This article has been written by lawyer, entrepreneur and best-selling commercial awareness author Jake Schogger.
Jake trained at Freshfields, before leaving the City to focus on advising start-ups and scale-ups as a freelance lawyer, as well as training, coaching and mentoring thousands of aspiring lawyers. He’s the author behind the best-selling Commercial Law Handbook and Training Contract Handbook, and the founder of www.CommercialLaw.Academy, an e-learning platform for aspiring commercial lawyers.
Progressing through the application stage is typically the hardest part of any recruitment process, as this is where the vast majority of candidates are rejected. You might have a 1 in 50 (or 1 in 100+) chance of getting through to interview, but once you’re there, your odds are significantly higher. However, these statistics are only relevant if “luck” is the key factor. Although luck may play some part in you getting through to the interview stage, it’s certainly not a key factor in the vast majority of cases.
It’s about hard work, dedication, academic consistency, accumulating experiences, articulating skills effectively and working relentlessly on your research and application writing.
What makes a good application?
This is a question I have been considering for the better part of a decade: first as a student, then as an author, later as a trainee solicitor, and more recently as a career coach. I’ve probably reviewed close to 1,000 applications in my time, and it can be difficult to determine any one thing that distinguishes the good from the bad and the ugly.
Avoid generic answers
You’ve probably been told repeatedly to avoid “generic” answers but may be less sure how to do so. Well, matching your terminology to a firm’s terminology can be a good start. If firms are seeking specific skills, try to cover each of these in your application, and use the same wording they do (refer to “organisational skills” rather than “time-management skills”, if this is the firm’s approach). In addition, if you’re referencing a particular department or practice area, make sure you use the firm’s preferred terminology (e.g. does the firm have a “finance” or a “banking” practice?).
It goes without saying that spelling and grammar should be absolutely on point. However, equally important is your structure. If your structure is all over the place, your application will be more difficult to read, which might result in a graduate recruiter giving up before reaching the end. This could also indicate that you would struggle to draft concise, well-written client notes and research reports if hired, which doesn’t give the greatest first impression. In addition, a weak structure might lead to you including new points that overlap with or duplicate existing points, which is counterintuitive when you’re trying to make every word count.
For example, if you are discussing your motivation for wanting to work at a particular firm, do not mention training at the start, in the middle and at the end of your answer. Perhaps have a section dedicated to the development of employees, thus avoiding the risk of repeating yourself and coming across as unable to write concisely and coherently.
One trick to counter this is to set out headings before you start writing each of your answers – even short answers – as this can help to ensure that you stay focused, and your structure makes sense from the get go. You can always delete the headings before submitting the application.
Seek advice and feedback
Perhaps visit your university’s career service and/or meet with friends and family members if they have experience applying to or working in similar firms. They may be able to provide an insight into what firms are expecting from your application answers (although bear in mind that their insights may be distinctly less helpful if they work in completely different industries).
It can be really beneficial to have your applications checked by multiple sources over an extended period (whilst making improvements along the way). You are probably more likely to miss mistakes or structural issues than a person taking a fresh look at your application. After proofreading their own work multiple times, people tend to read what they think they wrote as opposed to what they actually wrote. This is something that happened to me over and over again when writing my books, so I learnt to accept any help I was offered from people willing to proofread sections. Career departments tend to offer application checks as one of their services. Use them!
How many applications should I submit?
Many candidates ask how many applications they should submit, but there is no definitive answer. First off, there is no point wasting time on an application only to discover that you are not eligible to apply or that all the places have been taken, so do your research! For example, certain opportunities might only be available to students that are studying a particular degree or have reached a specific stage in their degrees (some might even be open only to graduates).
In addition, some employers recruit on a rolling basis, meaning that they assess candidates and make offers as and when they receive applications. Beware, as this leads to the real risk that spaces may fill up before the application deadlines. Other recruiters read applications only once the deadline has passed, meaning it matters less when you submit your application.
With all this in mind, the number of applications you submit should depend on:
1. How much time you are willing and able to put in
Sending out 3 or 4 thoroughly researched and well written applications is more likely to result in you being offered interviews than if you send out 100 poorly researched, badly written applications.
2. How competitive it is to get the job for which you are applying
For competitive internships or training programmes (e.g. programmes for which perhaps 1 in 20+ applicants tend to receive an offer), you really should hedge your bets. Consider sending out at least 10-12 high quality applications – if not more – and perhaps apply to a range of different types of firms, for example international, national, regional and boutique firms. You never know which type of firm happens to be looking for someone just like you.
On that note, be realistic. If a firm states that it only accepts applications from candidates with top grades or extensive experience, consider whether you meet these criteria (or have relevant extenuating circumstances). If not, focus at least some of your efforts elsewhere and/or try to improve your grades and accumulate more experience. Even if you believe you tick all of the boxes, applying to only one or two firms is a risky strategy, as rejection can sometimes come down to bad luck (more on this below).
Dealing with rejection
Even with the right grades, highly developed skill sets and strong application answers, almost everyone will experience some form of rejection from time to time. However, rejection has been an incredibly important part of my own learning process: learning what not to do can be an essential part of truly understanding what works well. A rejection may just come down to bad luck.
A graduate recruiter may happen to have read your application at the end of a very long day and failed to pick up on some of the key points. Your application might have popped up right after the greatest application ever written, and simply not come across as well in comparison. A firm may be looking for a very specific type of candidate or degree background. Some firms are stricter than others when it comes to your university (or even school) grades. Some will even blanket reject applications if they come across a single typo. You just don’t know.
I’ve been rejected on dozens (if not hundreds) of occasions over the past decade. I was rejected after my very first phone interview, but the feedback I received helped to transform my approach to boosting my employability (I had only given non-academic examples to back up my skill development, whereas they were looking for a broader mix of experiences). I was rejected by 12 out of 12 investment banks in my first year but kept with it and finally secured a Spring Week in my second year. I was rejected by law firms for open days, campus ambassador positions, internships and training contracts, but eventually managed to secure a training contract with my first-choice firm. I also had barely any luck with consulting firms, but now work as a freelance consultant.
I couldn’t always clearly identify why I was rejected. It just happens. However, if you are receiving dozens of rejections and having no success, it’s worth having another think about the structure and content of your applications or at least having them proofread by someone else.
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