How to help students navigate the tricky world of work experience

16th February 2017 at 14:02

Work experience advice


It’s that time of year when just as I am focussing on the incoming university offers for my seniors, my inbox starts to clog up with adverts from various companies offering gap experiences to those desperate for something to prove their credentials.

In case you don’t know the sort, they invariably involve Africa, or India and their brochures are choc-full of smiling, shiny-haired girls in logo t-shirts or earnest looking boys in surgical scrubs observing a procedure, or helping build a church/ well/ school [insert well-meaning project here].

I would love to say that I simply delete them and move on to more worthy aspects of my job, cleaning the coffee maker for example, or sorting out that annoying squeak on the swivel chair, but, unfortunately, I feel duty bound to respond.

Initially I ask how much of the (frankly eye-watering) fee goes to the local economy. Mostly this is just ignored in favour of a bombardment of e-mails citing testimonies crammed with the words “experience” and “spiritual” but which ignore my question, and the irony of beautifully presented youths in immaculate scrubs, staring thoughtfully at the conditions inside the [insert worthy project here].

After the initial non-response, we get onto the crux of the matter. How is this of any benefit to the locals, or the pupils on these programes?

I am reasonably sure that your average 17-year-old possess no more brick-laying ability than your average unemployed person in [insert developing country here]. Surely it would be better for all if the pupils just stayed at home and raised money for MSF or similar?

Or undertook volunteer work in the local old people’s home. Perhaps I am just cynical and admissions tutors really love to see this on a CV, but thus far, the response has been muted at best.

The evil cousin to the voluntour market is the “Easter-revision camp” to improve grades.

Again, call me cynical, but how can putting pupils at vast expense, in an Oxford college (it’s almost always Oxford, although I now receive a few from “Ivy league experience”) for a week, have greater impact than the teacher who knows the student extremely well after two years, with strengths and weaknesses already identified through topic tests, practise papers etc?

I would love to see data on the students who attend these courses and their subsequent outcomes against predicted grades, CEM data etc, but obviously, there is none available.

In a world where completion for places is intense, I feel that the wolves are circling, ready to pick-off the naïve and the desperate.

So, here is my advice as to how to help students navigate the tricky world of work experience:

Don’t assume that just because a course has a university name in the title, it is endorsed by said university. Check carefully. Many universities do offer outreach work, and summer courses, they are often free, so it is well worth checking on the official website.

Do ask yourself the question: What can students expect to gain from the experience? Observing medical procedures may be interesting but how does this help your students with their decision to become a doctor? How does the experience help them demonstrate the skills admissions tutors are looking for?

Don’t expect the admissions tutors to be wowed simply because you attended a summer camp. Encourage students to ask themselves how the experience developed their thinking, or how they would overcome problems they encountered.

Do encourage students to question whether they can get a similar experience closer to home? Especially for medicine when they want to demonstrate experience in a caring environment.

Is it really necessary to produce a lot of carbon dioxide and spend a lot of money to go overseas, when a student's local old people's home/ pet rescue centre/ refugee centre is desperate for willing volunteers. It may not be glamorous but I’m certain that a student reading a book to a pensioner with reduced vision is as beneficial as watching a glaucoma operation in Tanzania.

Don’t believe everything you see in the marketing - be critical. Just because someone has a slick website, try and see beyond that. As a careers advisor try and stay tooled with personal recommendations from alumni for whom you have checked the credentials.

Do reiterate that students must think how it could fit into their personal statement. Some statements are so full of good material (extended essays, extra reading, motivation for study etc) that the work experience is simply not going to work - in which case make sure you, or the student's referee, knows to comment on it.

As an example, I wrote a reference for a medic who had written an excellent dissertation that was the basis for her personal statement, but who had also extensive experience with the NHS on her gap year. The NHS work really didn’t fit the personal statement, but I was able to draw attention to it for her reference. She was asked about it at interview and is now a successful doctor.

Don’t think that because your students don’t have work experience they shouldn’t apply​. Admissions tutors are human, they know that not everyone has large financial reserves or unlimited time. It is desirable to have work experience but maybe some students are too young, or there are other reasons why they can’t attend.

Encourage students to think about the skills they are trying to demonstrate and explore ways they could enhance them at school. Maybe by setting up a lunchtime club, or by fundraising for a charity such as MSF or guide dogs for the blind.

Doing something just to put it on a personal statement is rarely a good idea, if students are genuinely passionate about something, it will easily come across at interview.

As an example, pupils at my current school make up welcome bags for refugees with toiletries and basic hygiene products, which are distributed at the local international train station. It’s not glamorous, but helps make life a little more comfortable for people in a desperate situation.

Do be positive and ecourage students to be positive too. Students have been getting into competitive courses long before work experience became a profitable business, and trust the admissions tutors to see through the spurious voluntourists to the genuine applicants.


Paul Bold is careers advisor at Sankt Gilgen International School in Austria​.