Series: Letters from a Law Student No.1 – My University Application
As you know by the publisher tag, my name is Charlie Cheadle. I will be reading Law (LLB) at Exeter University from September 2022, following on from what I hope to be a constructive gap year.
This article is intended to be the first of a series of ‘Letters from a Law student’, which aim to record my personal journey to becoming a lawyer and in doing so, pass on valuable advice to those readers who may also be considering pursuing a career in the law. I will include any useful advice and tips gained along the way, from teachers, tutors and during a variety of work experience placements, which will hopefully give the reader lucidity on whether to embark on the exciting process of becoming a lawyer. I want the reader to take this journey with me, from preparing for university to graduating and undertaking professional examinations – the Bar exams for me if all goes to plan.
Early on in Lower Sixth I decided I wanted to study Geography at degree level. However, although taught in more depth at A’level, essentially covering the same topics as GCSE, meant I began to find the subject laborious. Whilst Geography is a leviathan of a subject and one which I will always have a great passion for, I feel there needs to be a seismic shift (pardon the pun) in the A-Level syllabus to facilitate a far greater breadth of learning in order to keep students engaged. With Geography ruled out, and bearing in mind a love of adulation, I decided Law, being on par with Medicine, would satisfy my intellectual ego and my need to be a well-respected and well-recognised member of the community- especially by securing a place at one of the Oxbridge colleges. As they say on Love Island, ‘I put all my eggs into one basket’ and - without picking up a Law book and just nine months before UCAS applications needed to be submitted - decided that I would apply to read Law, no matter what. I would not use me as an exemplar student to follow in this regard; do not read a law degree for the kudos but for a genuine interest in the discipline. To gauge the extent of your interest in the discipline, start by reading a few introductory books on the Law. I consider ‘Letters to a Law Student’ by Nicholas McBride, ‘About Law’ by Tony Honore and ‘Learning the Law’ by Glanville Williams an excellent place to start. – in my next article I write more on the most useful books to read before applying.
I suppose with hindsight I was lucky! Reading defence barrister ‘Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories’, I was immediately hooked. His defence of George Blake, although eventually convicted of five separate accounts of espionage, which were amalgamated to equal 42 years in prison, following an in camera conviction at the Old Bailey in 1961 during the Cold War period, was inspiring. Despite being subjected to public hostility and hysteria for agreeing to represent an alleged ‘spy’, Hutchinson never faulted in carrying out his duty as a defence lawyer, no matter the personal cost. Although ‘late to the party’, I can highly recommend this read as a good introduction to what it means to be a scrupulous advocate, faithful to the rule of law and everything I aspire to be: cool under pressure, articulate and intellectually honest. It really helped me stay engaged and inspired with the Law having an inspirational figure in the legal world whose footsteps I wish to follow. Reading a few biographies on prominent legal figures can act as good guidance and enlighten a specific career route to try and follow.
A brief aside: interestingly, the unprecedented culmination of Blake’s sentences – which effectively gave him a life sentence – motivated him to escape from prison; an excellent example of why different crimes have different prison sentences attributed to them. The most iniquitous crimes gain the lengthiest prison sentences. For example, it is mandatory to give a life sentence to a person convicted of murder – although often results in serving a minimum term rather than life.
However, despite coming to the decision late, I quickly found myself becoming absorbed in the law, embracing its depth and recognising its nuance as an excellent source for debate.
Once I started reading I couldn’t stop. There are a few things I can speak passionately about: football, acting, video games etc… but the Law immediately went to the forefront of the list. I was obsessed and still am. Even though it was a complete ‘fluke’ I came across the idea of studying Law, this discipline perfectly complements how my brain is conditioned to work. Similar to studying A’ level Biology and Geography, studying the law requires a scientific, logical and analytical approach to applying statutes and legal principles. Further, just as Geography takes a more abstract view of the world and categorises processes and phenomena, the Law also tries to categorise actions from an abstract view: the law cannot be too specific or abstract so that it can be applied arbitrarily. A delicate balance must be reached. The law therefore also allows room for creativity in much the same way as History and Geography A’ level, requiring good essay writing skills and the ability to make convincing arguments. Notably, carrying out in-depth research and analysis for my EPQ on the ‘use, impact and effectiveness of stop and search powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984’, helped me recognise the need to be able to apply reason and judgment. Undertaking an EPQ also usefully expanded my presentational skills, whilst Drama also played an important role in performance, both of which will be invaluable for university moots and debates, and later when performing in court. I would therefore strongly recommend all these A’ level subjects as providing a strong foundation for degree level law –achieving high grades is a strong indication you will cope with the academic challenges of a Law degree. Also, start earlier than I did. Whilst I did read a considerable amount in a short amount of time, it is better to read an equal amount but over a longer period of time, giving yourself more time to absorb and evaluate what you have read, forming your own opinions.
