According to UCAS, two-thirds of employers look for graduates with work experience because they value work-readiness and business awareness. As CEO of City CV (and a former head hunter and recruitment manager), I’ve spent the last 20 years researching what employers look for in candidates and helping people fulfil their career goals. This includes advising students on how use their work experience to strengthen their CV.

Why is work experience so important?

In a competitive job market, young adults have to use every opportunity to get employment. Work experience is the best way to test out possible career choices. It is also the best opportunity to learn and develop workplace skills.

You will gain confidence, insight and exposure to new environments. There is no better way to understand what a particular career will be like. It really is a case of try before you buy.

Work experience can inform your future decisions by helping you understand your strengths. You might not shine at writing school assignments or sitting exams, but a job placement might help you discover a talent for design, project management or customer service. That’s a fantastic insight into the direction of your future career. But, more importantly, you will gain a real sense of achievement and boost your self-esteem. 

Love it or hate it, the experience counts

If you really enjoy your work experience, you’ll be fired up and passionate to succeed. You’ll also have expanded your network. You may even land your perfect first job.

If you don’t love it, then that’s great too. You can rule out that option and at least be clear about what you don’t want. Hopefully, you’ll also have gained some transferable skills and knowledge that will boost your CV.

How do I get work experience?

Use your network. The first thing to do is speak to your work experience coordinator or careers team at school or college. They may well have local contacts and be happy to help. You can also ask family and friends if you could shadow them for a day or a week at their work.

It pays to be proactive. If there is a specific company you are interested in working with, why not write to them directly. You can use LinkedIn to research what local companies actually do, and the key people to contact. 

Be ambitious. I know of students who have written to their local MP and gained an amazing insight into politics from shadowing them for a week. Another option is to set up your own small business. Whether it’s selling craft items on eBay, running events, tutoring or online trading, it all shows energy, persistence and entrepreneurialism – so go for it.

Don’t discount work experience just because it isn’t directly in your field of interest. The skills you gain will strengthen your CV and help differentiate you.

How do I make my work experience really valuable?

Whatever work experience you get – paid or unpaid, short or long term, project based or shadowing a member of staff – try to meet as many people as you can and get as involved as you can. Turn up on time, look professional, be interested and ask questions. You can also volunteer to help with a particular project or take ownership of some responsibility, however small it may be.

Remember to take some notes for future reference. Being able to refer back will help you write your CV and LinkedIn profile, or complete personal statement-style questions. You can use these headings as a guide:

  • What was going on in the business or organisation at the time?
  • Which parts of the organisation did I observe or get involved with?
  • What did I learn? What projects was I involved in?
  • Did I gain a good understanding of a particular activity – for example how to build client relationships?
  • Did I develop a solid grounding in marketing, banking, accounting or other technical skills?
  • Did I come up with any ideas or initiatives on how to streamline a process, reduce costs, increase sales, improve customer service or drive efficiency?
  • Did I work as part of a team, attend client meetings or make presentations?
  • What did I achieve? What am I proud of? What challenges did I face and how did I overcome them?

How should I describe my work experience on my CV?

This is critical. You only have one shot to impress so your CV and application has to be in the top few percent. Everything you do, whether work experience or extracurricular interests, should always loop back to the competencies and skills the employer needs.

Go back to your notes. Can you demonstrate team work, leadership, project or customer service experience? They could all be relevant to a future role. When you scan job ads or read articles like this on what employers are looking for, the same attributes crop up and again and again.

At City CV we talk to hiring managers every day. I can assure you they are always looking for candidates who can demonstrate teamwork, a strong work ethic, and communications and organisation skills. Phrases such as high energy, relationship building, ambitious, curious and business savvy also feature in every conversation we have.

photo on CV, student work experience

The big question to ask yourself when writing your CV is:

“What skills is my future employer looking for and how can I demonstrate I have them?”

I had a client who was looking for an entry-level role in finance. He had retail experience but didn’t think it was relevant to a job in the City. A detailed look at the job description revealed project management and client relationships as key attributes. Here’s how we turned his work experience into achievements that emphasised the skills the target employer was looking for:                          

Hired by leading London-based retailer during time of rapid change. Integral to successful re-furnishing of new flag-ship store within tight one-month timescale; developed understanding of project management.

Boosted customer spend through planning exciting promotions, proactive markdowns and seasonal displays, including an ‘Easter Special Shop Till You Drop’ event.

Instrumental to 10% reduction in customer complaints through client-focused approach.

Beat sales targets by 25%. Awarded top rating for ‘communication skills and teamwork’ by regional management team. 

Your CV should never simply be a list of your day-to-day responsibilities. Show that you were selected by a major player in the field or through a highly competitive recruitment process. Then go on to demonstrate that you have the skills the employer is looking for. Back this up with examples and facts and figures if you can.

It doesn’t always work out this way, but I have seen many examples of unpaid work placements translating into paid internships and permanent offers.  Even less-than-enjoyable work experience provides valuable insight and content for your CV. So, get out there, look around at available opportunities and seize the moment.