Why Going to a ‘Non-Traditional’ Uni Was My Secret Weapon

I remember the day I first got in to SOAS. I had decided very last minute to go to uni – having dropped out of school and attempted to do my A Levels on my own alongside working full time as a nanny in Spain, I had never expected to achieve grades that might see me get into university. So, on the day that my results came through I was over the moon. I decided I wanted to see if SOAS had any places left, because – like me – it appeared a little unconventional.

I never managed to do things the conventional way. After taking a long time off school aged 14 due to being unwell, I ended up having done so much of my GCSE studies on my own from my sick bed that I just decided to not go back, and I ended up only going in to have my coursework and exams supervised. The way my schooling worked was most certainly not traditional, but it worked for me and allowed me to pursue my interests outside of school like learning languages and reading every work of Russian literature I could get my hands on.

I was overwhelmed and hugely excited to get my place at SOAS. It wasn’t until people started asking me where I was going to uni that I felt disappointed.

‘SOAS? What’s that?’

‘Oh you’re going to the hipster uni.’

I was so disappointed by people’s responses to me going to SOAS before I had even got there. I didn’t understand at all.

But, once I arrived at SOAS, I loved it. I forgot all the preconceptions that other people had about my university and realised exactly why I had chosen it and why it was right for me.

SOAS was truly going to become my secret weapon. Over the next three years, I discovered that the people who really know what SOAS is about, know it for the right reasons. I have had so many chats with lawyers, diplomats, professors from outside SOAS who are hugely impressed with SOAS’s eclectic range of courses, expansive view and regional focus.

I was always told that SOAS was a ‘non-traditional’ uni. Someone made a big point to me once that because I wasn’t at an Oxbridge or Russell Group uni I should feel under pressure to get a first, otherwise big firms and businesses wouldn’t want to hire me.

Now I can tell anyone who considers themselves to be at a ‘non-traditional’ uni – what I was told is a complete myth! More businesses and firms are realising that they need to further embrace diversity in who they are – diversity in the background of their trainees, diversity in what uni the candidates went to, to truly find candidates with the most potential.

I get really disheartened when I hear people talk about how they think they don’t have a chance applying for training contracts because they didn’t go to a traditional uni, or specifically to Oxford or Cambridge. It is true that a large proportion of trainees are often taken from Oxford and Cambridge, but there are still so many places that are taken up by people from other universities.

There are things that are more important than just where you go to uni:

The first is how you apply yourself when you are at uni

How hard you work at university is important, regardless of where you go. Law firms want to see a good track record, and evidence that you’re not afraid of working hard and that you have the potential to achieve good things. That being said, don’t panic too much if you found one or two modules really hard and didn’t get the best grade you had hoped to – often places are looking at overall potential and are happy to overlook a ‘dodgy module’ if you can explain and reflect on where you went wrong.

The second thing is how you focus on your own personal development

I focused on my own personal development by using my free time to enter essay competitions and find volunteering opportunities that I would enjoy and would also give me transferable skills that would be useful for my future. I signed up to the SOAS Law Society who send out so many useful emails about commercial awareness events, essay competitions and potential placements or opportunities members might want to know about.

This is pretty common at all universities so if you are not already signed up to you uni’s law society (even as a non-law student!) then I would completely recommend doing it now.

And finally, how you use your university to demonstrate and achieve your potential.

I chose SOAS ultimately because you can study things there that you wouldn’t be able to study anywhere else. Over my three years at SOAS I have studied all kinds of different topics from the perception of death in Ancient Egyptian literature, to the political and theological roots of different militant groups in the Middle East, to the changing economic landscape of Libya under Qadhafi.

In fact, at my partner interview at Simmons I specifically discussed my interest in the Middle East and Africa and the research I had been doing on Qadhafi’s Libya and the role religion had played in uplifting and later undermining it. Going to a non-traditional university gives you a chance to stand out, and that is the most important thing you can do when you are applying to law firms. You want to show a genuine interest in what they do and how that has been reflected in your experiences and studies. For me, the secret weapon that SOAS gave me was my regional speciality which fit my dream law firm perfectly.

My advice would be – don’t take modules because you think a law firm will like them. Take modules because you like them and have a real interest in them – it will make you so much more engaging at interview and help you find the firm that fits your interests.

Honestly, I credit going to a non-traditional uni for getting me my training contract, and for giving me a university experience that I have truly felt is unique, has prepared me for the real world, and that has taught me so much about contending with a world that is forever expanding and changing.

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