Helping students find worthwhile work experience placements

It’s not always easy to secure work experience placements, but it is worth the effort, and it pays to start from as early as Year 9. Here’s how to ensure their placement is worthwhile, suitable, and gives them something useful to take away at the end.
Work experience is a win-win scenario for students – providing the placement is managed well and suitable for their needs. It gives them an insight into the world of work – and possibly to the field of their chosen career. It also helps them gain valuable skills and experience for their university application and interview.

What makes a good work experience placement?

Students are likely to be spending at least a couple of weeks on work experience, so it's important to make their time worthwhile. Students should:

  • Have a named mentor or first point of contact to speak to if they find things difficult.
  • Be given tasks to do – even if fairly basic – and not just observe.
  • Feel comfortable to talk to employees, find out about their job roles and how they got into them.
  • Receive feedback on their performance to assess whether this is a good career area for them.

Types of placement

The type of placement – and the level of responsibility a student is given – will depend on their age and stage at school or college:

  • Year 9/10: At this stage, work experience should offer a general introduction to the world of work where they learn about self-management, communicating with adults, co-operating with others in a team and understanding how an organisation works.
  • Year 11: The objective now is to test out an area or industry they may be interested in, bringing a job to life, confirming interest in a career area or, (equally useful) deciding it is not for them.
  • Year 12/13: Now, work experience should provide valuable content for a UCAS application, help students check out career areas if they are applying for a vocational course and show evidence of useful skills for coping with university study and life.

Top tips for finding suitable work experience

  • Search local authority websites for work experience placements in areas such as housing, environmental health, arts centres, communications, HR and planning.
  • If it is difficult to find work experience, remember that work shadowing – watching an experienced person at work – can be valuable.
  • Suggest that students ask their parents to use networks of friends and work colleagues for useful contacts. It is much easier to find a placement if they have a named contact to approach.
  • Get students to research local companies in their chosen field – they should always write to a direct contact, which they should be able to find via the website or by calling them direct.
  • For speculative enquiries to employers, students should send a brief CV and covering letter stating clearly when they are available and what they want, whether it is work experience, a part-time job, voluntary work or work shadowing.
  • Get your students to think more widely about where they can find experience, directing them to volunteering, seasonal work and gap year websites. 
  • Encourage students to think 'around' their chosen subject – especially if direct placements are highly competitive. For example, medical students can gain as much from a placement in a care home as in a hospital.
  • If students in previous years have had successful placements, arrange an event where current students can talk to them to get an insight and share contacts.

How to get the most out of a placement

Prepare students before their placement by discussing what they can gain – encourage them to:

  • Be as proactive as possible to try tasks, talk to people and offer to help out wherever appropriate.
  • Try to make a good impression – they may get invited back for further work experience opportunities or an internship.
  • Keep details of their work experience supervisor and other contacts; networking is important when looking for their first job and they may want to use a contact as a referee.
  • Record what they have done each day on placement, how they felt and the skills they developed, such as using initiative, working in a team, resolving problems. This is highly useful for a UCAS application and much harder to do in retrospect.
  • Reflect on the placement, did they enjoy (or not) the type of work, the people, the environment? Use this insight to help with career and course decisions.
  • Present the experience gained on their UCAS application in a way that maximises its value. Show how this experience relates to the career or course they want to do.