How to secure your placement

This is an article by Nathaniel Southworth-Barlow.
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You’re on a sandwich course, starting your second year at university and you’ve just been told to think about the internship you’re told you’ll need for next year. So what should you expect? Be prepared for a shock.

Academic demands aside, your third year will be no different from a regular, full-time job.

My internship had to be a paid placement; I couldn’t opt for a voluntary internship, an unpaid overseas placement or a part-time job. Consequently, even with the support of my placements office, I was heavily involved in an ongoing process of securing a position. Maybe it was the economy but I couldn’t say it was easy. If your internship has to be paid, be prepared for an arduous search.

Start with your CV

Nathaniel Southworth-BarlowThe process starts with ensuring that you have an up-to-date CV and a suitable covering letter. If you haven’t already created these, you will do so as part of your university course – expect to look at personal strengths and weaknesses (that you may subsequently target), go through how to keep learning logs and possibly cover some interview preparation techniques.

The hard part starts with finding suitable internship openings. Opinions on the ‘best way’ to find them vary: electronic searches or personal contacts; Twitter or a recruitment service; formal or ad-hoc (cold) applications are some possibilities. I’m not sure there is ‘a best way’, especially when you are starting out and have few, if any, network contacts.

Companies offering internships come in all shapes and all sizes and the ones that offered an internship in 2009 may not offer one again in 2010. Also remember, if you’re applying for a PR internship, don’t forget to include marketing communications in your search.

So you’ve found yourself a placement opportunity? Jubilation! But do you apply? Going forward you will face a dilemma: on the one hand you will want an ideal placement that pays well and matches all your criteria – the elusive ‘dream job’; on the other hand you will want closure. Unless you are lucky, the process of finding an internship won’t be quick and it won’t be easy an easy process. It will be stressful and time consuming… especially toward the end.

If you’re unsure whether a placement is right for you, try to speak to the listed contact to get more information about it.

Completing applications

One factor that may influence your decision is how hard it is to apply. If all you have to do is provide your CV and a (suitably edited) covering letter, you may decide to apply and delay a decision on whether or not to follow through until later. Be aware that some organisations, especially larger ones, use their own processes (grr…): you may need to register, fill in personal details and answer several pages of questions; it can easily take an hour or more to complete.

Multiple applications can consume a lot of time so spending a few minutes to check out the company and the area you might be living in for a year may be worthwhile. If you know that you are not going to follow through with your application, time will be better spent on lectures and assignments.

After you have submitted your first application don’t expect a quick response. Most companies will take several weeks to get back to you – if they respond at all. You may attempt to follow up with a phonecall but they probably won’t say anything one way or another. With perseverance however you should be contacted, probably to arrange a telephone interview.


Telephone interviews can vary widely in content. Your phone manner, and personality are obviously both important; you are making your first personal impression. Expect the interviewer to expand on the information you have provided in your application (have it to hand). They may ask after your hobbies and experiences and possibly examples of how you handled certain situations (so called ‘competency based questions’). Overall, the interview may last as long as forty minutes; never forget that the interview is not over until you put the phone down!

If you’re successful, the demands on your time will increase significantly. You will be asked to attend an interview or assessment centre; there will also be financial costs to cover travel and maybe overnight stays – which could total a few hundred pounds. Some companies may reimburse you but these will probably be the exception.

What can you expect on the day of the interview? You will talk to one or more people: expand on your telephone interview, be gauged on how you respond to face to face questions. Nearly all my interviews involved a writing test relating to the company. Be presentable – demonstrate that you can ‘dress up’. You may also be asked to complete computer-based assessments like those used by the civil service and possibly be involved in one or more group exercises.

If you pass this final test, have been offered – and accepted – a position, your task is nearly over. Then you can forget the stress, anxiety and disappointments of jobs that might have been.  There will be more forms to complete and you may need to arrange accommodation but you will do so knowing that your quest is over. Your many applications, dedication and stubborn refusal to give up will have come to fruition.


  1. A very interesting piece Nathaniel. The best advice I was given is make sure you have…

    A) some PR experience to talk about e.g. one day a week placement
    B) some work to show e.g. portfolio.

    Students need to be doing stuff throughout their second year that will enhance their employability.

  2. Nathaniel Southworth-Barlow says:

    Great to hear some feedback, Ben.

    And that’s something I’ve noticed as well. I’m planning to do a follow up article to this one to give some examples of what students can do to enhance their prospects.

    Originally, it was going to be a part of this article but it started to get too long!


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