When I grow up, I want to be: How to talk about your A Levels
Last week PwC have announced that they are no longer going to take into consideration UCAS points, as part of a graduate's application to the global professional services firm. This is a bold move and has been heralded across the media and in graduate recruitment sectors. For a firm with the prestige and accolades that it has received, it seems bizarre that a company would no longer look for consistent academic excellence.
Digging down into the detail of why PwC have decided to do this reveals a little more of what companies are expecting from their graduate intake. But first it would be worthwhile thinking about why the hell graduates are measured on what they were doing while still at school.
How many gold stars did you get in Reception?
The point of questioning your A Level results as part of graduate applications may seem a little bizarre. So why do employers do it? AS and A Levels were part of a stepping stone that allowed you to get into university, where you could then get a degree which would allow you to get a job. Right?
The most obvious reason for employers to see what you did at Sixth Form or College is to have some idea of general academic performance over time. Employers like to see growth in their applicants and potential to meet challenges. If there is a clear, marked improvement over time or consistent academic excellence, employers will be able to gauge a fuller picture of the applicant.
Another reasonable point to acknowledge why employers are looking at grades from years gone by is that A Levels can add strings to a graduate's bow. Degrees can be limiting in their focus, while employers might be looking for a wider skill set. For example, if an applicant had studied Business Management at university but also had an A Level in Spanish, employers would no doubt be impressed by their international potential. The same could be said for various choices made at A and AS Level.
However, to be slightly more cynical and look at this from a point of a busy recruiter at a large organisation, trying to sift through applicants, the A Level issue can become a stick to beat graduates with. Example: two practically identical graduates, one position available and one has got AAB in their A Levels and the other received BCC, who are you going to take a punt on?
When I grow up I want to be
Should they however? Should graduates be faced living with the consequences of choices they made at least 5 years ago? Should applicants be forced to live with the career decisions they thought they would want when they were just 15 or 16 years old?
It is not beyond belief that graduates would change their ambitions between the age of 15 and 16 and when they reach 21 or 22 when they traditionally graduate? Should employers believe that while they were arsing around in Sixth Form thinking of ways to score booze that employers should take the duly suffering grades as an accurate representation of intelligence or competence, especially when they pulled their socks up at university and got themselves a damned good degree?
This is all hypothetical of course and is obviously not as clear cut as this, but employers must surely come to realise soon enough that very few people know what they want to do, or could predict what they would want to do, when they reach post-graduation life.
Often employers are much more concerned with the achievement in AS and A Levels rather than the actual subject studied. But this returns us to the reason that blue chip organisation PwC have decided to move against placing too much emphasis on the grades achieved at Sixth Form and College.
In the press release that accompanied the announcement of the change of tact, Head of Student Recruitment at PwC, Richard Irwin, is quoted saying 'Our experience shows that whilst A Level assessment can indicate potential, for far too many students there are other factors that influence results.' And this is exactly the point that has been frustrating many graduates for years and years. While the grades might not be there, they more than make up for it in other areas.
An age-old irony in graduate recruitment is that some graduates will have the best grades in the class, while someone with lesser academic achievement will have more experience. It is all about striking the balance between the two.
Board Member at PwC and Head of People at the firm, Gaenor Bagley, and also quoted in the release, taps into another issue that might be found in using A Level results. 'Removing the UCAS criteria will create a fairer and more modern system in which students are selected on their own merit, irrespective of their background or where they are from. By breaking down social barriers we will open the door to thousands of students who may have previously thought a graduate role with PwC was out of reach for them.'
It would be pointless and wrong to argue about equality of opportunity at school and sixth form level. This is purely not the case, while this does lead onto more opportunities for access to the top universities, achievement at those universities is not a given. PwC themselves, are quoted in the Guardian for saying the same 'The strong correlation that exists in the UK between social class and school academic performance suggests that by placing too much emphasis on UCAS scores, employers will miss out on key talent from disadvantaged backgrounds, who can perform less well at school.'
While it is not a fix for a lack of diversity in the workplace by ignoring A Level results, it must be pleasing for graduates to see that steps are being taken to widen the pool, which down the line will be good for PwC. The firm hits the nail on the head by admitting they are after 'all round capabilities' rather than a brilliance at essays and exams, which is essentially what A Level results show.
By James Howell