Should you apply for a vacation scheme or a training contract? Finding your best application type!

Jacob Miller

Legendary Member
Future Trainee
Forum Team
  • Feb 15, 2020

    The pathway to a training contract at a commercial law firm can be bumpy. More often than not, candidates will make multiple applications, to multiple firms, usually across multiple application cycles. With that in mind, understanding whether one should consider applying for a training contract directly, or for a vacation scheme as a means towards a training contract is most useful!

    With that in mind, this discussion aims to demystify the decision-making process surrounding the type of application a given candidate should make. First of all, we’ll have a look at the annual application cycle timeline, from start to finish. After that, we’ll look at some general eligibility criteria for applications. Finally, we’ll have a think about some questions a candidate may wish to ask themselves before deciding whether to apply for vacation schemes or training contracts.

    This discussion won’t be an exhaustive list of every consideration a candidate ought to make before deciding whether to make an application for vacation schemes or training contracts. Please feel free to follow up with further questions below!

    Note that I have already considered what vacation schemes and training contract applications actually are in one of my prior articles, and don’t want to simply rehash that conversation here. If you are new to the process, I would suggest familiarising yourself with that discussion before reading this article.

    The Application Cycle timeline

    This section will briefly look at the timeline for the application cycle, taking a broad-brush look at some key points in the process. Note that the timelines we’re discussing here are based on “normal” circumstances – the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly altered these timelines and, as such, this application cycle has not followed this usual template. Remember too that the timelines given here will vary to some extent across different firms. There are various online resources which provide annual firm-by-firm updates on the application process and deadlines.

    August – October: applications open
    Between August and October, most firms open both their vacation scheme and training contract application portals. Note that some firms recruit on a rolling basis, which means they review applications and issue invitations to subsequent application stages as and when they receive written applications. Other firms wait until after the deadline to review all their applications. This is known as non-rolling recruitment.

    November – December: first deadlines
    Most applications for winter vacation schemes close between the end of November and early December. Some firms place their deadlines for spring and summer schemes towards the end of December, however, so check this on a firm-by-firm basis.

    January: further deadlines
    Most firms will close applications for spring and summer schemes throughout January. As above, though, this ought to be checked on a firm-by-firm basis. Some firms, for example, may vary deadlines based on degree programme or stage – for example, making the deadline for non-law applicants earlier than those with a qualifying law degree. This may also affect direct training contract applications.

    January – March: further assessments
    This period typically involves the processing of applications for non-rolling firms, before further stages of assessment. Stages of the application process will vary by firm; as a brief reminder, some common stages of the application process include:
    • Psychometric testing
    • Telephone and/ or video interviews
    • Written exercises
    • Assessment Centres (including interviews and/ or case studies etc)

    Generally speaking, firms who offer spring schemes will process applications for these before moving onto processing summer scheme applications. If you’ve applied for a summer scheme, bear in mind that you may need to wait slightly longer than those who have applied for an earlier scheme.

    Most firms will provide a general timeline for when you can expect to hear back about each subsequent stage of the application process.

    April: Spring schemes and continued further assessments
    April normally sees spring schemes taking place over the Easter break and continued further assessment stages from firms whose deadlines were later than March. Firms whose direct training contract applications have not yet opened will generally open in April.

    May – June: first TC application deadlines, some summer schemes
    Generally, the first training contract application deadlines are around May and June. Some summer schemes also run in June.

    July: TC application deadlines and summer schemes
    The majority of direct training contract applications close around the end of July. July also tends to be a busy month for summer schemes!

    In terms of post-vacation scheme training contract offers, timelines and approaches diverge between firms. For example, some firms offer exit interviews on the last day of schemes and subsequently make offers in the following days or weeks. Other firms run post-scheme interviews several weeks after schemes.

    August: final TC applications close, further assessments for TC
    The few firms whose training contract application windows haven’t closed by July will almost invariably close in August. Further assessments for training contract applications also usually begin in early August. Offers from training contract applications will typically be made across August and September.

    Application Criteria

    Although this discussion covers the considerations that a candidate ought to make when they have the choice between making applications for both vacation schemes and training contracts, that is not always a luxury everyone has. Some firms have strict eligibility criteria.

    This will usually involve classifying applicants by the stage they are at relative to their degree (e.g., penultimate year, final year, or graduate) and by their degree subject (i.e., whether it is a qualifying English law degree or not). For example, a firm may stipulate that candidates are only welcome to apply for a summer vacation scheme if they are penultimate or final year law students (or law graduates), while winter schemes might be for non-law students.

    It is essential to check these eligibility criteria before starting an application: it would be awful to put hours of effort into an application, only to find out one was ineligible for it in the first place!

    Points to Consider when Choosing your Application

    Now we’ve considered some key elements of the application timeline and eligibility criteria, we’ll have a think about some of the considerations a candidate ought to make when deciding whether to apply for a vacation scheme or training contract.

