But how do you make the most of your placement year? To answer that question, we’d like to welcome to the stage Mr Will Stevens of
123-reg (they were nominated in the Best Employment Experience category of the National Council of Work Experience Awards, so they know their stuff when it comes to work placements)…
How to make the most of your placement year
Making the most of a work placement starts long before you nervously step through the door of a prospective employer for an interview. Begin by planning what you want to get from your year in industry – look for companies which seem to be offering what you're after and then do your research.
One of the most surprising things you'll find during this process is that bigger is not always better – some huge companies take on 50 placement students at a time, and although having a big-name business on your CV might seem attractive, it's going to be incredibly hard to distinguish yourself with 49 other people looking to do the same.
You should also consider the kind of tasks you'll be expected to carry out. Getting stuck doing the photocopying or making teas and coffees, even if you're doing it at a FTSE 100 company, will drive you mad with boredom and won't appeal to future employers.
Real work brings the biggest benefits
A university placement shouldn't be like the kind of work experience you did for a week back in school – it should be a real job, with real responsibilities. In the best placements the employer will be looking for you to bring fresh ideas and a different perspective so they can improve on the way they do things.
Try to get recommendations from people who have already been on a placement, as this will help you track down the companies which have most to offer you and will give you a good idea of what you can expect.
A professional role needs a professional application
Don't spread yourself too thinly during the application process. Find a handful of positions that meet your needs and work on producing good, individually tailored applications. Sending out the same cover letter to 30 companies almost guarantees you'll be ignored.
You'll also need to be aware of your online persona and how it might come across to a potential employer, because a lot of them will be checking up on you. The case of
Kent's Youth Police and Crime Commissioner, Paris Brown, shows how damaging an unguarded approach to social media can be.
You don't have to delete everything, but you should at the very least make your profiles private so they are restricted to people who you want to see them. Having your online life researched may feel a bit like being spied on, but try to think of it from an employer's point of view – they want to be certain they're making the right decision so they look for as much information as possible about candidates.
Next, take some time to understand the interview process and read up on the kinds of questions you'll be asked – you'll find they're mostly variations around a few themes, so prepare some answers in advance and you shouldn't face any surprises.
Deadlines and the unexpected
Once you've landed a role, you can expect a bit of a culture shock – though not in the way you might imagine. The first few days are always nerve racking, even if you're a CEO with a CV as long as your arm. Don't worry too much about fitting in – your new co-workers will be keen to make you feel at home.
What might take you by surprise though, is the difference between deadlines at university and deadlines in working life. You can reasonably expect three months' notice when you get given a uni essay to write, but on your placement there will be occasions when you're given a task and asked to get it done by close of business the next day.
Of course, you won't have things like this dropped on you straight away, and people won't keep piling work on you if you're struggling to cope. But mastering the art of time management is key to getting the most out of your placement – if you're completing the basics quickly and well then you'll be given more advanced tasks to do and this additional work is the kind of thing that will really shine on your CV.
You're not at uni, but you're still learning
Unless you're on a highly vocational placement, you'll also find that things you've learned in university will have to take a backseat. If you're asked to do something in a certain way, then telling your manager that this differs to what you've studied in lectures is unlikely to go down well.
If you view your placement as a learning experience, you'll get more out of it and once you understand the company's culture, you'll be able to add your own ideas into the mix in a way that benefits everyone.
This is where a strong placement can really make you stand out when you enter the job market. If you can show a prospective employer that you have experience working not only in the field you're looking to enter, but also in the specific job for which you are applying, then you'll be head and shoulders above the people who just have a degree and a bit of admin experience.
It’s also worth remembering that your placement can have a positive impact before you graduate. When you return to university, you can apply your new-found skills to your studies – not only by applying your practical knowledge to the theory you learn, but also by using your improved time-management skills to hit the books more efficiently.
A placement is the starting point of your professional life, so make sure you get everything you possibly can out of the experience.
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Articles by Will Stevens