Improving the odds: how to write a good pupillage application
Pupillage deadline is imminent. Pupil barrister Daniel Sokol’s main advice is not to be dull
guardian.co.uk, Friday 20 April 2012 12.08 BST
Deadline for pupillage applications is next week. Daniel Sokol offers tops on how to improve your odds
The deadline for pupillage applications is imminent. Thousands are hoping to survive the brutal cull from application to interview. At this stage in the process, the cards have been dealt. It is too late to improve degree results, win a moot, or write an article for the Modern Law Review. As the philosopher said, “if you ain’t got the cards, you ain’t gonna win”. Here are some tips (my personal view) on improving the odds for those with good cards.
My main advice is this: don’t be dull. What makes an application boring is rarely the subject matter – almost anything is interesting if framed appropriately – but a combination of poor style and dry content. Strive for a clear and succinct prose, eloquent but natural. Ironically, a natural style requires much effort. Every sentence, every word, must be carefully chosen. If a word is unnecessary, remove it. If a word is too often repeated, replace it. As a general rule, use the active voice.
One of the most important lessons I have learned during pupillage is attention to detail. Barristers must develop a passion for accuracy. This trait should emerge from the application. After dozens of drafts, when – with heavy eyelids – you are convinced the application can no longer be improved, show it to others. This is no time for timidity or embarrassment. The poet Paul Valéry said that a poem is “never finished, merely abandoned”. Adopt the same mentality with the application.
Ask yourself why the reader should care about what you write. What are you trying to convey? One of my interests was close-up magic. I wanted to include this in my application, but I was aware that, like chess and stamp-collecting, magic suffers from a high geek index. It is also, at first blush, unrelated to the role of barrister. The challenge was to compose a vibrant passage that would impress rather than bore, and explain the relevance of magic to practise at the bar. This was the end result (commentary in square brackets):
“As a semi-professional magician [technical skill], I have performed at balls and weddings [social interaction] but also in the bustling Djamaa al Fna square in Morocco [travelled], hospital wards [link with interest in clinical negligence], rowdy restaurants on Friday nights [real life], children’s parties [warms the frosty heart of the barrister], and, most challenging of all, nursing homes [why so? Stimulates interest]. A good magician must be calm under pressure, possess a flawless technique, and present the effect in a clear, engaging and confident manner. Many of these qualities are common to good barristers [relevance].”
As with submissions to a judge, it is best to start with the strongest points. The most impressive achievements should go first. It is remarkable how often an accomplishment lies buried in the middle of an otherwise dry paragraph. Give your finest achievement pride of place, at or near the top of the section and parade it in its full glory.
Stories are an excellent way to generate interest. They are more memorable than mere statements (“I’m very good at this and that”). In light of the word limit, they must be brief and meaningful. Again, this will take time. Oscar Wilde reportedly started a letter to a friend with this apology: “sorry to write such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a shorter one”. Prior to the editing stage, amble in the attic of the brain in search of the most appropriate story. In a corner of my attic, I stumbled upon the following trinket which, after much linguistic dusting, appeared in my application:
“Last month [recent event], the guest speaker failed to turn up at a meeting of the Osler Club of London, a medical society founded in 1928 and teeming with eminent clinicians [involvement in medical society, link to interest in clinical negligence]. When it was apparent that the speaker would not appear, I asked the visibly concerned President if he would like me to talk for an hour on a topic of interest [initiative, confidence, willingness to help]. He said yes. I spoke, unprepared, for the allotted time. [ability to improvise, mastery of subject, public speaking]”
The application form is, in part, an exercise in written advocacy. The goal is to persuade the decision-maker, in a few minutes, to place the form in the “interview” pile. If, upon answering a substantive question, you suspect other candidates will have provided a reply of equal quality, think of a better one. The competition is too fierce for average or ordinary answers. Strive for excellence, develop the barrister’s passion for accuracy, and rummage in the attic for diamonds that will sparkle.
Daniel Sokol is a pupil barrister and Honorary Senior Lecturer in Medical Ethics at Imperial College London. He sat on the medical school admissions panel at St George’s, University of London