As soon as you go into sixth form, you will be told to start focusing on careers and finding experience that will help you to get into jobs or a relevant degree. This is particularly true if you want to do something vocational, either as an apprenticeship, as a sixth-form leaver or at degree level. Most jobs (before or after uni) and vocational degrees like to see that you’ve had some sort of experience in your chosen field, or in a field that gave you some transferable skills. It shows that you know what is involved in the job and that you are genuinely interested.

It can be daunting, though, trying to source work experience in sixth form. Places can be competitive for certain placements, and different areas of the country will have different levels of available placements. The process of finding a work experience placement can be long and pretty stressful, so we’ve put together some advice for sourcing work experience in Year 12.

Do you need work experience?

The first thing you need to do is figure out whether you actually need work experience for your chosen course/career. For most careers/jobs, the answer is a solid ‘yes’. Or at least it would be advisable to try and find some experience in something related to your chosen career before trying to find a full-time job in that field, as it demonstrates commitment and that you understand what is actually involved in the job.

For most jobs, work experience completed at school does not have to be directly related to what you want to do, because employers understand that many jobs that require experience to do well also require some skill or vocational qualification that you won’t have completed yet. For example, if you want to qualify as a hairstylist, most salons don’t offer hands-on experience because of the skills involved. Instead, you might consider placements that show customer service and people skills, attention to detail and creativity.

If you are looking at boosting a university application, then, with a few exceptions which I will talk about later, your work experience can be anything that demonstrates the broad skills needed for your course. You may not actually need work experience for your chosen course, but it can never hurt to demonstrate that you are proactive enough to undertake a placement.

For example, I did my work experience in an analysis lab at a metals factory (for a chemistry degree), but not everywhere will have somewhere like this. What you might consider instead, if we take chemistry as the example, is something that shows you can analyse data, write clearly and precisely and conduct research. Shadowing at your local paper, office work, even volunteering at your local charity shop can all show that you have these skills if you can pick them out and weave them into your personal statement in the right way.

It may also be that your school requires you to complete a work experience placement. Mine did. Whatever your reason for doing it, work experience is almost always a good idea, particularly in year 12 before the stress of A-Levels kicks in.

Through school/college

A common way of finding work experience is through your school or college. Most colleges have a careers department (dedicated almost exclusively to the sixth form) that can help you find work experience – they may even have a bank of placements or contacts that they can use to help you to get in somewhere. The first step is to make an appointment with the careers advisor and explain to them what it is you want to do and what you want to get out of a placement.

They might contact a specific place or company on your behalf, or they may give you contact details to do so yourself. If they do that, it will be up to you to then arrange the placement in a way that suits you, the company and the school/college (if you have to take time out to complete the work experience).

If your school does not have a careers advisor, go and speak to a teacher. It would be most useful to speak to a subject teacher (if you plan to attend university) or your tutor/supervisor (if you are looking for general/vocational work experience).

If you are doing compulsory work experience, they can still help you, but your college may say that they prefer you to source the placement yourself. If that is the case, then there are usually two ways of going about it.

Through friends and family

Your first port of call when looking for work experience is to ask friends and family, particularly if they work in an industry that you are looking to go into. This is particularly useful when sourcing competitive placements like medicine and veterinary medicine. It is also useful if you are looking to pursue a non-degree route – ask friends/family if they know anyone willing to be shadowed at work so that you can see what you will be doing first-hand.

Alternatively, ask friends and family to help you with sourcing a placement from elsewhere. It can be daunting applying for something professional for the first time, so asking experienced family members to help can be useful. This also gives them a chance to learn more about what you are interested in doing in your career.

On your own

Lots of students take it upon themselves to find work experience. How you do this depends on a number of factors – where you live, what you want to do, how long you need the placement to last.

Generally, you will need to contact relevant businesses and organisations well in advance of your placement (I did mine a few months in advance) and explain what you want, how long you want it for and what you hope to get out of it. All being well, they will be able to offer you a placement, or they may ask you to do a short interview. Unfortunately, not all places will be able to offer work experience, so make sure you contact a variety of places.

Depending on where you live, employers may advertise specific work experience positions on job websites like:

  • Indeed
  • Reed
  • TotalJobs
  • StudentLadder
  • LinkedIn

Although not all places do this. If you are from a town/small city, placements are mostly organised by contacting the organisation directly. Try to be professional but not too rigid or formal (as this can look like you are just going through the motions and have little passion for what you are applying to do).

If you are wondering where to start (especially if you live in a big area), look at smaller, local businesses as you are likely to have contact with more of the people involved in managing the organisation and you get to see what that industry is like in your area.

Keep an open mind – you may find relevant experience in the last place you would think. Remember, at this stage work experience is all about transferable skills and showing that you have the ability to work well in your chosen field.

As a side note, I have used the phrase ‘chosen field’ throughout, but you do not have to know what you want to do in order to benefit from work experience. It can be relevant to a career or university course, but it could just be a time for you to develop skills, or even to realise what you don’t want to do. Even work experience that you hate is not wasted time – you have discounted a career, perhaps before pursuing a degree in it!

Alternatives – a special word for medicine applicants

As I mentioned earlier, certain university courses are notoriously hard to find much-needed work experience for. Medicine (as well as veterinary medicine and dentistry) is the main one, and finding work experience (that is often a compulsory part of the application process) is a source of dread for every new intake of year 12s. If you can find a placement in a GP practice or, better yet, a hospital, then that’s fantastic. However, these placements are hard to come by if you don’t know anyone in the medical profession – which, let’s face it, the majority of us don’t – so these are some acceptable alternatives to work experience in a hospital setting.

  • Volunteering in a hospice
  • Working/volunteering in a care home/facility
  • Shadowing someone in areas called ‘subjects allied with medicine’ i.e. pharmacist, physiotherapist.
  • Volunteering with a first aid organisation, e.g. St John Ambulance.
  • There are many programmes like GVI which allow people to volunteer abroad, including in a healthcare setting, but these are very expensive and so are often financially exclusive to lots of students.
  • Working at a farm (or urban farm), animal rescue or livery (for vets)

The goal of medical work experience is to show that you understand what goes into healthcare and that you have the right characteristics for the job. Any way that you can demonstrate this is great.

Finding work experience in year 12 can be difficult, but it can be done reasonably stress-free. Employers know that many students will look for summer work experience and many are more than willing to take on and support young people. For support on this, speak to your teachers, careers advisor, family, friends or colleagues and explain to them what you hope to get out of your placement. Support can also be found online – The Student Room and Prospects have some helpful forums where people can share advice, although do check any advice before following it. We have some field-specific advice, too. Check out our media and marketing tips if you want some further information.

Good luck!