Application forms made simple
30 June 2011
With prospects in the graduate job market looking increasingly gloomy, it has never been more vital to make your application form stand out. Here are some top tips on how to make your application work for you.
As you embarked on the long and winding road to a career in the law, you probably pictured yourself in a suit barking orders at your minions in a board room that overlooked the London skyline. In reality, you’re probably working your way through endless application forms, worrying about where you’ll end up.
The quest for the training contract - the end goal of years of studying and thousands of pounds worth of debt - can be an arduous one.
It may feel like all your peers have great jobs lined up when all you have is an interview at the bank for a graduate loan and a massive headache from the mountain of application forms you have yet to fill out.
The trouble for prospective trainees is that no two firms use the same form, and all expect the same higher-than-high standards from applicants, meaning that completing application forms can be a time consuming and often wearisome business.
Moreover, some firms receive more than 2,000 applications for just 50 places, so the graduate recruitment teams can afford to throw your form in the bin if they feel it is not up to scratch.
But fear not, Lawyer 2B is here to help, with the following pointers.
Avoid the scatter-gun approach
There is no limit to the number of applications you are allowed to submit. That said, quality is far more important than quantity, so it is better to make fewer applications and spend more time on each one.
Research the firms that interest you and make a list of the ones to which you would like to apply. Have a think about which other firms are in the same peer group.
For instance, if your heart is set on working for a family law practice, then ask yourself whether there is any point in applying to the magic circle firms. Another tip is to complete the application forms for the firms you least want to work for first because, as they say, practice makes perfect.
Do you fit the bill?
Once you have decided which firms you want to apply to, find out whether you satisfy their minimum entry requirements. This is typically a predicted 2:1. Most firms will want a breakdown of all your degree marks, even those that do not count towards your final classification, as well as your A-level and GCSE (or equivalent) grades.
Some firms’ online applications will not allow you to proceed to the second stage if you do not have enough UCAS points. And remember that some firms will not include general studies as a subject when calculating how many UCAS points you have.
One magic circle graduate recruitment partner says: “Firms typically ask for individual module grades for each year at university as it allows them to see what contributed to the overall grade. It can also help us to identify blips in a candidate’s academic achievement, which may be caused by mitigating circumstances.”
A graduate recruitment partner at another firm says recruiters are not only using the education section of an application form to assess academic rigour, but are also looking for any holes in applicants’ studies.
“Candidates should ensure that any gaps in their education are explained,” claims the partner. “Whether they’ve been travelling or working in a furniture store, for example. Whatever they’ve been doing, they should demonstrate the kind of attributes employers will be looking for, like resilience and initiative.”
Meanwhile, the partner advises that where an applicant has an A-level in a less academic subject her firm would pay closer attention to the degree breakdown. She adds that most firms would not consider a candidate who achieved a majority of 2:2s to date unless they had encountered extenuating circumstances.
Also, if you’ve applied to a firm for a training contract in the past you should seriously consider whether it is a good idea to submit another application form. Some firms recommend that you do not reapply, while others will only take your second application seriously if there has been a material improvement in your achievements. That said, if a firm rejects you for a vacation placement, do not be put off applying to it for a training contract.
Competency based questions
All questions asked on application forms are trying to assess whether you possess developed communication skills and have the ability to use speech to express ideas, give information or explanations and produce grammatical, well expressed, easily understood text.
As a lawyer you will often need to explain very technical legal matters to a client in a way they understand.
When answering competency based questions you need to think about demonstrating and highlighting key skills, such as good oral and written communication, initiative, teamwork and commercial awareness. An example of a competency-based question might be - “Please give an example of when you were working with others and your judgement was challenged. How did you respond?”
Attention to detail
Read the form thoroughly before attempting to complete it and make sure you answer every single question. Also, avoid misreading questions.
Make sure any examples you use are relevant. As fascinating as it may have been, the Peter Andre and Katie Price divorce battle isn’t really an example of a current commercial issue. This may have been a more appropriate example to use if you were applying to a firm with a strong matrimonial or family practice.
Think beyond merely answering the question and try to tune into what the recruiters are actually looking for.
How does your response relate to the role and work undertaken by a trainee or solicitor? Think about the skills required to do the job: do you have these skills? And if so, have you outlined them appropriately? Make sure any sweeping statements are backed up with relevant examples.
Also make sure they answer every aspect of each question because some sections ask a number of questions and it’s easy just to focus on the first part. Make sure you answer all sections, breaking it down as you would an essay question in an exam, and include a conclusion. Also, don’t forget to stick to the word limit as some applications will not let you exceed this and will cut you off mid-sentence.
Don’t copy and paste
Avoid copying and pasting between applications like the plague. If you really can’t help yourself, make sure you change all the references to a firm’s name for your next application.
Prepare longer answers in a separate word document and copy them into the application form once you have checked for spelling and grammar. But don’t forget that any formatting will be lost when you copy your answers over.
Check your language
Spelling mistakes can be costly, so use a dictionary and thesaurus. And if you are filling in a form online, avoid using casual language or slang that might be acceptable in a friendly email. And don’t forget that law firms should never be referred to as companies.
If the application form has to be filled in by hand, employers will take the opportunity to judge your presentation and accuracy skills, so make sure your handwriting is neat and legible. And if the form says use a black ballpoint pen, don’t use a blue biro.
Don’t miss the deadline
Yes, it sounds obvious, but with so many deadlines competing for your attention it’s very easy to let one slip through the net. So to avoid the risk of missing a deadline, prepare a timetable to help you prioritise. And don’t forget to put 31 July in your diary as this is the deadline for most training contract applications.
Also, find out how to apply. Most of the larger firms now use online applications, while some still require a CV and covering letter.
Where an application form asks you to write down any questions you have for the interview, you should always put some down as recruitment is a two-way process.
Don’t put someone down as a referee without asking them first. It is also worth identifying potential referees as soon as possible so that you can get to know them and vice versa.
And finally, take your time. A good application form will take you days rather than hours to fill in. Don’t be afraid to get a friend or a careers advisor to give it a once-over as they might spot a mistake you missed.
Also, remember to keep a copy of your final application form so you can refresh your memory before an interview.
For many people the training contract market is a tough one to break into. The standards are high and competition is fierce. Lawyers themselves cannot believe how tough it is to get a foot in the door now, and many recruiters admit that you might not get a look in without the right A-level grades, a good 2:1 and a gleaming CV stuffed with relevant work experience.
The only piece of advice at this point, and one you will have heard numerous times, is: don’t give up. We have given you some advice from the experts on how to improve your chances of getting your foot in the door. There is a training contract out there, but it has to be with the firm that is right for you.