational achievements and practical experiences of accounting where possible. Employers won’t expect you to have extensive experience in an accounting job, but you should highlight any first-hand opportunities you have had, such as being a treasurer for your family’s business or even doing your friends tax return.

Be on time, or even better, submitted early. Intern places are allocated on a rolling basis at a vast majority of firms, so it’s important to get yours in early as the recruitment team might begin to read over them before the application window closes. Give yourself a head start!

Demonstrates your commercial awareness. Research the firm you are applying to and find out their core business focus and achievements, the company values and the market they operate in. Gain an understanding of key trends in the industry by reading industry magazines and attending events.

McKendrick believes you need to play to your strengths, but to also be prepared challenge yourself. “If your strengths are working in a small or large team or working in a particular niche, then take that into consideration. It’s also important for you to grow and develop and spend some time out of your comfort zone.”

Real life scenario

How Chris McKendrick, Grant Thornton Australia, found his path.

“Early on in my career I was talking to a mentor about whether I’d take an opportunity which had been presented. He drew a diagram on a piece of paper of three intersecting circles, in the first he wrote passion, in the second talent and in the third market demand. You’ll be most successful when you find and take an opportunity which intersects those three circles.”

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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