10 Ways to Pursue a Highly Competitive Career

Image shows a man running with dark blue mountains behind him. Some paths in life are highly competitive – there are only 8,000 places in UK medical schools available for more than 16,000 highly qualified applicants, and fewer than 7,000 places at Oxford and Cambridge for the 35,000 plus applications they receive every year.

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We’ve already provided guidance for students seeking to pursue these highly competitive paths – see our advice for prospective medical students and our advice for Oxbridge applicants. But what if the career you’re interested in is harder to pursue even than these hyper-competitive paths?
We’re going to use three highly competitive career paths as examples:

  • MP – there are only 650 MPs in the UK Parliament, compared with thousands of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, and that only counts those who have already managed to raise a £500 deposit or get selected by their political party’s selection process.
  • Screenwriter – all creative careers, from poet to director to artist, are highly competitive, especially for those who want to earn more than a pittance. We’re looking specifically at screenwriters as representatives of the creative industries in general.
  • Sportsperson – becoming an internationally successful sportsperson is, by its very definition, furiously competitive, yet should – in theory at least – be entirely dependent on your skill.

Between them, these three career paths are representative of most of the struggles people will face in any highly competitive career – so if you want to be a top City lawyer rather than an MP, an academic rather than a screenwriter, or a professional musician rather than a sportsperson, this article should still have some useful advice for you.

1. Find someone to mentor you

Image shows two women talking above some escalators.
Good advice from someone who knows your field is invaluable.

It’s a sad cliché that it’s not what you know but who you know. In politics, the next US presidential election may well be fought between a Clinton and a Bush, and there are no shortage of political dynasties in the UK as well – for instance, the son of the noted Labour politician Tony Benn is an MP, and his granddaughter has twice been a prospective parliament candidate as well. In other fields, the same tendency holds (though as this link indicates, a political career in the USA is hereditary to an unusual degree).
However, it would be mistaken to think that this is purely because of nepotism (after all, Tony Benn spoke out furiously against inherited privilege). It’s also the case that people seeking to go into the same career as their parents will have an immediate advantage in that they have someone they can ask for guidance in how best to succeed in that field, whereas those of us without a parental connection have to figure it out for ourselves. This advantage can be evened out by doing your utmost to find yourself a mentor who can help guide you in the right direction. Finding such a person can be hard, of course – but that’s why these careers are so competitive. Internships and similar opportunities can be one way of making this kind of contact.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Careers articles."2. Don’t ignore traditional routes to entry

It can be tempting to try for some kind of fast-track method to entry, but quite often, the best way to get into a competitive career is the standard route.

Image shows the Houses of Parliament.
There are accepted routes you can follow into a parliamentary career.

For an MP, this might be volunteering with the local branch of your political party of choice, followed by election to the local council, followed by putting yourself forward as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, followed – hopefully – by winning the election and becoming an MP. For a scriptwriter, it might be writing your socks off until you get something of a sufficient quality to send to an agent, followed by a long apprenticeship as a writer for a soap, followed by opportunities to pitch your own ideas until one of them is taken up and produced by a major channel. For a sportsperson, the ‘traditional’ way of working your way up through the various levels of competition and training increasingly hard may well be the only option.
The thing that all of these routes have in common is that they are long and slow. Other competitive jobs, such as becoming a tenured academic, take an even longer time. That’s why it’s so tempting to ignore the traditional method and try to find a quick route in – but the traditional routes have a lot to recommend them, not least that they are tried-and-tested and thus at least a little bit more likely to get you to your ultimate goal.

3. Don’t ignore non-traditional routes to entry

That said, while routes that sound too good to be true usually are, don’t dismiss alternatives out of hand. Among MPs, about 90 have never had a career outside politics even though the public is increasingly opposed to career politicians – so coming from outside the political party machine might be an advantage. We’ve also written before about how law firms are increasingly choosing to hire non-law graduates. So if your life pushes you in a direction that seems contrary to your ambitions, all might not be lost.

4. Use the small things

The brilliant Robert Cronshaw, who has written for us on the subject of how to get into medical school, suggests the use of “the aggregation of marginal gains” – if, every step of the way, you’re just a little bit ahead of your competitors, the cumulative effect of those gains will ultimately lead you to success. This is particularly relevant in any meritocratic competition, or one where there is a direct correlation between effort and success. If you can train a little longer, stay in the office a little later or go over that piece of music a few more times, you may find it is this kind of determination, rather than any flash of inspiration, that leads you to success.
In fields that are less meritocratic, this guideline still applies – although in less obvious ways. It can be a case of making sure that when someone offers you a favour, you take them up on it. If you’re being introduced to someone who’s important in your field, make sure you smile and impress them – and give them your card if you can. Many people will worry about coming across as pushy – but it’s unfortunately the case that opportunities will seldom come your way if you don’t ask for them.

