Internships and placements

When to apply for an internship and more careers advice for students wanting work experience

31 Jan 2024, 16:40

Discover how to get an internship or other type of work experience during every year of university – and get expert tips on how else you can boost your job prospects.

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Jump to work experience advice for: first years (and second years on a four-year degree) | penultimate years | final years

You’ll have many opportunities to gain work experience while you’re studying. Some, such as internships and placements, are obvious. Others, including the skills you build through part-time work, volunteering and extracurricular activities, are less so. Either way, with some reflection and a bit of forward planning, you can boost your employability from the start of your time at university.

Our guides will help you research and plan work experience throughout your studies. It’ll also answer some essential questions along the way.

Work experience in your first year: explore what’s on offer

Your first-year grades may not count towards your degree but you can make your experience count towards your career. Focus on building skills and testing the water – now is the time to explore career ideas and reject them if they’re not right for you.

I’m not sure about my career yet – what should I do as a fresher at university?

Start at your university careers service. Sign up for news and alerts, and look out for events and resources aimed at first years. For example, there may well be sessions for those who don’t know where to start with career planning. Use these to ask how the careers service can help you research and apply for work experience.

Remember that work experience doesn’t have to be related to a specific career. Many skills, such as communication, research, personal organisation and attention to detail, are important in a range of jobs. It’s likely that you’re developing these skills through your course, extracurricular activities and any jobs you do while studying.

In your first year, look for opportunities to explore what you’re best at and enjoy. What aspects of your course do you like – and what don’t you like? Which are you best at? Which surprised you – perhaps because you enjoyed them more than you expected or because they weren’t as interesting as you’d hoped? Look for opportunities to gain experience in the areas in which you’re succeeding and to seek support where you’re struggling.

I’m interested in a particular career. What work experience can I get in my first year?

Large employers in certain industries offer formal, structured periods of work experience: for example, large law firms, investment banks, management consultants, professional services and tech firms typically offer insight programmes (also known as spring weeks, these are short ‘tasters’ with employers during which you can learn about their industry and meet colleagues). Many of these firms’ internships won’t be open to first years, but they often fast-track impressive insight programme attendees through to the final stages of their internship recruitment process.

Find out more about insight programmes and spring weeks (and how to get them) in our exclusive advice feature. Use our insight programme search to find opportunities to apply to.

However, as a first year, you can also arrange your own work experience in a sector that interests you– particularly, but not only, at smaller employers that do not offer formal insight programmes. This work experience may involve a week or so of hands-on work experience or could be a work-shadowing day (where you spend a day with a professional, observing them at work and learning about what they do). Your careers service may run a work-shadowing scheme or you can follow our steps to create your own work experience .

Additionally, don’t underestimate how much getting a part-time job in the sector you want to work in, even if it is not the exact same role, can boost your future CV. For example, future fashion designers or retail buyers will benefit from having a Saturday job with a retailer because they can use it to show that they’d understand the needs of consumers: see our advice feature on how to choose a part-time job that will boost your future career .

When should I apply for insight programmes?

Application deadlines tend to fall around two months before programmes start – so December or January for spring programmes. It’s wise to apply as soon as you can regardless of deadlines: some organisations will assess candidates as they apply, and they may stop accepting applications when programmes are full.

Find out more about insight programmes, including how to prepare for them.

What else can I do in my first year to boost my work experience prospects?

  • Sign up for extracurricular activities and getting stuck in. Try out new skills that interest you and build experience in the ones that reflect your strengths. The skills that recruiters seeks for graduate jobs are not only developed through work experience.
  • Explore different graduate jobs using our career ideas and job description advice sections. If any roles stand out, take a look at what grades and skills you’d need to apply. You can then focus on achieving these. If you register with us, too, you will receive a feed of advice, work experience, jobs and events or tailored to your interests.
  • Think about your strengths and aspirations and how you could make them part of your career. For example, if you’d like a job in which you’ll make a difference, find out how to volunteer with an organisation you support; if you know you don’t want to work in an office all day, browse jobs that’ll take you outside.
  • If you’re working while studying, think about what skills you’re developing through your job. Are there any opportunities to stretch yourself or try out different aspects of the role?
  • Ask about career-related projects run by your university, such as help for student businesses, networks for freelancers, mentoring by alumni and award schemes designed to boost your employability. Your careers service can point you in the right direction.
  • Think about how you can make the most of vacations. For example, if you’re planning to travel over the summer, find out how and when to apply for international volunteering opportunities.
  • Ask consultants at your university careers service for help with your CV if you’re planning to find a summer job.

