Mitigating circumstances: Making up excuses?

I find it really difficult to come to terms with the fact I am a human being rather than an all-powerful robot. It does not sit comfortably with me. I want to be able to perform my best every second of the day, every day. And I can only imagine how frustrating this must be for my boyfriend, as he says, ‘you should go easy on yourself’ about fifty-thousand times a day. I’m telling you this, so you can get an idea of how uncomfortable I find talking about having mitigating circumstances.

For ages I felt as though I was making up excuses. Excuses to explain how I had let life get in the way of perfection and how I had failed to be an all-powerful robot. But then one day an Aspiring Solicitors’ grad. recruiter was looking at my application, and she said, ‘What happened during your A Levels? It’s pretty obvious that something happened, but you haven’t explained it anywhere.’ She was right. It was obvious. My application looked something like this: AAAAAA BBCE First Class First Class First Class.

I had always looked at those middle grades and thought ‘I wasn’t good enough to get great marks. What does it matter about the circumstances? Grades are grades.’ And the all-powerful robot was sad. But any other balanced, non-robotic person looking at those marks would just think, ‘Huh, I wonder what happened there? You got As in your GCSEs and high marks in your degree, so that E you got in Biology really doesn’t make any sense.’

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Me as a teeny tiny sad robot

That’s where the mitigating circumstances box comes in. It’s an explanation as to why your application looks a bit…odd. And you may as well explain what happened, and then the graduate recruiters can take it or leave it. There’s probably some firms that only accept cholera and death as mitigating circumstances. But you’re not going to win them all. And most firms will be receptive to less dramatic circumstances if they genuinely got in the way of your studies. You really lose nothing from talking about them.

So, how do you write about mitigating circumstances?

Well, here’s how I wrote about mine:

Due to …….. it became necessary for me to work full-time whilst studying for my AS and A-Levels. During this period I was working 20-35 hours a week, including both day and night shifts. Although I attempted to fit this work into my evenings and weekends, often this was not possible, and as a result my A-Levels suffered. I achieved excellent GCSEs and have obtained a First Class degree (75), which demonstrates that my A-Levels are not representative of my academic ability.

I started with half a sentence on the scenario; what happened. But I mainly focussed on the things that actually impacted my grades- the work. I finished off by emphasising my good performance before and after my naff grades. I put a positive spin on it, and suggested that it would not be fair to judge me by that A Level blip. Now, I’m willing to admit that this exact structure wouldn’t be perfect for all situations. For example, it probably wouldn’t work for mitigating circumstances that arise due to mental health issues. However, I think the general idea of stating the situation, the impact and the result (and adding a spin on at the end) is quite a good one.

While we’re on the topic of mental health, I must say that I have been very fortunate and mental illness is not something I have had to contend with. However, that means I have no first-hand experience in writing about it in an application. But as it is such an important, sensitive and tricky topic, I couldn’t just overlook it. So I went and got some expert advice from a graduate recruiter who works for a big swanky international law firm.

mitigating circumstances application training contract law career
How I see graduate recruiters who help me with this blog.

The key points she made were these. Firstly, it’s really important that you realise that the culture of law firms is changing and mental health issues have become a hot topic of discussion. As a result, graduate recruiters receive training on mental health awareness and unconscious bias. So while they may not understand exactly what you’ve been through, you’re not explaining yourself to a bunch of people who have no idea. And secondly, the graduate recruitment team will look at your mitigating circumstances in a fair and unbiased way. So you should tell them as much as you are comfortable with, and that way you can start the conversation with them about your mental health. While it’s not necessary to put every detail down, you should definitely describe how it has affected your application. For example, your exam scores.

I don’t know about you, but I think that is pretty solid advice.

Let’s be real here for a minute

You and me, we need to have a little chat. Because if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you have blips in your academic record. And if that’s the case, you’re probably worried about it. But let me give you some perspective. Imagine you’re in my shoes. Someone messages you on LinkedIn, and says they’re worried they can’t have a career in law because of a couple of their grades. They also go on to tell you that they’ve been the primary carer for their Grandma, worked evenings and weekends, helped run the debating society and have attended a number of firm open days. Do you think ‘oh yeah, but you’ve got naff GCSEs’…? NO. You think ‘wow!’

Honestly when you send me these messages, it makes me want to shake you. In a nice way. Because it is so blummin’ obvious to everyone that you have made the best of a really difficult situation. You’ve been ambitious, resilient and determined. But you’re too busy having a crisis of confidence to see it. 

how to write about mitigating circumstances law training contract career
To quote Florence: ‘shake it off shake it oo-of.’

And look, I get it. I spent so much pointless energy on feeling embarrassed by my marks. I still, on a bad day, look around a room of future-trainees and a little voice in my head goes, ‘you have the worst A-Levels in here.’ But is that helpful? No. Can I tell you the make up of a plant cell? No. But my potential and my relevant skills and knowledge vastly out-weigh any educational mishaps that happened when I was 18.

You are so much more than your worst marks. You are more than your mistakes. You are bigger than the darkest periods of your life. And you are more valuable for the adversity you have overcome.

No matter how bad you think it is- absolutely everything is salvageable. 

5 thoughts on “Mitigating circumstances: Making up excuses?

    1. Of course I’m going to read it! I’m so glad you’re enjoying it.
      Do let me know if you have any feedback or suggestions for future posts. It’s always welcome 🙂


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