Work Experiences for Students: Everything You Need To Know

Work Experiences for Students: Everything You Need To Know

One of the first questions potential employers often ask is whether or not you have any relevant work experience. But what if you’re a college or high school student preparing to enter the world of work for the first time?

The key often lies in understanding that there are many different ways to build a resume that don’t involve landing a full-time job. Throughout this article, we’ll introduce you to several different types of work experiences that you can pursue alongside your schoolwork. We’ll also explore the many benefits of work experience beyond increasing your odds of future employment.

Table of contents:

Types of student work experiences

No matter what career path you’re interested in, it’s never too early to start gaining real-world work experience. Let’s check out several different types of opportunities to help you get a feel for what it’s like to hold down a job.

Whether paid or unpaid, each type of work experience covered below can help you start building a solid resume.


If you’re interested in a particular type of work, then an internship can be a great way to take it for a test drive. Internships are temporary positions that come in all shapes and sizes. They can be paid or unpaid and last anywhere from a few weeks to a year.

However, the goal of any great internship is to gain hands-on experience while forging powerful connections in your field of interest. If you’re interested in civil service, for instance, you might look into a paid student internship at the U.S. Department of State.

The great thing about internships is that they’re offered by organizations ranging from NASA to Disney. No matter where you’d love to work, be sure to look into whether they offer internship opportunities.

Virtual work experience

Ever wonder what it’d be like to work at Lululemon on J.P. Morgan? Virtual work experience may be your ticket to finding out. Sites like Forage offer free virtual job simulations created by top employers.

Simply enroll in a program that interests you to start learning by completing tasks led by real industry professionals. Virtual work experience can be a fun way to test out a job and a great way to catch the attention of top recruiters.

Part-time jobs

Some of the most successful people in the world got their start working part-time or summer jobs just like everyone else. Jeff Bezos started his career flipping burgers at McDonald's, while Oprah Winfrey began as a grocery store clerk.

Don’t be afraid to start small and work your way up. Few employers care about exactly where you get your first work experience. They’re often more interested in whether you used the opportunity to demonstrate that you can show up and get the job done.


While volunteer work is unpaid by nature, it can also be an incredibly fun path to professional development. Whether you’re passionate about ending hunger, helping animals, or saving the environment, online resources like VolunteerMatch can connect you with opportunities in your area.

Don’t be afraid to list volunteer work on your resume. After all, it’s proof that you can be counted on to show up to a worksite on a regular basis without even getting paid. That’s a pretty great indicator that you’re responsible enough to handle a paid position.

Work placements

Also known as cooperative education, work placement describes a work-based learning program that can be incorporated into a student’s course of study. While some high schools offer part-time work placements, especially for students enrolled in CTE training, they're more common at the college level.

Schools like Northeastern University place a strong emphasis on work placements, allowing students to alternate between full-time work and study as they pursue a degree. Programs like their cooperative education initiative can be an excellent way to earn both a degree and experience in your chosen field.


An apprenticeship is a paid training program that prepares you to move up the ranks at a certain company. It’s similar to a work placement, though not always affiliated with a school or university.

Apprenticeships are particularly common for people interested in pursuing jobs that require hands-on experience. For example, you might apprentice with a mechanic, electrician, or carpenter to pursue a job in their field.

Job shadowing

If you’re unsure whether a career path is right for you, then job shadowing can be a great way to find out. Unlike an internship or work placement, job shadowing generally only lasts a few hours.

It simply involves observing or “shadowing” a working professional throughout the day to see what their average workday looks like. Job shadowing often includes an informational interview, which involves asking questions about what it’s like to work in a chosen field.


Do you already have the skills needed to make money writing, designing websites, or doing any other type of remote work? If so, then you can start working right away on your schedule.

Talent platforms like Upwork are designed to connect independent talent with clients and employers worldwide. Simply create a free account and portfolio to connect with clients needing your skillset. This option offers the perfect opportunity for students to build a professional resume, all while earning money and setting their own hours.

Preparing for work as a student

Now that we’ve covered different types of work experiences, let’s explore how to choose the one that is right for you. Begin by asking yourself several questions:

  • Which type of work experiences outlined in the section above stood out to you the most?
  • What are your career goals or interests?
  • What type of student organizations or other in-school programs do you enjoy the most?
  • What type of work experience aligns best with your school workload?
  • Are you more interested in pursuing a particular field or trying out opportunities to help you find the type of job that’s right for you?

There are no right or wrong answers here. These questions can help narrow down the best options for your situation.

Once you have an idea of what types of opportunities you want to explore, check out any resources your school may have to offer. If you’re a high school student, this may be as simple as talking to your favorite teacher or school counselor to see if they know of any good work experience opportunities.

