Every year, thousands of youngsters participate in work experience or internships – some paid, some unpaid – to get a flavour of what it is like to work in a certain industry.
This could be while still at school, sixth form, college, university or beyond, as they look to experience and digest what day-to-day working life or a particular profession is all about.
However, it can be a daunting – especially if it is in a profession which they really want to succeed and at an employer from which they really want to bag a job offer.
Work placement: Every year, thousands participate in work experience – but some may not make the most of their opportunity
In the latest instalment of the interview cheat sheet series, James Innes, founder of the CV Centre, alongside experts at This is Money reveal how to wow on your work experience and win over the boss for potential future employment.
How to get your foot in the door
Obtaining work experience in the first place can be a minefield, with many employers having different rules as to what level of education or experience you may need or a limited number of people they can take on.
Do your research and discover the best contact to send your CV and brief cover letter to – and don’t be disheartened if you are turned down or don’t receive a reply.
With smaller companies in the local area, you could drop in and speak to them – larger companies will require you researching and finding the right phone number or e-mail address.
It could also be worth setting up a professional presence online on a website such as LinkedIn, as many recruiters will want to check out applicants they’ve spoken to about work experience.
It also goes without saying to make sure there are no hidden nasties on your social media accounts.
Be confident: The first day of work experience, or any new job, can make you feel like your first day at school – but relax and make a good first impression
First impressions count
James says work experience candidates are on show from the moment they arrive. He says: ‘Try not to look like you’ve come to the dentist for some root canal treatment.’
It may sound simple, but make sure you’re on time and know where you’re going, make sure you have researched the employer and be confident.
It may also help to ask in advance what your responsibilities may be. This will help you prepare.
James adds that your first day is like one big interview. You’ve bagged the placement, but people will nonetheless be keeping a close eye. But it’s no cause for panic.
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You might feel a little lost like you’re back to your first day at school – whether you feel confident or not, make sure you look it.
Remember, confident people inspire confidence in others – if you appear confident that you are able to do the job, everyone around you is likely to be more inclined to believe that you can.
Before you get close to doing any actual work, the first thing you’ll be doing is ‘meeting and greeting’ – and first impressions are extremely important.
Everyone you meet will be making initial judgements about you – and often on the basis of a few minutes spent together. Sounds scary? James says it’s not really.
He adds: ‘It’s what you do naturally every day when you meet new people – when you go to a party, for example, or out for dinner with friends of friends.
‘So don’t put yourself under too much pressure. But do be ever conscious of the impression you’ll be making on others.’
Tea tip: Work experience students should never underestimate the power of a tea round in winning over colleagues
How to be helpful
James says that if you want to be helpful to your employer then the first question to ask yourself is: ‘Why am I here?’
You should know what you want to get out of work experience – but you must also make sure you understand what your employer wants to get out of you.
Too many people on work experience have a poorly defined vision of their role and this directly impacts on their ability to perform to the best of their ability.
It is also vital for you to understand where you and your role fit into the bigger picture.
What exactly is your purpose within your team, within your department and even within the organisation as a whole?
Don’t content yourself with just understanding your own role, ensure you understand its context and are able to see it in the perspective of the bigger picture.
Also, never underestimate the power of tea and biscuits – of offering tea rounds, bringing in the occasional pack of biscuits and trying to fit into the team confidently, without being arrogant.
Make sure you ask sensible questions and seek help when needed. Be proactive and always ask if there is anything you can do to help, especially if you are at a loose end and sitting around like a melon.
How to impress the boss
James says his top tip is to remember that your boss doesn’t want problems – they want solutions.
Much of a boss’s time is taken up – and often wasted – in dealing with problems.
Many people think that, if there’s a problem, then it’s the boss’s job to deal with it. It may be their ultimate responsibility to deal with it – but it’s a shared responsibility.
If you’re capable of identifying the problem then you must be capable of identifying possible solutions, even if you are ‘just’ on work experience.
Don’t present the problem to your boss and expect them to deal with it. Help them to deal with it.
Don’t just go to them with problems – if you can, go to them with possible solutions too.
Even better, before approaching your boss with a problem ask yourself whether it really requires their attention.
Not every problem needs to be reported back to the boss just for the sake of it. As Ross Perot said, ‘If you see a snake, just kill it.’
Feel free to tell your boss afterwards – but telling them beforehand will just add to their stress levels and they won’t thank you for it.
Deal with the problem first and then take the credit for it afterwards. However, don’t take on anything that you do not feel capable of dealing with – the last thing you want to is to make things worse and create more work for others further down the line.
Also, be proactive and don’t be afraid to ask colleagues for help. You could also think about listing a few ideas garnered while working and running them past the boss at the end of the work experience – they may just like one or two of them.
And it goes without saying – be punctual, polite and slot into the team. These simple steps are basic requirements any boss is looking for and you’d be surprised how many workers let these standards slip.
How to ask for a paid-for job at the end
Why exactly do you deserve a job? If it was just going to be handed to you on a plate then your employer would already have done do, James says.
You’re going to need to justify your request – and you’re going to need to do so persuasively.
Have you undertaken work experience before or work somewhere that accepts placements?
What tips do you have for those doing work experience? Let us know in the comments section below…
The main thrust of your pitch should be to communicate to your employer how you have developed in ways which now warrant a permanent position.
Don’t fall into the trap of underselling yourself – approach your application as forcefully as you would if you were applying for any other job.
There’s nothing wrong with blowing your own trumpet – because you can’t rely on anyone else to do so.
Start with an overview of your time with the organisation and outline succinctly the progress you have made in that time.
As a general rule, make it easy for the organisation to hire you. Make it into a logical, sensible and beneficial decision for them.
If you don’t get an employment after, or don’t want one, it is still worthwhile asking for feedback and keeping contact details for future references and opportunities.