Work experience looks great on your CV, but finding and applying for placements can be challenging. Discover how to identify opportunities with a speculative approach

Finding hidden opportunities

The first thing to do is to look at your network of family, friends, colleagues, university tutors and previous employers to see what’s on offer. They may know of an opportunity or could at least give you the contact details for someone at the company.

In conjunction with this, you can use social media sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up to date with what companies are doing and, in some cases, connect directly with employers. You also need to make sure you're conducting yourself professionally and only posting content that you'd be happy for an employer to see. Find out more about job hunting and social media.

Small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are a great option when it comes to hidden opportunities. While big companies tend to advertise formal internship and work placement schemes, SMEs generally rely on word of mouth and speculative applications.

To see what recruiters have to offer, take a look at our employer profiles.

How to contact an employer

Addressing your application to a named person will show that you've put in some effort and aren't just blanket emailing lots of companies. Someone in HR or the recruitment team will usually be the contact, but a quick phone call will give you a name.

Once you have a contact, you should email your up-to-date CV and a targeted cover letter. Use the body of the email to briefly introduce yourself, explain what experience you want and describe what you have attached, before politely signing off thanking them for their time.

What to write in your cover letter

First briefly introduce yourself; who you are and what you're studying. Be clear about the type of experience you're looking for, but show your willingness to be flexible. This is important because organisations usually want to help but are time poor, so, while you might want a month-long placement initially try asking for an informal interview or a few days' worth of shadowing. Establishing a relationship could lead to further work experience opportunities.

In the next paragraph you should explain your interest in the company and say how this relates to your career aspirations. Then give some background information about yourself including your interests, skills, qualifications and other work experience or relevant training, and relate this to the work experience requested.

Show them that even in a brief work experience opportunity you have something to offer them, in both the shorter and longer term. Include any additional information about your availability to work and how to contact you.

Always use a professional tone and double check for spelling and grammar mistakes. Close your message positively and politely, reiterating your interest, willingness to provide more information and your hope to hear from them soon.

You should also show respect for your contact’s busy schedule and thank them for their time when considering your application.

How to target your CV

If you're applying speculatively, there won't be an advertisement listing the person or skills requirements for you to refer to. Instead you'll need to research the company and make sure your CV reflects what the company does. You should make sure that any experience you list is relevant to the company, whether this is directly relevant industry experience, something you've learned on your course or an extracurricular activity.

For tips and advice, see CVs and cover letters.

When to follow up your application

Knowing when to follow up is tricky, as you want to appear dedicated and professional without coming across as demanding or pushy. However, it's important as it can jog an employer's memory if your application has fallen off their radar.

Even if the organisation is unable to offer you a placement at this particular time, sending a follow up email or making a phone enquiry can provide constructive feedback and result in useful connections, which could be invaluable in future applications.

If your initial request doesn't receive a response within one or two weeks, follow it up with an email or call. Make sure you use some common sense and make allowances for busy schedules. If you have been professional and polite, you shouldn't be afraid to follow up your application - nor of people saying no if they have to.

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