10 honest tips for people doing work experience

Based on my own experience on both sides of the fence. Not necessarily the case everywhere, and so on.

1. There won’t always be stuff for you to do

Often, a work experience person turns up on day 1 expecting to be treated like a new employee – inductions, introductions, structured work days with lots to do and time to review it with staff. This is rarely the case. We usually haven’t taken you on because we need something done, it’s because you asked us if you could come in and we agreed. This means we haven’t necessarily got work lined up for you, so you need to hustle a bit.

This means actively looking for opportunities where you can help, and volunteering. Go up to people and introduce yourself, don’t wait for someone to do it for you – then ask if you can help with anything.

2. Some of it’s going to be drudge work

I feel daft writing this because I feel like it’s incredibly obvious, but I’ve also seen plenty of work experience people getting irritated or just plain failing to volunteer for things that aren’t very glamorous. The obvious cliché is making rounds of tea, but seriously, people actually want you to do this and almost no one on work experience ever does. Again, don’t wait for someone to ask you – get on it. Multiple times a day.

You might also have to do things like going to the shops to fetch something or putting things in envelopes. It’s boring. It’s not fun. But you asked to be here – so be willing to help.

3. Some of the things you’ll be asked to do won’t make any sense at all

I remember this so well. I was working under this incredibly impressive, successful lady and she’d ask me to do something in one sentence and I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what task she wanted me to actually perform. But I’d nod and smile and then go away and panic.

Don’t do this. The person you’re working with has probably been doing their job for a long time, surrounded by people who do similar jobs. They have an established way of speaking, with phrases and jargon and understandings that they’ve completely forgotten aren’t commonplace. This means things that seem totally obvious and transparent to them – like “run this out” – are actually baffling to a newbie. So ask clarifying questions – find out exactly what they mean. You might feel daft, but you’ll feel worse three hours later when they ask if you’ve done it and you’re no closer to knowing what the task even was.

“Run this out” turned out to mean “print this for me”, by the way.

4. If you don’t know how to do something, say so

I recently asked an intern to do a design-related task for me, and he graciously agreed. I’d somehow got it into my head that he was a trainee graphic designer, whereas he actually wasn’t at all, and was out of his depth. Sometimes people will ask you to do stuff because for one reason or another, they think you know how. If you don’t, that’s OK – don’t muddle through, just tell us.

5. Sometimes you’ll be doing nothing

This is related to point 1. If you’ve hustled all you can hustle and there’s genuinely nothing for you to do, it’s actually fine for you to sit and read the internet. No one’s thinking “what a terrible work experience person” – we’re concentrating on our jobs.

6. Don’t add staff on social networks

I did this myself. I might actually still have one or two of the people I met on work experience seven years ago on my Facebook. It felt completely fine at the time – “I’ve known these people for three whole weeks! It’s overdue, if anything!” – but they’ll find it premature and possibly creepy. Of course, it’s fine to follow them on Twitter – that’s different – but don’t add them on Facebook unless they add you, and LinkedIn should probably wait until after you’ve finished your placement.

7. There probably isn’t a job

This one sucks, I know. We’ve all been told that if we work unbelievably hard at our work experience placements, management will find a way to hire us. It’s usually not true. Again, nine times out of ten, we’ve asked you in because you wanted us to and we’re happy to help – not because we’re looking for someone at your level/in your role. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try – far from it! But it’s worth knowing that the majority of the placements you do will be most valuable for their CV collateral, and not for actual paid work.

8. Get some CV advice

One of the hardest things to do when you’re new to the world of work is write your CV in a way that isn’t terrible. I had this problem and I reckon most other people do too. I asked one of the people I was working with if I could see his CV, as an example – not everyone will agree to this because it’s a bit confidential and they might not have one to hand, but it’s worth asking. Real-world examples of actual CVs in your industry are worth a thousand times more than generic internet articles about CV-writing (although, here’s one I wrote).

Don’t be offended if they don’t say yes. Just ask them if they’d be happy to look over yours and give you some feedback.

9. Ask for testimonials

A week or so after you leave the agency, send a nice email to the person you got on with best and ask if they’d mind writing you one paragraph of praise to put on your CV/LinkedIn/website. Give them some examples of what to write, or they might just put it aside – eg. “Would you mind writing a quick paragraph saying I did OK? Just something about how I met my deadlines, was friendly and professional, and showed promise in graphic design?”. This increases your chance of actually getting a response.

If they don’t respond, it’s OK to chase it nicely once (about a week later again) – if you still don’t get anything, leave it.

10. Write good begging emails

The begging email is a necessary part of getting work experience placements, and no one minds getting them. But some of the ones I’ve been getting lately are surprisingly poor. No subject line, no information about what department/job role they’re interested in, when they could come in, what they can offer, no CV or portfolio link – jeez, give me something to go on! The younger generations are often accused of having an entitlement complex, and I don’t think it’s true, but if you email a company saying you want work experience and don’t say one single thing about how you’ll be useful to them while you’re there – well, it’s not looking good for you. Having an extra person in the office is a bit of an inconvenience, so it’d be nice if you let us know it’ll be worthwhile.

A friendly tone and a little joke will also go a really, really long way to helping the person you’re emailing say ‘yes’. Sound like someone they want to have around the office, who’ll pitch in, help out, and not get under their feet.

So, see you Monday?

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2 thoughts on “10 honest tips for people doing work experience

  1. Emily says:

    Due to my fledgling career falling flat on its face, I ended up doing a work experience placement that I think was intended for school leavers, at the ripe old age of 23.

    I found pretty much all of this to be true. I think the staff there felt kind of guilty about the whole thing (the woman managing me couldn’t have been more than 5 years older than me) and would consistently apologise for having me do the drudge work. Which consisted of printing and folding approximately one-billion leaflets and writing addresses on envelopes.

    There definitely was not a job at the end of it. There was the offer of another week of unpaid, unexpensed work experience, which I politely declined.

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