Completely engaged with the Law, I began to look at University options. Although top for my school, my GCSEs were in reality very good, but not outstanding. As a typical boy, I hadn’t quite clicked academically and wasn’t completely dedicated to my studies, being more interested in FIFA, sports and girls. I achieved 4 x 9s, 1 x 8, 3 x 7s and a 5. The 5 was in Spanish, for those of you who are interested, and was probably my greatest achievement considering I didn’t spend a minute revising out of sheer disinterest in the subject. Nevertheless, having good GCSEs, achieving 4 x As at AS level and predicted 3 x A*S at A2, I was optimistic about obtaining a place at some of the top Universities. However, my advice would be not to discard GCSEs as being pointless and your predicted grades the only results Universities care about. GCSEs show your general intelligence across a broad range of subjects and can offer good mitigation if your entrance exam is weak – although sometimes this can work vice versa. Therefore, GCSEs are one of the main indicators, at the point of applying, whether to offer you a place. Although, possibly akin to GCSEs in terms of importance is the Law National Admissions Test (LNAT), and this is something that you should try and ace. Required by many of the top red brick universities as a form of entrance exam, the LNAT is intended to test a student’s adeptness for the Law and to distinguish between the top students, as most applicants are predicted high grades. As mentioned, doing well in this can mitigate against poor GCSE. However, the harsh reality is that it is considerably better if you don’t make any mistakes in terms of screwing up your GCSEs or LNAT if you want to, almost, guarantee yourself a place at a top university to read law.
I worked too hard for the LNAT – yes you really can! I spent every day of the summer before going into the Upper Sixth working to improve on it. By the end I was achieving consistent scores that would have put me in good stead to obtain a place at Durham, and interview at Oxford. This exam felt like everything. I knew coming from a public school, there could be no mitigating circumstances for me to flunk the test. I felt an immense amount of pressure. I broke on the day. I was distraught. It turns out my score was not as bad as I originally thought. Nevertheless, results were released in February, so I had to make my judgement on where to apply based on how I felt this test went, as I wanted to apply to Oxbridge where the deadline is the 15th October. Thus, I chose to limit the number of universities I applied to that require the LNAT. As much of a limitation that I thought this was at the time, in reality there are a myriad of excellent Law schools that don’t require the LNAT, Cambridge being one. Thus I applied to Cambridge. Although, don’t think by choosing Cambridge you have escaped doing an entrance exam! Exeter was my second choice, and I will do another article later on why I chose to defer my place to Exeter over my gap year and declined reapplying to Oxbridge.
Our head of sixth form told us that we had to “live and breathe Oxbridge without getting too attached to the place”. This is impossible. You cannot work every minute of every day for something without desperately coveting the end and not forming an immense attachment with it. Cambridge was my dream and I was willing to go to destructive lengths to achieve this! I had it all wrong from the start. The omen for my unsuccessful application was already written.
By this point, I wanted Cambridge more than the Law. This was destructive for two reasons. Firstly, my attitude to want the place more than the course would have been tacitly clear and, in reality, was a distraction from my naturally growing love for the Law. I spent so much energy thinking “Would a Cambridge student do this?” or “Reading this book would impress a tutor”. Such thoughts took over my mind and corroded my originality. They diverted me from my organic course of discovery in the law, reading what I enjoy. I was trying so hard to be an ‘Oxbridge’ student – whatever that means – and wasn’t myself. I tried to find the perfect answer to questions – when there often isn’t one – and my answers were often robotic. I didn’t recognise myself over this process. I lost my sense of humour, became miserable and gained weight.
‘You can’t put an old head on young shoulders’, but take my advice: you need to question the real reasons you are applying to Oxbridge and if the answer isn’t because the course there is perfect for you, then don’t apply. Secondly, my personality change destroyed deep rooted relationships. My (now ex) girlfriend and I became distanced and stranger like – a definite dynamic between us was lost as a result of this process. I believe this was the start of the end. My dad, who lives separately from me requested that “we have the old Charlie back”. I became detached from the real world due to my absolute dedication to Cambridge and this came at the consequence of people becoming detached from me. My advice here is simple: don’t sacrifice yourself for something as superficial as a university name.
I did, however, write a personal statement that in reflection was very good – if I do say so myself – and subsequently I successfully gained an interview at Cambridge. Whilst in fairness, having delivered some good mock interviews beforehand, the interview fell flat. I knew immediately I had failed to secure a place. Learning from this experience, don’t try and be anything you are not; don’t offer up answers that are forcefully trying to be academic – just say what you genuinely think. Sometimes during the Oxbridge process, you can often put academics on a pedestal treating them as superior beings. They are not. They are normal, bright, people, who are interested in whether you can offer up an answer, defend it and fit the ‘Oxbridge mold’. You don’t need to try and be a genius to get into these places. If you have made it to interview, you are clever enough.
Whilst I was heartbroken at the time of rejection, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. If it wasn’t for the torture of learning how to write more academically, articulate my ideas more effectively and structure my essays with more order, I wouldn’t have achieved 3 A*s at A-level. Moreover, I wouldn’t have realised that in reality, for where I am on my academic journey, Oxbridge is not fitting for me. I need a different learning environment to thrive. Exeter is the dream place I need, and I will explain why in a future article.
Now, you are up to date on my Uni application process, I cannot wait to share more of the journey with you and hope I have given some food for thought.
 In camera (private) cases are those where part, or all, of the court process is not open to the public or press.