How Do I Choose the Right Work Experience Pre-University?

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It’s your GCSE year summer and your teacher sets you a task - find work experience for the two weeks after you finish your exams. This is the first instance in which actual work experience in professional, adult jobs will likely come into your periphery. Who do you ask? Do you go and work with your parents? Something financial?

It’s become common practice for schools to ask students to arrange work experience for themselves at the beginning of post-GCSE summer. It’s a great idea, but one that typically, students don’t take full advantage of. How much responsibility can you realistically be given age 15 or 16 in a financial institution? How do you arrange experience if you don’t have the necessary connections? The easiest route is to follow your parents’ footsteps and shadow them at work, but is this really beneficial if you don’t necessarily want to follow their path?

Undertaking work experience in the years preceding university is undeniably a great idea. Long school summers, not only post-GCSE, but through Sixth Form too, present a great opportunity. But not necessarily for work experience, not for your future career in finance or a few weeks you have to do because your teacher said so. Why not get experience for your university application instead? Most top UK universities don’t care about your work experience in the financial sphere if you aren’t applying for finance. Indeed, even if you do want to work for a bank, you’ll find that 1-2 weeks experience on your CV doesn’t carry much weight. Instead, find subject-specific work experience that can boost your university application. 1-2 weeks making tea for the boss won’t help, but a great degree from a reputable university will get your CV noticed. Personal statements for university applications are a great opportunity to demonstrate passion for your particular subject of entry, outside of school work. If you think outside the box of obvious careers - consulting, banking, advertising, marketing…and find experience suited to your subject interests, this could be invaluable to your application. If you are interested in Politics, message some MP’s and see if you can shadow them. Spanish? Find some translation work. Psychology? See if you can find experience in a research lab.

u2’s Oxbridge mentors have undertaken work experience in a variety of fields and are well-placed to offer advice and connect students with more niche, subject-specific opportunities. Our unique Extra-Curricular Concierge utilises our professional network to find experiences for students, exactly suited to their interests. This may be arranging experience at a professional company, or shadowing a current Oxbridge student in their subject at the Universities. Contact us for more information and in the meantime, read about some of the inspiring experiences our mentors have had below:

Clementine (BA Geography, University of Cambridge): Work Experience for Geography application at Safe Ground: Tackling re-offending rates through drama

In the summer before Upper Sixth, I spent a week at a small, Clapham-based charity called Safe Ground, which works within the prison sector. Over the past five years, 46% of people leaving prison have re-offended within one year. Safe Ground tackles this issue by using drama to educate prisoners and to provide a space for discussion. As I was applying for Geography and was interested in inequality, my week at Safe Ground provided a great opportunity to discuss socio-economic issues in the UK, with people working at the forefront of the UK’s legal and penal system.

My week at Safe Ground was varied. As I grew more comfortable with the working environment and the issues being discussed, I was able to take on more responsibility. My main task was to design a PSHE programme to be delivered in schools; I wrote ten lesson plans to educate children about the UK’s legal system and about some of the relevant systematic racial and social inequalities.

Geography’s breadth means that a huge variety of work experience and jobs can be relevant to an application. While GCSE and A-level Geography courses may not discuss the specifics of incarceration rates, the modules I studied at Cambridge engaged with a host of social and political issues such as benefit payments, racial bias in the police force or media portrayal of youth culture, which are all relevant to a penal system which often fails to help the people that experience it. Working at Safe Ground encouraged me to read more about socio-political inequality in the UK and the discussions I had with colleagues enabled me to develop my own opinions and provided an interesting topic for debate in my personal statement and interviews.  

Parth (Philosophy & Theology, University of Oxford): Experience at the Harvard Centre for International Development

When I decided to take a gap year, I was confronted with the pressing question of what I would do. I run a nonprofit, and was committed to expanding it during the year. But, like any eighteen year old, I feared my capacity to switch into an extremely lazy mode and waste part of the year away. 

In my craving for structure, I found the Center for International Development at Harvard University. The #1 think tank in developmental economics in the world — academic superheroes researching sustainable and effective methods to help the global poor. This was exciting. I would be surrounded by smart and ambitious people. I would learn and be inspired. And so, in spite of the fact that the internship was reserved exclusively for Harvard students, I decided to apply. Lo and behold, I got it. I convinced my interviewers that I would audit classes at Harvard’s open-access “extension school,” an option for older degree candidates with unconventional qualifications to learn from Harvard professors. This made me a “Harvard student,” under a stretched interpretation of the term, and my 3 page cover letter convinced the people at CID that I would, at the very least, be a passionate intern. 

Those 4 months in Cambridge played a fundamental role in shaping the person I am today. I worked at Harvard’s Kennedy School, where it seemed a President of X country was visiting everyday. I rubbed shoulders with the world’s leading economists and chatted with them about the state of their home countries. The following year, I started my studies at Oxford in reverence of the opportunity I had. CID gave me knowledge and confidence in my ability to succeed in the various ventures I engaged in at Oxford. At Oxford, I am a committee member in the Oxford Union, a project lead at the Oxford Strategy Group, Charities Representative at my college, and a shift leader with my local homeless action group. My gap year laid the foundation for my world-changing ambitions and I hope to eventually lead a social enterprise and produce a large impact on the world. 

Chloe (Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford): Restore - Mental Health Charity

Finding ‘hands-on’ work experience in Psychology is particularly hard and yet many applications either require it or highly value it, especially in the clinical field. During my undergraduate degree, I was applying to a Masters programme that required 1 full year of ‘hands-on’ experience’. When I couldn’t find this myself, I turned to my tutors for advice. While some of my tutors were unable to help, one did direct me to a mental health charity in the area (Restore in Oxfordshire).

The charity told me about several different volunteer opportunities, one of which offered the invaluable hands-on experience that is so sought after. My role involved dedicating a few hours a week to visiting local psychiatric hospital with another volunteer. At the hospital, pairs of volunteers made themselves available to talk with patients about opportunities to reintegrate into society upon (or leading up to) their release. For example, we informed patients of local arts and gardening groups and courses they could take up at a local college. I was able to interact with inpatients with psychiatric disorders, which built my confidence to do this in the future as well as helping my applications to future programmes/jobs.

‘Hands-on’ experience is of particular value in psychology as it allows for the application of theory in practice. Especially in the clinical field, demonstrating practical skills through this kind of experience strengthens your CV as you are not only academically qualified but also have experience in a real world setting. Employers and higher education courses like to see this, as it shows them that you are committed to the subject area and that you understand psychological practice beyond academia. On a more personal level, it also gives you the opportunity to explore whether your subject is right for you.