How to make the most of your work experience placement
Placements are a great way to find out about different types of jobs and to identify your own preferences. They may help you to find your ideal career, or simply to decide what’s not for you. Whatever the case, there are a number of ways to ensure that you get the most you can from the experience.
Before you arrive
Make sure that you know what time to turn up, and plan your journey accordingly. Being on time – or even five minutes early – will immediately show how keen you are.
Find out where to report to in advance; some employers will give you specific directions to their department, while others will ask you to wait at reception. Knowing which to do will show initiative and organisation before you’ve even started work.
What to wear on work experience
Try to ask about dress code in advance; some workplaces will have more specific requirements than others. If you can’t find out, think about the environment you’ll be working in. If your placement is at a garden centre or on a construction site, comfortable, hard-wearing clothes and sturdy shoes are ideal. If you’ll be in a professional office environment, it’s best to keep it formal at first. Don’t worry about buying a suit, but avoid jeans, t-shirts, trainers and revealing clothing. Smart trousers and a smart shirt or top are the safest options, or a dress or skirt that’s at least knee-length. If you arrive to find that everyone else dresses more casually, you can always dress down later.
Your first day on placement
Your manager will probably introduce you to everyone you’ll be working with, but if they don’t, try to introduce yourself. First impressions are important, so greet your co-workers with a friendly smile and a firm handshake.
Get into the habit of ‘active listening’ whenever somebody speaks to you. This can involve giving verbal responses as they talk, such as ‘yes’, ‘I see’, or even ‘mm-hmm.’ You should also pay attention to your body language; avoid defensive or lazy-looking positions, eg crossing your arms or slouching. Instead, smile, maintain eye contact and if you’re sitting down, lean forward. This helps to show that you understand and are interested in what they are saying.
The first day may be more of an orientation day where you largely observe others and familiarise yourself with the workplace. However, you may get stuck in straight away – be prepared for either scenario.
Remember to say goodbye at the end of the day, and thank anyone who has helped to show you the ropes.
What tasks will I do on work experience?
There are often many interesting aspects to work placements: you may be allowed to sit in on client meetings, attend company events or complete tasks designed to give you a feel for the job. For example, if you’re working at a newspaper, you might write a mock-article based on a past brief. However, you may also be assigned more repetitive tasks such as data entry or filing.
If the workplace is particularly busy, your manager might struggle to organise work for you. Similarly, if the job requires a high level of skill or training – such as in healthcare professions – you probably won’t be allowed to carry out many practical tasks. In such scenarios you will be encouraged to shadow others and learn from observation. Whatever situation you find yourself in, stay positive and try not to come across as bored or frustrated.
How to impress on work experience
If you’re briefed on a task, take careful notes. Make sure that you know when your deadline is, and ask questions if you need to clarify any details.
Think about how your actions affect those around you. Avoid swearing or using offensive terms – you never know who you might upset. Let people know where you are; you’ll need to do this if you have lunch outside of the workplace, if you’re running late or if you’re off sick. You should also tell your manager when you’re leaving at the end of the day.
Adapt your behaviour to suit the workplace environment. For example, if you’re working in a hospital or a care home, ensure that you’re sensitive and respectful towards patients and residents. If you’re at a school, put pupils and staff at ease by being as patient and friendly as possible.
Take responsibility for your workload. If you’re running out of things to do, let your manager know in advance, so that they have time to organise more tasks. This is a much more helpful and proactive approach than simply waiting for your next assignment.
Get the most out of your placement
Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues how they got into their profession – they’ll appreciate your interest, and their tips may come in handy later down the line! You could also ask questions about the organisation and what they expect from employees, just in case you want to go back there (or a vacancy opens up) at a later date.
Keep a record of what you have worked on and who you have worked with. For instance, if your placement is at a law firm, you may have the opportunity to sit in on a court hearing. In this situation, note down the name of the court, the lawyer you went with, and the details of the case. This will help when you come to talk about it in future job or university interviews.
At the end of your placement
Send a thank-you note after you finish your placement; it’s usually best to do this via email or post, rather than on social media. This shows courtesy, and will help to ensure that you’re remembered.
Providing your school and workplace allow it, you might want to consider keeping in touch with your employer. Your manager or colleagues may have useful advice or even contacts and opportunities to pass along to you in the future. Before you leave, ask for their preferred method of keeping in touch.
If you don’t enjoy your placement, you may decide against keeping in contact or pursuing that career. However, this doesn’t make the experience a waste of time. Every experience in a work environment looks great on a CV, so take some time to reflect. Identify any transferable skills you’ve picked up, and make sure you can illustrate them with specific examples – perhaps you showed that you’re a quick learner by familiarising yourself with a new software package. Be sure to make a note of any acquired skills during or soon after the placement so you don’t forget the details.