Making an impression: tips for student work experience

With practical experience often hard to secure over the past year, OT  has heard tips for crafting a stand-out application and maximising work experience placements

writing in notebook
Pixabay/Karolina Grabowska
Throughout the pandemic, a key challenge facing many optometry students has been that of gaining practical experience.

With lockdowns, restrictions and reduced practice capacity, students have not only reported challenges in securing placements, but have also shared their concerns about what this could mean for their future applications.

This has been an issue across the student population, with an internship report by the student and careers organisation, Prospects at Jisc, showing that only 17% of students had gained work experience in the past year, while its Early Careers Survey 2021 found university students felt having the required work experience was “their biggest barrier” when looking for jobs.

Jayne Rowley, executive director for Jisc student services, said this gap in experience “has left students feeling unprepared and uncertain about their careers.”

However, Rowley shared that “Resilience, communication and flexibility are all skills that the pandemic has brought out and that employers value,” adding that employers should not expect to see “the classic things” on CVs this year, but “their expectations need to reflect the actual experiences of students during the pandemic.”

This is something Charlie Ball, head of higher education intelligence for Prospects, discussed as part of OT’s COVID-Generation report this spring, sharing: “I think there will be an element to which the class of 2020 will be viewed as an unusual group with a different set of skills and qualities,” explaining: “You will know that the class of 2020 is resilient, and in any frontline healthcare profession, you are going to need people with those qualities.”

Practice experience

Reflecting on the challenges students have faced in gaining practical experience over the past 16 months, Zach Hughes, recruitment marketing executive at Hakim Group, told OT: “COVID-19 has impacted thousands of people in terms of accessing opportunities to gain practical experience, so we recognise that people are anxious to address this gap in their skillset.”

Students have shared concerns with OT about the weighting employers will give to experience in future applications, particularly when placements may have been cancelled, moved online, or limited for many over the past year.

Highlighting the Hakim Group’s approach, Hughes shared that, where students might not have secured the level of experience they would have wished for future applications, “In this case, we would look for individuals who can show that they have been proactive in adding other skills to their repertoire during this period. This doesn’t have to be strictly within optics either.”

“We just need students to show that they’re ambitious, have clear goals they want to achieve and are willing to put in the work required to reach them,” he added.

Considering how much of a factor optical experience plays in the recruitment or pre-registration application process, Hughes told OT: “Optical experience is, of course, one of the most important factors for recruiters.

“But as independents pride themselves so much on providing a personalised service for their patients, it’s just as crucial to have experience outside of optics that demonstrates you are a well-rounded individual.”

Providing an example, Hughes explained that in recruiting for one of the practices that forms part of the Hakim Group, the owner shared that they would rather hire a candidate who had spent some summers working in hospitality, “as opposed to somebody who had never left the testing room.”

Hughes added: “Optical experience is vital, but as is the case with most things, a healthy balance is best.”

For students who have secured placements over the summer, Hughes highlighted, “work experience is a hugely valuable opportunity to get to grips with the reality of the role.”

Offering advice for making the most of the experience, he shared: “Asking questions is probably your most powerful tool,” suggesting these imply interest and can be “the first step” towards leaving a lasting positive impression with the team.

“It also means you can build a stronger relationship with those you work with, which could mean you have a reference from your work experience which may be extremely useful further down the line,” he continued.

The student experience

Optometry Today is looking into the experiences of university students and pre-registration optometrists throughout the pandemic. Get in touch to share your experience of applying for and securing a pre-registration placement, or to share your experience of studying over the past year.

OT reached out to Specsavers and Boots Opticians for a comment but is waiting to hear back.