Application forms are an integral part of landing a training contract or pupillage, yet all too often candidates don’t take enough time or care to produce an error-free submission. What can you do to make sure your application stands out – for the right reasons? Real World finds out
There are so many mistakes students make with application forms – where does one start?" exclaims one graduate recruiter. She is not alone in her annoyance at intelligent students’ seeming ineptitude when it comes to applying for training contracts and pupillages.
These days, most recruiters ask candidates to apply for vacancies online – although a handful of law firms and barristers’ chambers still simply request a CV and covering letter. But the advance of technology does not seem to prevent students from committing some howlers when applying. If anything, the overall quality of application forms could actually be slipping.
So how do you avoid the common pitfalls and make sure your application stands out from the crowd to get you through to that all-important interview stage? We asked several graduate recruiters – here are their top tips:
1. Don’t cut and paste
"The classic mistake is cutting and pasting and forgetting to change the law firm name," says Deborah Dalgleish, head of UK trainee solicitor recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. "So you apply to Freshfields saying how interested you are in Slaughter and May – a big no-no." Some information by definition will be repeated from application to application, but make sure that you tailor your answers for each firm or set of chambers. For future barristers taking the Olpas route (see our feature "Called to the bar" for more details), you only have 150 words to tailor your application, so use that space wisely.
2. Keep it simple
LG’s Vikki Horton agrees that mentioning another firm’s name is the worst offence candidates can commit. But she says the key to a successful application is keeping the form "brief and concise". She adds: "Draw from lots of different experiences when answering the questions."
3. Do your homework
"Research the firm," advises Jennie Bishop, graduate recruitment and trainee manager at Berwin Leighton Paisner. "If a candidate has gone out of their way to find out about the firm, why they feel they are suited to it, and seem interested in the work, it leaves a very positive impression."
4. Honesty is the best policy
"Always be yourself and talk frankly about your experiences," suggests Clare Harris, head of graduate recruitment at Lovells. "Use a range of life experiences," she advises. "Some university initiatives that give the reader of the form some sense of what interests you, and what level of contribution you may have made to these activities." She also recommends that applicants don’t underestimate the value of work experience at any level: "All work that brings you into contact with people, taking responsibility for things, meeting deadlines and prioritising, is all valuable and transferable."
5. Don’t regurgitate a firm’s brochure
"Another waste of time is repeating information from the firm’s brochure or its website," says Freshfields’ Deborah. "There is zero point in telling a recruiter how many partners they have, which clients they act for, or that they came top of the European mergers and acquisitions league table – we know that already." She advises candidates to use this information to explain what it is about the firm that attracts you.
6. Back up your arguments
One of the most important things candidates must do is substantiate their statements and give examples of what they mean when answering the questions. Lovells’ Clare explains: "For example, if a question is asking about when individuals have shown leadership or motivation, merely saying that they took part in a project is not enough. They need to give specific examples of what they did that demonstrated the quality being assessed."
7. Be error-free
"There are incredibly few forms that contain no spelling, typographical or grammatical errors – so that in itself is enough to make a form stand out," says Deborah.
8. Pay attention to detail
Clare agrees it is the seemingly small things that candidates miss, such as ensuring words are spelt correctly. "This is important for law, where so much of what we do is about efficient and accurate communication, both written and oral," she warns. "The application is the first time we see whether someone is aware of how they come across in their written communication. You would not be very happy if you had a lawyer representing you who took a sloppy approach."
One other piece of advice: make sure you keep a copy of your application form. When you reach the interview stage you will be asked to provide more detail to the answers you have given. And, it almost goes without saying, be completely honest with your application – remember that even the smallest of untruths will be uncovered at interview stage.