Work experience in your penultimate year: narrow down your options

Your second or penultimate year is the time for hands-on research. Internships, placements and longer periods of work experience will all help you explore what day-to-day life in a job is like – and whether it’ll suit you.

What work experience can I do as a penultimate-year student?

More options with larger employers open up to you in your penultimate year, so now is the time to look at internships, which are paid work experience schemes typically lasting up to 10 weeks over the summer. For students on certain courses there is also the option to do a placement year.

Internships and placement years can also be a good way of increasing your chances of getting a graduate job with the employer, as interns are often fast-tracked to the final stages of a company’s graduate recruitment process, but they are also just a good way of trying out a career idea to see if it is right for you.

Find out more about internships and placements and how to get them. You can also search for internships and placements on targetjobs.

Second-year law students will be able to apply for vacation schemes (essentially two-week internships), although non-law students often have to wait until their final year. Students of all disciplines can apply for mini-pupillages (short periods of work experience with barristers’ chambers) in any year, although they should be stepping up their search by their penultimate year.

Find out more about vacation schemes and their deadlines before searching for them on targetjobs. You can also read up on making the most of a mini-pupillage and browse the chambers offering them.

There are many options beside these formal work experience schemes, which tend to be offered by large organisations. Ideas include:

  • work shadowing. This involves observing someone in their job for a short time. It’s not usually paid.
  • internships and work experience with small and medium-sized organisations. These are less likely to run formal schemes so you may need to apply speculatively .
  • jobs you do while studying. These can offer many opportunities to build confidence and stretch yourself. Take a look at ten (non-dodgy) ways to make money as a student .
  • summer jobs. If you’re looking for office work, consider joining a temping agency and exploring different industries and roles.

Above all, aim to build on what you learned about yourself in your first year: test out industries that interest you, and focus on strengths or personal values you’d like to include in your work.

When should I apply for summer internships?

Be ready to apply for internships with large organisations in the first term of your penultimate year. If you’re applying speculatively or to smaller organisations, you can approach them later in the year.

When should I apply for placement years?

If you’re planning on a work placement or placement year, start planning at the start of your second/penultimate year. Application deadlines may fall in the first term so start your research early.

What else can I do in my second year?

In addition to the steps you can follow in your first year, think about the following:

  • Update your profile on targetjobs to ensure you are still receiving the most relevant feed vacancies, advice and events – or register if you haven’t already.
  • Attend careers events, fairs and webinars, as a way of finding out about different careers, identifying relevant opportunities with employers and building a network of contents. As a starting point, browse the huge range of free targetjobs careers events . Read tips on how to make the most of careers fairs .
  • While most insight programmes are primarily designed for first years, some are aimed at penultimate-year students and finalists who are underrepresented in a profession: for example, women in STEM, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students who have disabilities. Seek out any for which you are eligible.
  • Look out for careers service events and employability programmes aimed at penultimate years.
  • Draft a CV and set up a LinkedIn profile , adding your achievements, skills and grades as you build them.
  • Look for employability-related skills within your course. If there are career-focused skills you’d like to develop in your final-year studies, consult your course handbook and ask tutors for guidance.
  • If you were involved in student societies, see if you can get more actively involved, for example by being elected to the committee. It will be a good way to develop your skills even further.

Work experience in your final year: get the grades

You’ll need to focus on study this year, so look for short but high-impact work experience opportunities.

What work experience should I do in my final year?

Some internships, vacation schemes and mini-pupillages with larger organisations will still be open to you, if you have the time. Browse all work experience vacancies on targetjobs to identify suitable opportunities.

If you’re under pressure, aim for short work shadowing stints and informational interviews instead – your careers service may be able to put you in touch with alumni who can help; otherwise, follow our tips for contacting professionals and arranging your own.

What else can I do in my final year to boost my CV for graduate jobs?

  • Keep your targetjobs profile updated (to ensure you receive the most relevant feed of opportunities and advice) and actively follow employers you are interested in. If you haven’t already registered , it’s never too late! We aim to make your job hunt easier.
  • Attend careers events, fairs and webinars for a chance to learn more about an employer or industry, network with professionals and get tips for succeeding at the graduate recruitment process – check out our targetjobs careers events to start with.
  • Use LinkedIn effectively to grow your network, hear of work experience opportunities and even get a job offer: connect with people you meet on LinkedIn and engage with their posts.
  • Keep adding skills and experience to your CV and LinkedIn profile.
  • Look for careers service events and programmes aimed at final years.
  • Focus on study skills such as personal organisation and time management. They’ll help you in the final months of your course and throughout your career. Ask your tutor or academic skills team for guidance and support.

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This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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