How to find work experience and make the most of it

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Work experience. Two words that tend to make you misty-eyed for your final year at school. But, in an increasingly competitive job market, work experience is now more important than ever, whatever stage of your career you’re at.

It can open doors, focus your ambition and be a vital opportunity to show what you can do. But how can you make sure you get the most out of working for free? Well, here’s 10 ways to start.

Consider what you can afford

Work experience is often not subsidised and means time out from paid work, studies or your family. Think about how long you can survive without an income, if necessary, and how much time you have to spare.

Do your research

Explore the sector you want a career in and investigate companies you are interested in working for. Search their websites for details of work experience programmes, but don’t be put off if it’s not obvious. Many companies offer work experience, but you may have to send them a letter to find out.

Compose a strong application

Demand for work experience is high, so apply at least three months in advance of when you would like the placement. Whether it’s a response to an advertised position or a speculative enquiry, write a well-researched application tailored to the specific company, outlining why you want to work there and what you can offer them. Be prepared for some rejections, but don’t get disheartened – perseverance will pay off.

Set firm goals

Decide what you want to get out of the placement – especially if you are working for free. Do a ‘skills audit’ to find out which skills you need to brush up on. Ask if you will have a mentor with whom you can discuss these objectives, so you can work towards achieving them.

Act professionally

Make sure you know who you are reporting to, arrive on time everyday and dress appropriately – check in advance what you need to wear. Be friendly and polite to everyone you meet and socialise with your colleagues if you get the chance.

Be enthusiastic and use your initiative

Every job has mundane aspects, but complete everything that is asked of you with enthusiasm, and seize every opportunity. If you are left to your own devices, think about how you could help others in the office. If you make yourself indispensable, you will increase your chances of being asked back.

Keep a diary

Use this to record all the tasks you undertake, the hard and soft skills you use and everything you learn. At the end of the placement, ask your supervisor to read your diary and give you feedback. This will give you an insight into how to improve and provide great content for your CV.

Make contacts

Ask people how they got their job, whether they enjoy it and what work experience they did. It’s important that you learn about the job and get to know the people you are working with, as they can be useful for references.

Ask questions and contribute ideas

Take in and adapt to everything, but don’t be afraid to ask questions – it’s better to ask than to guess and get it wrong. And if you have a relevant idea, feel free to share it, where appropriate – your colleagues will appreciate a new perspective.

Stay in touch

If you enjoyed the work, enquire about further opportunities and a reference. However the experience turns out, learn from it.

Do you have work experience tips you’d like to share? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Steven Perryman is AAT Comment's former Content Editor.

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