If you’re in college, consider contacting a coordinator in your school’s career services department. Last but not least, never underestimate the power of a little online research. From LinkedIn to Indeed, there are now plenty of online networking sites where you can find everything from part-time jobs to internships.

Strategies for landing the job

There are several strategies that can go a long way toward helping you land your first opportunities. If you haven’t yet, consider setting up a LinkedIn profile to use for networking.

A professional LinkedIn profile can be a great way to earn endorsements from other students and connect with alumni or on-campus organizations. LinkedIn also offers job boards that can help keep you on top of the latest opportunities.

You’ll also want to start preparing a resume for when you’re ready to start applying for opportunities. The sooner you begin drafting your resume, the more insights you’ll gain into how much experience you have and any gaps you may want to make an effort to fill in.

Some of the things you might consider including on your first resume include:

  • Education
  • Academic awards or scholarships
  • Transferable skills like time management, teamwork, problem-solving, or technical skills
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Volunteer work
  • Special skills like fluency in other languages
  • Volunteer work or internships
  • Soft skills such as creativity, patience, or adaptability

Be prepared to write strong cover letters. While a resume lists your relevant skills, a cover letter is your chance to describe them in action.

For example, if you led your high school football team to victory, you might talk about how the experience helped hone your sense of teamwork. If you volunteered at a homeless shelter, you might recount how the experience shaped your sense of empathy or inspired your passion for social justice.

Tailoring your cover letters to specific opportunities can go a long way, especially in the beginning. Taking the time to craft your letter around a particular opportunity may make a stronger impression than simply sending the same vague letter out to everyone.

Making the most of work experiences

With the right mindset, any job can be a valuable opportunity for professional development. Whether you love your first job role or have no interest at all in staying in it for the long term, take the time to decide what you want to get out of the experience.

Maybe you want your boss to be a great future job reference someday, or you want to learn all you can from senior employees. Or maybe you want to volunteer with several different nonprofits to see which type of work environments you enjoy the most.

Early work experience can be a great exercise in career exploration by helping you learn firsthand what you do and don’t want in a long-term position. Just make sure that you never forget the importance of time management.

Don’t get so caught up in a part-time job or internship that your grades begin to slide. Work experience should supplement your education instead of compromising it.

Exploring specific opportunities

The more work experience you gain, the more you’ll get a sense of what it is that really interests you. In the meantime, explore as many different fields of interest as it takes to find the perfect fit.

There are now plenty of great side hustles for students, each of which offers the chance to explore a new job role without a long-term commitment. Along the way, you’ll likely discover that figuring out what you don’t enjoy can also be incredibly valuable.

Each time you cross one possibility off the list, you’ll be one step closer to finding your true passion. Once you find it, you’ll be ready to take things to the next level by zoning in on far more specific opportunities.

If technology turns out to be your thing, you might decide to go for an internship at Google. If you’re passionate about culture, a Smithsonian Fellowship could be an awesome goal for you. No matter what it is that sparks your interest, don’t be afraid to look into any opportunities that could help get you one step closer to turning it into a career.

Future employment and career growth

You might be surprised at how early work experiences can help shape your long-term career growth, even if you end up in a completely different industry. Learning how to handle difficult customers at your first retail job may give you the skills you need to navigate high-stakes business deals decades later.

The life-long manager you work for at a local restaurant may teach you more about people skills than any communications course. The bottom line is that you can never be sure which work experiences will impact your life the most.

Go into each job with a learner’s mindset, and don’t worry if you’re starting at the bottom of the ladder. Rather than focusing on what senior employees can do to help you, focus on what you can do to help them. This type of dedication can quickly help you stand out from the crowd.

Find work on Upwork

Whether you know exactly what type of work you want to pursue or have no idea which career path is right for you, the benefits of work experience can’t be understated. Career development comes in many shapes and sizes, from part-time jobs to volunteer opportunities.

With an open and curious mind, you’ll discover that the world is full of exciting opportunities to explore. Want to learn more about the type of jobs suited to your unique interests? Head over to Upwork to check out the many different freelance jobs available.

Whether you’re interested in accounting, animation, or anything in between, Upwork makes connecting with clients from all over the world easier than ever. If you’re ready to get started on your professional journey, create a free Upwork account and start applying to projects right away.

Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this article. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.


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Work Experiences for Students: Everything You Need To Know
The Upwork Team

Upwork is the world’s work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent from across the globe. We serve everyone from one-person startups to large, Fortune 100 enterprises with a powerful, trust-driven platform that enables companies and talent to work together in new ways that unlock their potential.

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