Jemma Smith, Editor
July, 2016

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

It's rare these days to secure a job without some form of work experience. Many large organisations have the budget and resources to offer and formally advertise internships and placements but if you limit yourself to these opportunities you could be missing out.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) may not advertise opportunities but that doesn't mean that work experience and shadowing placements don't exist. All you have to do is ask.

'Most people acknowledge that getting work experience alongside your degree is crucial for your career, whether it's a day or two shadowing or a longer placement, but don't always expect it to be handed to you on a plate,' says Tracy Salsbury, employability development officer at Loughborough University. 'To give yourself a better chance of success be proactive, organised and imaginative in your search and make some well thought out, targeted speculative applications.'

This speculative approach is known to yield positive results as it opens up a whole host of 'hidden' opportunities. But how do you approach potential employers with a speculative application for work experience or job shadowing? We asked two employability advisers for their expert advice.

Create or update your LinkedIn profile to reflect your work experience and career aspirations - it is a CV that never sleeps

How do I identify opportunities?

'Job shadowing and gaining experience in a particular sector can enable students to make informed career choices about what role they would like to do in the future,' says Adelle Fairclough, careers adviser at Durham University. But how can you unearth these opportunities and where should you look?

First things first you need to be clear on the type of work experience that you're looking for and in what sector. Do some initial research into relevant organisations then target these with your application. A good starting point when seeking opportunities are current connections. 'Consider networking through your family and friends,' suggests Tracy. 'Think about who you know in different areas of your life and who they may be connected to. Make it known that you are actively looking for experience.'

The internet and social media are also incredibly useful in identifying potential opportunities. 'Use the internet to search on company and professional body websites as these sometimes list vacancies and include staff contact details,' advises Adelle.

LinkedIn is another valuable tool. 'Create or update your profile to reflect your work experience and career aspirations - it is a CV that never sleeps,' explains Tracy. 'Use the alumni tool to search out graduates from your institution and contact them to ask for their advice on how to get experience.'

Other social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, are also great for generating links between you and the company you want to work for. 'Follow potential employers on social media to show your interest. This is especially good for obtaining named contacts for applications or getting advice on how to apply,' adds Tracy.

What should I include in my speculative application?

Once you've found 'hidden' opportunities and/or identified organisations that you want to approach you need to start crafting your application. A speculative request for shadowing or experience always works better when addressed to a named contact. 'Research and preparation are crucial in identifying the relevant member of staff to contact,' says Adelle. 'A tailored approach, evidencing your motivation to work for the company, an understanding of what they do, demonstrating a passion for the prospective opportunity will have a much greater impact than a generic CV.'

Think about your application from the employer's perspective: Why should they give you this chance?

To be successful in securing a placement your cover letter or letter of introduction needs to contain the right information. 'First briefly introduce yourself; who you are, what you are studying and what you are looking for in terms of experience. Be clear about the type of experience you are looking for but show your willingness to be flexible,' says Tracy.

Flexibility in your request is important. 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 job shadowing. Once you have established a relationship in this way it 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,' advises Tracy.

'Reflect on your research into the company and link this to your own experience, skills and knowledge. Show them that even in a brief work experience opportunity you have something to offer them, in both the shorter and longer term,' adds Adelle.

Include any additional information towards the end as necessary about your availability to work and how to contact you. Before sending your application attach an up-to-date CV.

'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,' explains Tracy.

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

When should I follow up my application?

Knowing when to follow up is tricky, as you want to appear dedicated and professional without coming across as demanding or pushy. However, following up is 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,' advises Tracy. 'Use some common sense and make allowances for busy professionals suffering from email overload, who may frequently be away from their desks.

'Make sure you show respect for your contact's busy schedule and thank them for their time when considering your application. 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. It's just part of the journey to getting a 'yes' next time.'

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