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The truth about health-degree work experience

University applicants, and their parents and teachers, are often unsure about what experience is required to enter a health-related degree.

There are many opportunities out there for paid work and volunteering, but what is it that universities are actually looking for?

When I talk about ‘experience’ in this article I’m referring to work experience carried out either as part of the school curriculum, (e.g. Year 10 placement) or any volunteering or paid work that has been undertaken in students’ spare time. I will also use the term to refer to any relevant experience drawn from students’ responsibilities at school, at home or in the community which has helped them to develop skills.

Why you need the experience

Know this first: the amount of experience required is dependent on the course of study and the university applied for. However, the reasons for undertaking experience are the same for all courses. That is because universities look for the following 4 things on applications and at the interview:

  1. Does the applicant have knowledge of the profession? This includes the type of work undertaken by that profession and the settings where the profession could work.
  2. Has the applicant reflected on what it takes to be a health professional? Have they used their knowledge of the profession to reflect on what skills and attributes a professional must hold to be good at their job? Have they considered the challenges that the profession faces e.g. long hours and potentially emotional?
  3. Has the applicant demonstrated skills and attributes which show they too would be good at the chosen career and able to study the course at university level? Have they used examples of experiences which show that they have some of the attributes identified through the reflection process described in point 2 above?
  4. Has the applicant demonstrated a commitment to that career choice and shown that it is a well-considered choice rather than a whim? To be able to hit all these points an applicant will have to get experience in one form or another, whether it be experience to give them the opportunity to observe or talk to a health professional, or experience to allow them to demonstrate the necessary skills.

What we look for at UEA

At the University of East Anglia there is no specified requirement to undertake any work experience or volunteering to apply for a Health Sciences course such as nursing, midwifery, operation department practice or occupational therapy. However, as stated above, to be successful, an applicant must demonstrate their suitability for the course which means they will need to gain knowledge of the profession and draw upon their own experiences at school, during work or volunteering or at home to prove that they have what it takes to be successful.

To apply for Social Work at UEA, an applicant will need to demonstrate that they have undertaken at least 6 months paid or voluntary work experience, (meaning they have to have worked or volunteered for a minimum period of 6 months). But the experience does not have to be full-time or continuous… e.g. They could volunteer for one day a week over the 6 month period.

This prolonged period of volunteering is required so that applicants have time to thoroughly reflect on the experience and to demonstrate how they have developed their own skills over time and gained a deeper understanding of the organisation and the impact care and support can have on an individual.

How the experience should help

The most important thing is that the experience gained is good quality. The student needs to be learning something about the profession they want to study, building their interpersonal skills and communicating with a wide range of people, helping to make a difference, (big or small) to another person’s life. Quality is more important than quantity but we do look at the length of time the experience has spanned to give us an idea of the student’s commitment.
There are so many places where they could work or volunteer to build skills that are highly transferable to the health professions.

Skills can be built in a variety of placements, even while volunteering in charity shops, community centres or care homes, which include:

  • communication
  • empathy
  • compassion
  • trustworthiness
  • initiative
  • confidentiality
  • team-work
  • reflection
  • self-awareness

Many of these skills are also keys aspects in paid roles such as customer service in a shop, or hospitality roles such as a café or hotel.

Students need to put themselves out there to find out about the profession they want to study, reflect on the qualities that are important to that profession and show how they have demonstrated the same or similar qualities.

Examples of creative ways to tailor work experience

Care and compassion: might be a key part of a Year 10 experience at a care home.

Team-work: could be vital for the success of their sports team.

Confidentiality and supporting others: skills they may have demonstrated while mentoring a younger student at school.

Working at a supermarket: can allow students to show they are trustworthy, responsible, approachable and a good communicator.

So it’s not necessary to have worked in a clinical setting, such as a hospital, to have a strong application. It’s all about

  1. Knowing the profession
  2. Indicating that you have reflected on the qualities necessary to be a good health professional and show casing examples that demonstrate you already have some of those qualities (albeit in a non-health capacity)
  3. Reflecting on what you did and how your experience taught you to change, adapt and improve
  4. Showing that you have really considered your course choice and you are committed to coming to university and training to become the professional you want to be.

Find out more:

Many universities offer outreach and enrichment events which will let students find out more about the professions and what it’s like to study at university – university websites will give details of those.

While they may not need experience directly in their chosen profession, sixth form students should gain as much knowledge of that profession as possible. Speaking to anyone who works in a health or care setting about their job will give them great insight.

Posted by Patricia Harris on Wed, 8 Feb 2017

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A graduate of Edinburgh Napier University, Patricia undertook her PhD research in the area of stress and retention of students within higher education. Patricia is currently the Outreach Academic Fellow for the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of East Anglia. This role involves raising the profile of healthcare careers and increasing the aspirations of university study within groups of students who typically have lower participation. University can be stressful and Patricia works with the Faculty to equip students with the skills they need to be stress resilient. Patricia is also involved in evaluating attrition and improving retention.

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