    Deciding what application to make will always depend heavily on your personal circumstances and these should be borne in mind at all times. As always, if there are confidential personal circumstances which will affect your decision to apply for vacation scheme or training contract and you feel you need further advice on this, you are welcome to private message any of the Forum Team!

    The following points for consideration aren’t in any particular order – their relative importance will be determined entirely by each candidate’s personal circumstances and priorities:

    1. Time: Vacation schemes take time. Traditional (i.e., non-virtual) schemes generally last for at least two weeks, sometimes up to four. For candidates who have work commitments, or who are otherwise unable to set aside several weeks of their life (for example, due to caring commitments for children or family members), this may render vacation schemes unsuitable.

    2. Facetime: There is no doubt that vacation schemes do give candidates more facetime with a law firm. Though increased facetime is great on some fronts, it is a dual-edged sword. Vacation schemes, especially those which last upwards of a fortnight, can be exhausting. While most applicants know and accept that commercial law is almost never going to be a standard 9-5 job, it is nevertheless much harder to perform at your best under assessment when you are physically or mentally drained. With that said, increased facetime allows more ‘two-way’ decision making. As well as assessors getting a better idea of whether a candidate is the right fit for the firm, the candidate can also better understand whether they themselves think the firm is right for them in terms of work and culture. For candidates who have the (enviable!) decision to choose between multiple training contract offers, having had increased facetime with one firm over another can be a significant influencing factor in where they choose to train.

    3. Firm emphasis: An increasing number of firms now recruit more from vacation schemes instead of accepting direct training contract applications. Some no longer accept training contract applications whatsoever without candidates having first completed a vacation scheme. This is especially true for firms with much smaller trainee intakes, so many American firms with London offices find themselves in this bracket. Some firms may only screen training contract applications if they have been unable to fill their trainee intake from vacation scheme applicants. This also has the knock-on effect that spots for direct training contracts at these firms are much more competitive.

    4. Stage of cycle: Earlier in the cycle, training contract applications may not have opened and, as such, sending vacation scheme applications may be more suitable. Furthermore, there is a reasonable chance that, if firms screen vacation scheme applications before considering training contract applications, candidates can re-apply for a training contract later in the same cycle with a revamped application. This gives a second ‘crack at the whip’ and any feedback or further understanding gained since sending off the initial vacation scheme application could be the extra leverage required to make it to the next stage! Be aware, though, some firms will have policies against making multiple applications in the same cycle, so this is worth checking.

    5. Other applications/ offers: If a candidate has already been made an offer for a vacation scheme, but wishes to keep making applications (for example, in case of non-conversion), it may be the case that other vacation schemes would clash with the scheme they have already been offered. As such, candidates in that position might wish to make further training contract applications to avoid being in a position of clashing offers. Briefly on the point of clashing vacation schemes, however, we generally advise that candidates in this position take the following steps:
      • Email or call the firm who made either the second offer, or your ‘priority firm’ to explain the situation and ask if they have any alternative dates.
      • If they are unable to help, contact the other firm to explain and ask the same.
      • If neither firm can help, candidates will (obviously) need to turn down one scheme or the other. After deciding which scheme to accept, the other should be turned down timeously as a matter of good courtesy – it is worth asking at this stage whether one may be considered for a training contract in place of the vacation scheme, though. Some firms may be willing to offer a training contract interview to candidates who are unable to accept a place on the vacation scheme. Any request like this should be made as soon as the candidate becomes aware of the clash, both as a professional courtesy and also because this increases the chance that one firm will be able to be flexible.
    6. Other work experience: candidates with very little work experience, or a patchy CV, may find it harder to show the requisite skills and experiences to secure a training contract. As such, vacation schemes can be a great way of building the skills and experiences required to show the ability and motivation to secure a training contract. Although it is possible to secure a training contract without much legal experience, it may be harder to convincingly justify one’s interest in a career in the field without the experience that a vacation scheme, for example, may provide.

    7. Career path doubts: not everyone who applies for a vacation scheme does so because they are heart-set on pursuing a career in commercial law and have been since the age of five! For a considerable number of applicants, a vacation scheme is a way to explore commercial law in more depth and helps them understand whether it is a pathway they truly want to go down.

    Ultimately, it is highly likely that most candidates will make a combination of vacation scheme and direct training contract applications to different firms in each application cycle. The type of applications made between firms, even in the same cycle, will vary by myriad considerations and be based on each applicant’s personal circumstances. I hope this guide will give you an idea of the kinds of factors to consider when planning your applications. As always, please feel free to follow up with more questions below or by DM for confidential matters.


    Active Member
    Premium Member
    M&A Bootcamp
    Jul 11, 2020
    @Jacob Miller thank you for this wonderful post.

    I have a full time job and will be applying for direct TCs 2024. Which of below options would increase my chances of securiing a direct TC? (I will plan my 3 month work Assignment accoringly):

    - Start Direct TC apps in December 2021 and onwards OR
    - Do direct TC apps Sep 2021 to Nov 2021 AND April to June 2022

    I cognizant that earlier I apply the better.

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