Work experience, Part 2 - A guide from helloGrads

It’s a frustrating conundrum facing graduates starting out in the workplace: ‘You need experience to get a job. You need a job to get experience.’  So where do you begin? Here are our top tips to help you gain valuable work experience.
First, decide what you want to get out of the experience, what specific skills you want to develop, what industry you want to explore. Having a clear strategy will make it easier to research, and will help you write a convincing CV and cover letter.
Make a list of companies you are interested in working for. Consider large organisations and small to medium enterprises (SMEs), as they can offer very different but equally valuable opportunities, so ideally get experience in both. Large, high profile companies will give you formal training on bigger projects; in smaller companies, the work experience might be less structured, but you could benefit from more responsibility, involvement in a wider variety of areas, as well as less competition for opportunities.  
While you’re still at university, summer internships are great place to start and a large number of firms offer them for students. But top company schemes are in high demand, involve a lengthy competitive selection process, and get booked up quickly – so if you’re interested, check the deadlines and apply early. 
It’s advisable to start looking at least six months before you want to do a placement, because the application process can take months - so if you’re looking to work this summer, don’t delay! 
Be prepared that you may have to send many applications to receive only a few responses.  
Prepare well before you start applying: sort your social media profile, update your CV and research each company so you can customise your application. 
Social media is a key recruitment tool for employers, both to search for candidates and to screen applicants. 
Set up a professional profile on LinkedIn, so you can be found by recruiters. If you are a creative, Instagram provides a free and easy way to produce an online portfolio to show off your work.
Make sure your personal profile has appropriate privacy settings, so a prospective employer won’t stumble across anything that could be regarded as ‘unprofessional’.
See more tips here on how to make social media work for you.
Most applications will require a cover letter and CV, and you will need to customise them to each particular organisation you apply for; a vague, generic application won’t get you very far. Use your research to find out about their business, job requirements and core values; then show why you are enthusiastic and interested, and convince them that you would be an ideal fit.
Prepare a good basic CV, which you can then adapt to each job application. It must be well-presented and brief - maximum 2 pages (1 page for financial CVs - check the norm for your industry).
Highlight the skills and attributes that will demonstrate your employability and are most relevant to the organisation you are applying to e.g. team worker, desire to learn, analytical and communication skills. Provide evidence with specific examples from any previous work experience, your university course and also from hobbies/interests/sports, which will show you are a well-rounded person.  Use the PAR technique: Problem, Action, Results – Show what impact you made, providing measureable evidence where appropriate e.g. ‘I was elected captain of the swimming club; I organised training sessions and led the team to win the regional championship.’ Provide a couple of references (e.g. tutors or past employers) to strengthen your application.
Click here for tips on creating a strong CV.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your cover letter – it needs to spark an interest in finding out more about you! Find out the name of the person responsible for placements, and address your letter to them. It creates a good impression and has far more chance of being read. Using your research, explain why you are interested in that organisation, what you can offer and why you would benefit from doing work experience with them.
If you don’t hear back within a couple of weeks, follow up with a phone call - if nothing else, it will register your keenness and determination.
See here for more tips on writing a speculative cover letter.
Ask savvy questions before you sign up to ensure the experience will meet your objectives – you don’t want to be photocopying for a month! Find out what you might be working on, what responsibilities you would have, payment terms (if relevant) and whether there’s a chance of securing a permanent position at the end.
On your doorstep and a useful starting point, particularly if you are looking for a work placement related to your degree, or experience at a local company where they may have contacts.
Once you have your list of suitable companies, check their websites and social media for advertised work experience programmes or summer internships. There may well be an online application, or contact details for people who organise placements. If they don’t advertise such opportunities, it is still worthwhile sending a speculative application.
A direct approach is often successful, particularly with smaller organisations that don’t have the budget for a big recruitment drive. Speculative applications show initiative and enthusiasm, which is always a good start.
Call to ask if they would consider taking you on for work experience, and to whom you should send your speculative application. Email your cover letter and CV, or if they are local, deliver it in person and be sure to make a great impression!
As none of the companies I was interested in were advertising internships, I decided to find contact info for the company owners/directors and email them directly. I sent a cover letter and my CV. Persistence pays off in the end… I promise!
Abbi – Studying for an English degree, currently doing a PR internship
Internships are often advertised on job boards; our readers have recommended these sites as particularly useful for students:
One of the best ways of securing work experience is to approach employers through people you know: family, friends, school/university contacts, alumni etc.  Find out if anyone has suitable contacts in the industry.
Use social media for professional networking (LinkedIn and Twitter). Follow the companies that interest you, connect with people, join groups and discussions. 
Attend careers fairs and networking events - talk to company representatives and ask how to apply for work experience.
‘I’ve started to contact people directly. A great way to do this is on LinkedIn. I’ve been advised to follow the companies I want to work for, read articles they publish and ask questions. Sometimes you can contact the author directly, or just comment on the article. This could be a potential way in. Really I guess it’s just about taking some initiative and making sure you are remembered. Other than that, I have been meeting anyone and everyone I know, who has experience in the industry. I arrange to meet for a coffee, chat about how I can get my career started, and just get general advice really. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how willing people are to help.’
Henry – Recent Leeds graduate trying to get into Asset Management
Freelancing can be a great way to prove your skills and dependability and accumulate experience. You might need to do your first few jobs for free or low pay, just to gain experience and good references, but as you build a reputation, you can start charging commercial rates. Freelancing is an attractive option for busy students, because the flexible hours mean you can fit work around your studies. 
Check online for all sorts of opportunities: 
Creative & Digital
IT, Darketing & Communications, Journalism, Translation, Training & Consultancy
Volunteering is personally rewarding and valued by employers, because it shows positive attributes about your character e.g. self-motived, not driven just by money, keen to make a difference, and also because you will have acquired valuable skills like problem-solving and teamwork etc. 
You are pretty much guaranteed to find work, as most volunteer organisations and charities are always looking for help. If possible, choose a role that is linked to your preferred career or industry. 
Look close to home for opportunities: consider applying for a job in your students’ union, organising charity events, working on the university magazine or radio, a brand ambassador role, or a position of responsibility in a uni club or society.
Explore further afield - combine travel with work experience? Time abroad can develop organisation and communication skills as well as cultural awareness. It’s a popular option and there are now many companies offering organised volunteer packages; just do your research before you hop on the next flight - make sure it is a reputable company!
Check out these organisations for short or longer-term opportunities to work, volunteer or study abroad:
So… if you haven’t got any internships or work experience under your belt, it’s well worth doing before you begin your graduate job search. While you’re still at university, make the most of the long holidays, get a head start and look for opportunities. Whether it’s a placement through your degree course, a month’s internship at an accountancy firm or a week volunteering at your local hospital, the skills and experience you pick up will certainly improve your employability, produce useful contacts and could earn you a bit of cash. 
And it just might lead to your dream job…
Interested in work experience at HelloGrads? We are always looking for writers, video editors and researchers. Please get in touch at, we’d love to hear from you!
for uni & beyond
Whether you’re flapping about your future, mangled by money worries or simply submerged in a sea of revision… we’ve got tons of tips to get you sorted! The one-stop source of info, tips & real life insights from students, graduates & experts in the know. 
Visit us at & sign up for exclusive content & offers. 
Facebook: @HelloGrads
Instagram: @hellograds
Twitter: @hello_grads