As the time to write a UCAS personal statement looms into view, students often start worrying about work experience or their lack of it. Surely a great work placement is going to be the clinching factor in any university application? Surely work experience – or, even better, an internship, because that sounds so much more impressive – is going to be the difference between success and application oblivion?
Maybe. But only for a few.
For students who are planning to study medicine, veterinary science, physiotherapy, law or associated subjects, work experience is vital, though it need not always be directly related to the course they will be studying. Future medics should try to get a placement in a hospital or with a GP but evidence of a long-term commitment in a care home, for example, can be just as valuable.
What admissions tutors want to know is that students are going to last the course, that they can work under pressure, that they are prepared to get stuck in; not that their parents are well connected. Universities know that some people find it easier to get work experience than others and so are able to see beyond any superficially impressive placements.
However, work experience is not the only way of proving commitment and interest. Let’s take law as an example.
It makes sense for anyone who wants to study law to spend time in the public gallery at their local court. This is a free and simple way of experiencing the law in action, a week in court being just as valuable as a week in a solicitor’s office.
Work shadowing is another possibility if students can be creative about it. They could try writing to their local paper if it has a legal correspondent or they could contact charities that focus on legal issues, such as the rights of refugees. Shadowing someone in these organisations could be absolutely fascinating while also having the added benefit of making their personal statement stand out.
Then there’s reading. Not just the obvious books but court reports in daily newspapers or the work of commentators like Joshua Rozenberg. Downloading and listening to relevant podcasts, such as Law in Action, would also be a really sensible move.
In other words, there are many different ways of developing students’ knowledge of, and interest in, a subject besides simply trying to gain work experience in an office for a week.
What employers value in students who have worked are their life skills: the way they get on with people; their ability to work to deadlines; their perseverance. So, it doesn’t much matter whether they have been working in their local charity store or in the City. What matters is how they have grown through the experience, what they have learned from it. The danger is that in focussing on work experience they miss out on what work – real work – has to offer.
So let’s try to move beyond work experience. Let’s think of other ways students might gain the skills and experiences that will make a real difference. Let’s find other means of boosting a personal statement and, more importantly, of developing a student’s interest in his or her subject.
Here, for example, are 5 suggestions we might give to our students:
1. Start a club. Don’t simply join one that your teachers have organised for you. Identify a gap in the market and fill it. It could be a subject-specific book club or discussion group. It could involve bringing experts in a particular field into your school or college. It could be highly practical or highly academic. What matters is that you take the initiative to set it up and keep it running.
2. Read what you’re interested in, not what you think you ought to be interested in, or what you think is going to look impressive. If you read what you genuinely enjoy, your personal statement will be truly personal.
3. Do some volunteering or get a job that takes you out of your comfort zone. Work is more important than work experience.
4. Keep a record of what you’ve done and what you’ve read. It’s so easy to forget the details as they accumulate.
5. Finally, reflect on what you are doing as you do it. Is this subject-related experience really giving you what you want? Are there aspects of it you particularly enjoy? What are you learning from the work you are doing? Then, having reflected, talk to someone you trust, someone who can help you make sense of your experiences and summarise them in a personal statement.
Roy Peachey is head of higher education and careers at Woldingham School in Caterham.