Work experience for school students: what you need and how to get it
Employers are very keen on work experience – or rather, they’re keen on what it gives you: the confidence and practical skills you need to succeed in the workplace. Whether or not you’re planning to go to university, getting good work experience while you are at school will stand you in good stead when it comes to getting hired.
If you want to apply to a school leaver programme, your work experience will make you a much stronger candidate; if you plan to get a degree, you can draw on it when applying for internships and other placements. It will also give you a better feel for what you do and don’t enjoy and the career choices you want to make.
You have probably done work experience arranged through your school, possibly more than once. However, what employers mean by the term can be broader than you might think. All sorts of activities can help to develop the qualities you need at work.
Here are some examples of the range of ways you can gain work experience:
- Formal work experience placement. Often up to a week in a location arranged by your school or independently. Typically unpaid, this is an opportunity to learn about the world of work and see it in action.
- School leaver careers fairs and employer events. A chance to meet either lots of employers in one go or a single employer, for example via an open evening at its offices.
- Employer’s insight day or week for school leavers. Some organisations that run school leaver programmes also offer you the chance to spend a day or more seeing for yourself what working there would be like and meeting employees who have joined straight from school. Professional services providers PwC, BDO and EY all run insight weeks, while IT employers IBM and CGI offer insight evenings.
- Extracurricular activities. Being part of a sports team or another club or group such as a theatre group or choir. Involvement in the Scouts or Guides, or Duke of Edinburgh award scheme.
- Volunteering and fundraising. There are stacks of volunteering opportunities out there. You could walk dogs for an animal charity, volunteer as a retail assistant in a charity shop, help with outdoor conservation projects, collect funds or support young disabled people on activity days. You can find out more about volunteering opportunities for young people from Volunteering Matters and vInspired.
- Competitions. Look out for competitions in areas that interest you, for example design, writing, maths or business. You could try your luck in the TARGETcareers School Leavers’ Challenge.
- Entrepreneurship. Perhaps you aspire to run your own business one day, or maybe you’ve got a commercial idea that you’re keen to get off the ground. Employers are keen to take on candidates with entrepreneurial flair, so it’s well worth honing your skills whether or not you go on to set up your own venture. You could try the Young Enterprise Tenner Challenge or seek help from Shell LiveWIRE and apply for a start-up grant for a business idea that supports sustainable use of energy and resources.
- Part-time jobs. A part-time job such as working in a shop gives you customer service and time management skills and helps to develop your commercial awareness. Doing a paper round or babysitting calls for responsibility and resilience. Employers like evidence that you can be relied on to turn up when expected and stick at what you’re meant to be doing till you’ve seen it through.
- Personal projects. If you’ve designed and made something under your own steam, such as a DIY or craft project, a website or a blog, you may well have developed the problem-solving and creative skills that employers look for.
- Positions of responsibility. Are you head boy or head girl, a sports captain or house captain? Have you been a student representative, taking prospective pupils and parents on tours and speaking to them, or been involved in the school council? Have you have a leadership or committee role in a group or club? This kind of experience hones the communication and leadership skills employers want.
Using your work experience to get you a job
It’s important to understand how employers see work experience, as otherwise you can miss out on telling them about things you’ve done that would impress them and help you to land a job or a place on a school leaver programme. Our advice on the top ten skills that will get you a job when you leave school explains how to present yourself as a strong candidate by giving examples of the skills employers look for.
Use your initiative to boost your work experience
You can contact reputable employers directly to see if you can arrange a few days’ work experience for yourself. This is known as a speculative application.
Do you have an idea what you would like to do in the long term? If you are considering one or two particular careers, whether it’s journalism, engineering or medicine, this will help you to narrow down your search and decide where to apply.
Check out our advice on different careers for ideas. Talk to family members, friends and contacts, look at your local newspaper and do an internet search for suitable employers in your local area.
Once you know where you want to apply, you need to get in touch to find out whether the employer you are interested in offers this kind of opportunity and how to apply. Make contact by phone or email to say that you are interested in coming in for a few days’ work experience and to ask if there’s any preferred way of applying.
Some organisations have application forms for work experience applicants; if this is not the case, ask if you could send in a CV and covering letter. Find out who to send it to and check how to spell the person’s name and what title you should use (Mr, Mrs or Ms, or some other form of address such as Dr, for example).
Our advice on CV writing will help you put together your speculative application. Send it with a short covering letter (no more than one side of A4) stating briefly why you would like to do work experience with this particular organisation and suggesting dates when you are available. You can also highlight any relevant skills or experience or go into detail about something mentioned briefly on your CV that would be likely to be of interest to the employer.