It can sometimes prove difficult just to organise a work placement and afford to complete it, so it’s no surprise that considering what exactly you want to get out of it – aside from ticking that essential box on your CV – can get lost among the general hassle. But whether you’re just starting out in your career or are considering a change of direction, work experience can tell you a huge amount about what it is you’d like (or not like) to do in the future, so it’s worth considering how you might approach it. There’s an obvious likely limit to the work you’ll get to do, at least to begin with. But there are also opportunities if you know how to take them. We asked employers and careers advisors to explain how to make it worthwhile.
Be on time and well prepared – first impressions count
Looking and dressing the part is crucial when it comes to setting the right tone. That doesn’t mean buying a whole new wardrobe, but it does mean looking smart – particularly on your first day. After that, you can take your lead from other people in the office. Different companies have different dress codes, says Kirstie Mackey, head of Barclays LifeSkills, which helps young people with skills to enter the world of work, but it’s a good idea to dress in clothes that are slightly smarter than those you’d wear if you got the job.
You’ll also want to set your alarm – and then reset it a bit earlier. Arriving early for work will set a good first impression; it shows dedication and passion, and that you’re respectful of other people’s time. Spend some time in the days running up to your placement researching the company, so you know about its goals and the scope of its work. “You want your employer to think of you in a positive way straight away - particularly when you’re hoping to have a long and successful career in the industry,” adds Mackey.
Find out what different people do: it might be your dream job
You work placement might be at the company you’ve been stalking for years, or in an industry you’re keen to be part of, but do you know exactly which role might work for you? Graham Philpott, career development manager at Henley Business School says you should use your work experience as an opportunity to speak to people around the workplace and find out what their role is like. You might discover jobs you’ve never heard of or, at the very least, learn more about the structure of the business. “Understand what work everyone is doing, and why they are doing it – especially more senior people,” says Philpott. “After all, if you’re ambitious it’s their roles you’ll be looking to take.”
Be polite. Even if you’re having the most boring day of your life
Work experience often involves boring tasks. (Spoiler: so does work.) But whether you’re adding information to a database, or printing out a large report, never think a job is below you. Appearing to be willing and happy to help will mean you make a positive impression during your placement, even if you don’t feel you’ve been able to show everything you can do. If potential colleagues enjoy having you in the office, you’ll stand out for the right reasons. “Polite, enthusiastic and helpful are how I’d describe the ideal work experience person,” says Philpott.
If you’re struggling with a task, don’t be afraid to ask for help
Once you’ve proved yourself a little, you might also be offered more complex tasks – and then find you don’t really know how to do them. Don’t sit and worry about what to do because you’re too scared to ask. It won’t help you complete the task and the people you’re working with would rather you did the job well, than made a mess of it because you muddled through. “Don’t be shy, especially if you need clarification,” says Mackey. “Be confident in your approach, but careful not to stray into arrogance.”
Going the extra mile will make you stand out
You want to show your potential, but don’t let being proactive get in the way of completing basic duties. Organise and prioritise the tasks you’ve already been set before you start asking for more. “Learning how to stay on top of your work and showing that you can approach tasks logically, calmly and efficiently even when under pressure will always look good,” says Mackey. You might think that volunteering for more advanced and impressive-sounding tasks will help your CV, but you need to cover the basics first. Tom Davenport, who runs Talent Pool, advises getting stuck in with work which will come across at the right level in your CV - such as “working through documents with the approvals team” or “conducting research to support a special initiative”. This will be the basic experience you need for your first job.
Don’t sneak off early
When you’re not being paid, it can be tempting to make an early exit. Resist doing a bunk, and show your enthusiasm by staying until the end of the day. “Packing up your pencil case 10 minutes before ‘home-time’ will certainly send a negative impression to all those around you,” advises Philpott. If you have an empty half hour at the end of your day, it’s worth checking if anybody needs a hand before you leave. You shouldn’t be staying late, but colleagues might have things they want to get finished before heading home, which could mean helping on interesting work.
“Packing up your pencil case 10 minutes before ‘home-time’ will certainly send a negative impression to all those around you."”
Benedicta Banga, a career strategist and coach, suggests joining in with social activities outside of work if that seems appropriate. “They are a great avenue for building great relationships and getting to know people better,” she says. But be sensible about drinking – being known as the work experience who got really drunk is not going to help when you apply for a job.
Thank you and goodbye: how to finish work experience well.
The end of your placement is crucial in securing long-term connections, so before you leave, take a few minutes to thank people who you’ve been working with for their time and support. It will mean you leave a good impression, and can possibly call on those people in the future if you need advice, or are preparing an application for the company. “Ask everyone who has been particularly supportive if you can contact them later if you have any questions,” adds Philpott. “They are very likely to say yes, and it means that you’ll feel less awkward when you do want to get back in contact with them.”
When you’ve left, it’s worth finding the employees you worked alongside on LinkedIn and sending them a connection request. And if you want to stay in their good books, Banga suggests writing a thank-you note or email to people with whom you worked closely to show that you appreciate their support.