5. Be self-confident

Image shows two men shaking hands.
Making a good first impression can help your career hugely.

The difference between a great scriptwriter whose work sits mouldering on their hard drive and a great scriptwriter whose work can be seen any cinemas nationwide can simply be a matter of self-belief. Success requires action; action requires self-confidence, or at least a convincing pretence at it. If you don’t think your writing is good enough to be seen, you will find it difficult to persuade anyone else to think differently. If you don’t think you should be elected, you will struggle to get votes. If you don’t think you can win the race, you’ve already lost.
There is no magic solution to gaining self-confidence – if there were, advertisers would have a much harder job of selling us just about anything. For instances when self-confidence is required – a phone call with an agent, an audition, a trial – faking it convincingly can be all that you need. In the long run, as you build success on success, your self-confidence is likely to grow; you just have to get yourself up to the first rung on the ladder.

6. Explore similar but less competitive options

It would not be unreasonable to look at points 1-5 of this article and think that they sound like an excessive amount of hard work. If that’s your reaction, though, there is no need to abandon your ambition entirely. It may be that there is no exact equivalent to the career you’re set on – with its prospects for fame, influence, wealth, creative expression or whatever else it is that you’re looking for – but this is worth researching all the same.
If the appeal of being a scriptwriter is the idea of writing for a living, for instance, be aware that while making money by writing fiction is very difficult, work as a copywriter is much easier to come by. For budding MPs, roles in local politics might appeal, or the Civil Service – which can be entered via the much simpler means of a graduate scheme – could bring you close to the corridors of power from another angle. There are few such alternatives for sportspeople, put maybe a more obscure sport is the answer – consider all the nations who only sent one athlete to compete in the luge at the Winter Olympics, for instance.

7. Have a backup plan

Image shows a handrail on a climbing route.
It’s not defeatist to have a safety net; it’s sensible.

So far we’ve looked at how to ensure that your ambitious plan works out. But it’s also important to consider what happens if it doesn’t. You don’t want to put all your efforts into your training or those late-night writing sessions only to fail your degree.
In something like becoming a record-breaking athlete, it can be hard to see how hours of training can be combined with success in your studies or in a secondary career. But remember that Roger Bannister, who ran the first sub-4 minute mile here in Oxford, did so while working as a doctor – and now considers his contribution to academic medicine to be a greater source of pride than his running career. Bannister is unusually multi-talented, but his story is illustrative all the same; having a back-up plan need not prohibit you from succeeding in your primary ambition, and you can choose your back-up plan without feeling you’ve failed.

8. Be prepared to make sacrifices

While achieving your ambitions need not mean the sacrifice of all alternative career possibilities (and we would advise against doing so), it is still the case that it’s hard to pursue a highly competitive career and still have a functioning social life, living where you want and earning the salary you’d like.
Much ink has been spilled about how hard it is to make it in the financial sector, with its punishingly long hours, without losing friends and partners. Though perhaps not quite to such an extreme degree, the same is true in any field. There will always be times when you will have to work, train, practise, write, campaign and so on when your friends are out having fun. You might have to move to a different city or even a different country. All of this is manageable – but you need to be prepared for it all the same.

9. Know when to give up – and when not to

Image shows a ballet dancer.
Ballet dancers need to start young to be successful.

If you want to be a professional ballet dancer, you don’t already do ballet and you’re old enough to read this, it is already too late.
But this doesn’t apply to every career – even the ones where you might think that physical health and age would matter a great deal. For example, Steve Way didn’t start running until his thirties, and then only to help him quit smoking and lose weight; he went on to be Britain’s top finisher at last year’s Commonwealth Games marathon at the age of 40. Way is an outlier, but people who moved into politics or the creative arts relatively late on in life, after a series of setbacks, are plentiful. So don’t give up too soon; if you don’t get started on the path towards your ambition straight after school or university, it might still be an option in later life.

10. Remember that realism and pessimism aren’t synonyms

It’s important – vital, even – to be realistic about your ambitions. Keeping a level head and assessing your options objectively will ensure that you make the right choices to pursue your aims while putting the right amount of time into maintaining your back-up plan, that you neither sacrifice too much nor pass up promising opportunities because you lack self-belief.
This is distinctly different from being pessimistic about your chances; some TV culture encourages people to think that they will fail if they don’t have a Messianic faith in their own abilities, an attitude that conflicts with points 7 and 9 on this list and that makes for good drama but not for good life planning.
There are many different paths to success, and ultimately the kind of success you find might not be what you wanted as a teenager – or it might be that the foundations you lay now are what takes you to the top. The only way to find out is to try.


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Image credits: banner; parliament; mentor; office; handshake; safety; ballet.