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Undergraduate Advice: Making The Most Of Your Casual Work Experience
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Undergraduate Advice: Making The Most Of Your Casual Work Experience

When undergraduates are coming to the end of their courses and start applying for jobs one of the frequent complaints is that that they can’t get into their chosen field because of their lack of experience. Although some courses may have work placements as part of the course or some students are lucky to get the right work experience during the long summer break, many undergraduates find that during the semesters they have to supplement their income with any work going and this casual work often has no relevance to the work they want to do when they graduate

If you find yourself in this position it’s really important that you view your casual work not just as an opportunity to boost your income, but also as an opportunity to improve or learn new skills and understand how you can transfer what you’ve learnt to a different context. Too many students dismiss their casual work experience and don’t know how to convince employers that they have the skills they’re looking for. You may think that employers are at fault for being so rigid and wanting specific work experience and so some of them are, but it’s up to you to learn how to present your skills in a way that catches the interest of recruiters. All work experience is valuable.

1. Understand what skills employers look for

Even if you’re not sure the exact field you’re going to go into when you graduate, there are some common skills that employers look for such as good communication skills, team working skills, leadership skills ... Make sure that you’re aware of the general skills that recruiters want and any specific skills that may be required if you hope to work in a particular field. You can use this information as a check list to see what skills you already have and where you might need to develop them further.

2. Keep a record

Keep a diary, keep a weekly or monthly record of your work experience. Personally I used to keep a weekly record and would spend about an hour each weekend updating it. I’d review the different experiences I’d had and note down important events eg: dealing with a difficult customer, cashing up, standing in for the manager on a shift. It wouldn’t matter how many times I had the same experience, I’d note it down each time, because there were always different things to learn. This information was key to helping me later to create my CV (Curriculum Vitae), cover letters, fill in application forms and write personal statements. You need to do this regularly or you will soon forget what has happened. Always try and record the impact of what you have done.

3. Look, listen and ask

There is so much you can learn from observing and listening from other people from the work you do. You’ll undoubtedly see good and bad things about the way people work together. Think about how you might have acted or would want to act in similar circumstances. If you have the opportunity in the course of your work to talk to people about their experience do so. This extra knowledge is invaluable.

4. Be proactive

Providing it doesn’t have a negative effect on your studies make sure that you take advantage of any opportunities at your place of work to take on different responsibilities and learn new skills from the ones that are the normal part of your job. Remember you can always ask, or make suggestions – you don’t have to wait for someone else to offer things to you. See any opportunities as a chance to not only develop your skills but also to boost your confidence.

5. Save spare cash for an unpaid work placement

Okay this may not seem a very popular option and of course it may not even be possible, but don’t dismiss it as an idea. There has been a lot of controversy about students taking unpaid work placements. However, if you want to get some specific work experience in your chosen field you may have to work for nothing for a couple of weeks. If you save some money you could fund a work placement. In the competitive world of job hunting, it’s worth doing anything that can give you an edge.

Summary

Never dismiss the casual work you do as a student as being not relevant. Whether you work in a shop, in a bar, as a cleaner, baby sitter, waiter ... there are always opportunities to develop skills that employers will be looking for when you leave university. Don’t just see any casual work you do as a necessity to supplement your budget. It may well be that, but it's also an opportunity to gain experience and skills that you will transfer to a different context later on and make you attractive to prospective employers.


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