Our blog this month has been provided by Jonathan Andrews, future Trainee Solicitor at global law firm Reed Smith. Having been state educated himself, Jonathan has kindly shared his top tips to success with PP students – so over to Jonathan! 

Like users of Pure Potential, I’m state-educated – I went to my local comprehensive. Now, following four vacation schemes and many training contract applications, I’m a future trainee solicitor at Reed Smith, a leading global law firm. Throughout the application process, I learnt that while there are many areas in which privately educated candidates have an advantage, these aren’t insurmountable, and a training contract, or success in other industries, definitely isn’t out reach as long as you can demonstrate you’re the best person for the job. Now, I want to help others from state schools achieve their full potential too – so here are my top three tips when applying for competitive roles.

  • Be strategic – especially when it comes to choosing which firms to apply to. It will, of course, improve your odds to apply to multiple firms, but you should have a real strategy about which to apply to – and it should run deeper than (e.g. for law) ‘They’re all Magic Circle’ or ‘They’re all US firms’. You’ll likely be asked about other firms you’ve applied to at interview, and if your strategy isn’t more thought-out (e.g. they’re strong in similar practice areas, or have similar hours or work/life balance policy) this won’t impress.

Definitely don’t apply to less firms than you’re comfortable with for the sake of it, but also set yourself an upper limit. I was something of a maverick in that, despite being encouraged to pick a maximum of 10 firms to apply to, I ended up applying to over 20 – so it all depends on the person! However, I researched each application thoroughly and spent many hours (often days) on each one before sending them off. I also made sure that I could see myself working for the firms – there’s no point applying somewhere you won’t be comfortable.

It’s also worth considering which firms have a specific focus on social mobility. At Reed Smith, for example, Social Mobility is one of the three main focuses of diversity and CSR/responsible business, and the firm has partnerships with charities like GoThinkBig and PRIME. Many firms are also now signed up to contextualised recruiting, meaning each individual’s achievements assessed in the context of their background – so if you have the same A levels as someone from a private school, but your school average is lower (as most state schools’ averages are), your academic potential will be judged higher. Many other firms also use this measure – if you apply to them, your chances will be higher.

Moreover, many studies indicate that the reason for this overrepresentation is a greater sense of confidence and self-belief among privately educated applicants, as well as more developed soft skills (like networking, team-working, and emotional intelligence) which employers prize highly. As a result, they are more likely to apply to firms and more likely to appear confident at interview, and therefore seem competent – a big factor when it comes to interview performance. Mirroring this, you should seek out ways to build up your confidence, and practice performing where it counts, such as at interview or assessment centre stage. This could involve attending open days or mock exercises to network, learn more about the firm and its application process, and acclimatise to the situation. You’ll perform a lot better if you’re used to the offices and not daunted by them.

It’s important to stand out on paper too – your CV, or the answers on an online application, are what get you an interview/assessment, and so needs to be clear, readable and memorable. Don’t hide away any achievements because you’re afraid it will look like “boasting” – this will just put you at a disadvantage compared to other candidates, who will have clearly evidenced their abilities. If you achieved academic awards at school or university, put it down; if you pursued an outside interest or extra-curricular activity and succeeded at it, make this clear too, while also detailing the skills you developed from this. By doing so, you will give yourself the best possible shot at success.

  • Be resilient. Everyone’s heard the story of the person who applied to one firm and got an interview, assessment centre and training contract – but these stories attract interest because they’re atypical. The likelihood is that some, if not most, of the firms you apply to will turn you down at some point in the process – whether at application stage, or following interview/assessment/internship/vac scheme – and you must be prepared for this. If you are unsuccessful at any point and feedback is offered, always accept it – while it might not be nice to listen to when you fell down, it’s vital to know in order to improve on your performance and impress future firms.

And while you should never feel ashamed of your background as a state-educated pupil, you should also be careful about assuming any rejection will be due to discrimination. It may well be true, but it is just as likely that another candidate was judged to be a better fit for the firm, or was scored higher on the competencies or skills assessed. If you assume all feedback stems from discrimination, then not only will you not learn from it but you will also end up distrusting future firms you apply to, which won’t help you convince them you want to work there. Ultimately, the only thing you can change is your own performance – so focus on this.

Above all, I’d say the key takeaway should be to never be scared off applying somewhere because of your state education. Although privately educated people are still overrepresented in many industries, many companies take their diversity duties more seriously than in the past, and so overt discrimination against state-educated people is less common. Employers are looking first and foremost for talent – as long as you can demonstrate you’re the right person for the job, there is no reason to hold yourself back because of your background.