Top 5 work experience tips: how to find placements and get more out of them


A degree isn’t enough. You’ve probably heard that once or twice – or perhaps a hundred times – before.

And, now, new data from LinkedIn has revealed that job ads not requiring a university degree have soared – by a colossal 90% between 2021 and 2022.

Globally, recruiters are now five times more likely to search for specific skills over and above degrees when hunting for candidates.

While degrees will always be a requirement for certain professions (e.g. doctors, nurses, architects), there are many others where skills and employability – being ‘work ready’ – are more important than your 2:1 in History or Maths.

That’s why work experience might be the single most important asset to any graduate’s CV. Experience in a working environment demonstrates work readiness and indicates that you’ve developed soft skills like communication and teamwork.

If you’re not quite sure what you’d like to do, it’ll help you figure out the answer to that big, slightly scary, existential question. And, if that wasn’t enough, it’ll also expand your professional network, opening you up to more career opportunities and industry insight that others won’t have. In short, it’ll give you the edge.

There are various ways to find work experience and, if you can’t afford to give up your time for nothing, don’t worry. Many placements pay minimum wage (they should by law), and paid work in retail and hospitality, for example, is absolutely work experience.

Check out these top five tips to help you organise work experience, understand how it works and get more out of every placement:

  1. Understand the rules around pay

    Most interns must now be paid at least minimum wage, but there are some grey areas and exceptions e.g. working for charities or doing internships as part of your university course.

    While there is currently no legal definition of an ‘intern’ under minimum wage law, your rights depend on what you’ll be doing. If you’re asked to perform set tasks, work set hours, meet deadlines and perform the work of paid employees, then you’re classed as a ‘worker’ and should be paid at least the minimum wage.

    If you’re only shadowing or observing someone who works there, the company is not obliged to pay you. Even so, it’s estimated that around a third of internships are unpaid. So, it’s important to understand your rights so you can either avoid these altogether, or use your knowledge to negotiate minimum wage with an employer who isn’t clued up on the rules.

  2. Formulate a game plan

    When deciding which companies to approach, think about your answers to the following questions:

    • Which industries do I want to explore and why?
    • What sort of roles and work am I interested in?
    • What skills am I hoping to develop?
    • What sort of culture might suit me?
    • What would I like to have achieved by the end of my placement?

    Having a clear strategy will make it easier to research companies, write a more convincing application and get more out of the placement.

  3. Ready your CV and cover email

    Some companies have application processes for work experience – in which case, be methodical and meticulous when completing the steps.

    But most will simply ask you to submit a CV and a covering email. Use these documents to show you’ve done your research, and let them know why you’re interested and well-suited to their organisation.

    Tailor your CV to highlight your most relevant skills and attributes. It might be time-consuming, but putting in the effort means you’re much more likely to be successful.

  4. How to find opportunities

    There are so many different ways to get work experience. Try these for starters:

    • Tap into your existing network – Ask extended family and friends to put you in contact with anyone they know working in a relevant industry.
    • Set up a LinkedIn profile – Engage with alumni groups and set up alerts for internships.
    • Don’t wait for placements to be advertised – Approach companies directly by phone or email, as it shows enthusiasm and initiative.
    • Try temping to give you access to multiple companies – You can sign up with an agency that will place you and take a cut of your hourly wage, or you can apply to companies directly for temp roles, which many prefer as they want to avoid paying agency fees (and you’ll likely earn more).
    • If you have hard skills, try freelancing – This is a relatively quick way to accumulate experience, prove your skills and expand your network. Sites like Upwork and PeoplePerHour can help you find customers.
  5. Get more from every opportunity

    Do some more research before you start your placement. This can really pay off as it’ll help you engage with colleagues, ask sensible questions and make a good impression. If you go in enthusiastic and informed, you’re also less likely to be burdened with menial tasks.

    Turn up five minutes early, tune into your environment and don’t run for the door the second you see the clock turn 5pm. If your colleagues take it in turns to do tea rounds, make sure you offer too.

    Be curious, ask questions, watch, listen and learn. How did your colleagues get into the industry? What’s the best part of their job? If you don’t have a task to do, ask if you can shadow someone or sit in on a meeting.

    At the end of the placement, ask for feedback, reflect on what you’ve learned and always send a thank you email.

Julie and Sophie Phillipson are founders of HelloGrads, the graduate support site, and the co-authors of a new self-help book for final-year students and recent graduates: Survive & Thrive: A Graduate’s Guide To Life After University (available from Amazon). It’s packed full of helpful tips on careers, budgeting, work experience, renting and more.


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