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Why Are Big Firms Removing A-Levels From Their Grad Entry?


Matt Stevens from TalentLens UK explores the background behind and implications of several large UK firms removing A-levels as a requirement for entry on their graduate programmes.

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers from across the United Kingdom have received their A-level results today. Latest indications show that 409,000 university places have been confirmed so far.

Whilst academic achievement remains a prerequisite for acceptance to further education, a small number of larger firms have decided to remove, or place less weighting on A-levels from their application process.

The future is now

To date, this group of firms includes EY, Grant Thornton and PwC.

In addition, in an attempt to counter the culture of Oxbridge favouritism, Magic Circle law firm Clifford Chance has introduced a 'blind CV' policy. 

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on improving social mobility and barriers to entry for people from less privileged backgrounds.

This has been driven by education charities, such as the Sutton Trust, who established the Pathways to Law programme in 2006 to support able Year 12 and 13 students from less advantaged situations in their pursuit of a legal career.


Barriers to entry

There is a long way to go, as illustrated by the recent news that graduates with private school credentials will earn an average of £4,500 more per annum for high status jobs than their state educated counterparts after just three years into their career.

However, an acceptance that action is required is now a common theme. Indeed, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, established under the Child Poverty Act 2010, has been tasked with exploring what more could be done to open access to elite professions.

The conclusion of their report, Non Education Barriers to the Elite Professions, suggests that “with respect to social inclusion, many elite firms are embarking on a similar journey to that experienced with other diversity strands such as gender” and that interestingly, “only over ten years or more have firms been able to embed a better business case for change”.


Back to business

Returning to the few pioneering firms who have already taken the step of removing academic requirements, their rationale has been driven by a desire to knock down any barriers to entry and to ensure that the application process is as broad and inclusive as possible.

Indeed, EY’s managing partner for talent, Maggie Stilwell, has stated that the changes will "open up opportunities for talented individuals regardless of their background and provide greater access to the profession”

This stance is supported by Gaenor Bagley, head of people at PwC, following today’s news that PwC, having scrapped UCAS scores as an entry requirement, has received its highest ever number of graduate applications this year – 41,000 compared to 35,600 in 2014.

“The surge in applications, since we changed our graduate recruitment criteria, is an early indicator that efforts to attract students from wider pockets of society is working”


Through thick and thin

Interestingly, Grant Thornton reported that applications actually dropped by a large 14% in their first year of removing academic criteria.

However, the firm did state that the quality of applications was much higher and most importantly, that 12% of those offered graduate jobs at the firm in 2014, would not have been previously eligible to apply due their academic grades.

Furthering this point, Clifford Chance’s ‘CV blind’ policy attempts to ensure that they never lose out on talent, whichever socio - economic background it emanates from. Indeed, the initiative has resulted in 100 graduate trainees from 41 different education institutions – a 30% increase in terms of diversity of representation.


Look for the whole, not the holes  

Recruiters have long complained that degree scores do not paint a true picture of a candidate’s potential and that graduates enter the workplace under-cooked in terms of their work relevant skill set.

The potential for a widespread move away from academic results has the potential to be met negatively by certain groups.

However, this ignores that firms should be interested in the ‘whole person’ and the resultant skills, ability and personality traits & values that they possess, which can be harnessed and capitalised upon by the organisation.


Just a selector

It is also worth noting that whilst the debate over academics will inevitably be the main talking point, they only act as an initial screen, in order to get one’s foot in the door.

As illustrated by the recruitment funnel (right), the crux of any recruitment process is usually when ability (critical thinking and verbal, numerical & abstract reasoning) tests are used to sift out large volumes of applicants before measures of personality are utilised to determine likely fit to an organisation’s culture.

According to a recent study of the most popular assessments by Kaplan, 98% of respondents used face to face interviews, whilst just 36% used ability tests to assist with their selection of staff.

This discounts evidence from Schmidt & Hunter, illustrating that in terms of effectiveness, the objectivity provided by ability tests, ranks them only second to assessment centres, with face to face interviews coming in third.

There will always be differences in preference - the key should always be to attempt to ensure as much impartially occurs within a recruitment process as possible.


No Revolution

To finish, academic achievements will always play a role in graduate recruitment processes – as stated by EY's Stilwell, they just will “no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door”

About time.

Matt Stevens

Pearson TalentLens


Graduates / Gen Y

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