Ernst and Young, the multinational accountancy and professional services firm, attracted a lot of media attention recently when it announced that it would no longer require applicants to have a 2:1 degree and the equivalent of three B grades at A level in order to be considered for its graduate programmes.

If you’re a postgraduate researcher or a recent doctoral graduate and you’re thinking about applying for graduate entry schemes you might be wondering what relevance this news has for you. Surely if you have a PhD it can’t really matter what class of bachelor’s degree you got, let alone how well you did at A Level? Unfortunately, in a great many cases it does still matter simply because the forms for these high throughput application processes aren’t flexible enough to deal with PhD graduates. 

Back in the 1980s firms of Chartered Accountants started to demand particular scores at A Level, arguing that research had shown that A level grades were a better predictor of success in professional exams than degree classification. In later years, as both the number of people obtaining degrees and the proportion of graduates obtaining a 2:1 or above increased significantly, most employers in other sectors started to introduce similar additional requirements. As a result, you might find that you’re prevented from applying to graduate schemes even though you’ve obtained the highest qualification that the system offers. Things can get even more complicated if you entered your undergraduate course via a ‘non-traditional’ route (e.g. through an access or foundation course or with BTEC qualifications) or with qualifications obtained outside the UK.

So, what should you do if you find that your past academic record is a barrier to applying for the kind of job that you want? The key thing is to try to contact the employer directly before making a formal application. This is particularly important as the online application forms that most employers use are often set up so that you’ll be prevented from completing them if you don’t give the ‘right’ answer to the question about qualifications. Some employers will be prepared to consider evidence which shows that past academic performance doesn’t reflect your true level of ability. In the case of non-UK qualifications companies may have systems in place for converting these into UK equivalents.

However, it’s important to be realistic. Any company will have received (literally) thousands of applications from people who do meet the minimum educational requirements. So, they may not be willing to devote time to considering exceptional cases. Also, because of the volume of applications received, employers don’t always encourage direct contact with recruitment personnel, you may have to be tenacious to find the right contact to talk to.

If you can’t persuade an employer to bend its rules in your favour you may need to re-focus your job-hunting towards smaller, less well-known companies or towards non-graduate posts which offer potential for progression into more senior roles. In the meantime, it’s to be hoped that other employers will follow where Ernst & Young have led.