Not all work experience opportunities are advertised on jobs boards such as TARGETjobs. Many smaller or local employers do not have the budget to advertise internships or take on large numbers of students. However, they may be able to take on one intern for a short period or have students in for work shadowing (where they observe professionals in their work). Similarly, professionals at any organisation may be willing to have you work shadow them.
This means that you can essentially create your own internship, but you will need to be proactive and write a speculative application, which you can do either by emailing a CV and covering letter or via LinkedIn.
Create a shortlist of employers in the sector or sectors that interest you, making sure that they are based in a suitable location. Search engines and LinkedIn are probably your best friends here. You can also go old school by checking out the employers featuring in local newspapers. Ask friends, family and lecturers whether they know of organisations that might welcome speculative applications. It’s worth looking through the information your careers service has on local employers and through your university’s alumni database – your careers service or department will give you access.
Be prepared to talk about your career plans with anyone – after all, you never know who will be able to help or put you into contact with someone who can. Tori Shepherd, an assistant design manager at Kier Group, got work experience from a man she went to buy a puppy from – who, unknown to her, owned an architectural practice. ‘I got chatting to him about my course [in interior architecture],’ she told TARGETjobs’ sister publication, the UK 300. ‘He said that I should email him if I wanted any work experience. I did and he offered me two weeks.’ Find out more about her experiences of gaining work placements.
Generally speaking, don’t bother applying speculatively to a company that offers formal opportunities, as its recruiters will expect you to apply through established channels – unless you have a personal contact there. If the employer specifically states on its website or elsewhere that speculative applications are welcomed, make sure you follow any guidelines given about how to do this.
You can apply directly to employers, usually by emailing a covering letter and CV or by dropping in your application in person.
An example covering letter for a work experience speculative application
Dear Ms Smith,
I am a second-year English literature student at Abingdon University and I am writing to see whether your organisation is able to offer me any work experience or work shadowing at any point over the next three months – whether that would be a few hours shadowing one of your team or a week’s full work experience.
I would like to explore different career paths within publishing and I’d be particularly interested in gaining experience with your organisation because I admire how, as an independent publisher, you champion new writers across the fiction and non-fiction markets and how you have built up a cult social media following to help get your brand known. I’ve been impressed by the quality of your portfolio, as the success of A N Others in the recent Children’s Lit Awards indicates. I would learn a lot about how you approach the decisions behind selecting, editing and promoting fiction if I could observe or work alongside your teams. It would also help me decide whether I am best suited for an editorial or commercial role.
I’ve attached my CV for your reference. You can see that I have worked on my student newspaper during university, editing the book review section and writing two pieces a week. I think I could bring the creative skills I’ve developed there, along with good organisational skills, to your business.
I look forward to hearing from you.
You’ll see that we haven’t dashed off a generic covering letter. Instead, you’ll see that we’ve followed the tips below. Make sure that you:
- Apply to a name, not ‘Dear Sir/Madam’, if you can. Ring the organisation's reception and ask who is the best person to apply to. It will usually be the HR manager or, for smaller organisations, the managing directors.
- Are clear about what you want, how long for and when you are available – for example is it a day's work shadowing that you're looking for or a longer period of work experience? – but be as flexible as you can.
- Show you’ve done some research on the employer and why you’d find it valuable working for this organisation in particular. Make it clear that you know what the organisation does in its specific market and say why that is of particular interest to you.
- Say what you can offer them in terms of your skills, knowledge and general attitude.
- Finish your email with a ‘Yours sincerely’ if you have applied to a named individual. If you have to apply to ‘Dead Sir/Madam, finish with ‘Yours faithfully’.
- Attach your CV.
If you have found professionals – both recruiters and industry practitioners – working for the employers you are interested in on LinkedIn, you might want to ask if you can connect with them on LinkedIn as a way in to asking about any work experience.
However, you need to write a personalised message, not just send the standard one. It might be a bit presumptuous to ask straight out for work experience on the first message, but instead you could introduce yourself, explain that you are interested in working in their sector and that you’d love to hear any careers advice that they have and any tips they have for getting work experience.
If they reply to your message, you can then build on the conversation to ask whether their employer would be able to give you some work experience. If they don’t reply, move on to the next person.
Tip: If you are going to connect with people, make sure your LinkedIn profile is as good as it can be and reflects your current circumstances. Get our advice on how to write the best LinkedIn profile.
An example of how one graduate found work experience via LinkedIn
‘To get my work experience placements, I spent a lot of time on LinkedIn,’ Ashley Dunsmore, a quantity surveyor at Kier, told a previous edition of TARGETjobs’ sister publication, the UK 300. ‘I searched for “surveyors”, “commercial directors”, “construction in Dundee and Glasgow” and for anyone connected with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). Then I would message them to ask for their advice and whether they knew of anybody offering work experience. I contacted a lot of people and I wondered if I came across as a pest, but no one minded. Everyone was very helpful and, if they couldn’t assist me, they put me in touch with someone who could. Using this approach, I got a place at three RICS conferences, which developed my surveying knowledge and widened my network.’
She also got her main internship out of her newly formed network. A recruiter at the company asked one of her contacts whether they knew of any students seeking work experience and her contact put her forward.
If you have applied directly to an employer rather than through LinkedIn, contact them a week or so after submitting your application (by phone, if possible). You can start by introducing yourself and asking whether they have received your application. This will bring it to the recruiter’s attention if it has slipped down their ‘to do’ list. If they can’t offer you work experience, still ask them for feedback on your application. You may get some useful hints for the next time you apply.