The secret of my success: How five high-flying graduates made it

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Exorbitant university fees, high youth unemployment... Things look bleak for the next generation. What does it take to land a top job in our most elite professions?

it's not a great time to be young. The usual high spirits that often accompany A-level and GCSE results may be short-lived this summer. The Educational Maintenance Allowance is dead. From 2012, fees will be hiked to £9,000 a year at the best universities – and surely no one was surprised that most universities consider themselves among the 'best'. And even when you graduate, with debt – of around £50,000 according to the most recent estimates – weighing on your scrawny young shoulders, the chances of getting a job to pay it off are not great: unemployment rates for 18- to 24-year-olds stand at 20 per cent.

There are increasingly angry howls about reduced rates of social mobility and the gaps between the rich and poor in our country. It's probably over-generous to the trainer-grabbing teens involved in this month's riots to suggest that they were making a statement about the inaccessibility of the higher education system – but an underlying feeling that there just aren't any opportunities for some young people will have fanned the flames.

The pathways to 'success' have always been lined with high walls. Privately-educated pupils are 55 times more likely to go to Oxbridge than state-school pupils. Some career choices – law, medicine, architecture – take longer than the usual three years, ramping up the levels of off-putting debt. For overseas students, post-grad courses or private institutions, it gets worse; paying £20,000 for a masters in economics might be the way to get a job in finance, but paying for such a course can be daunting.

Just 7 per cent of the population attend independent schools, yet 68 per cent of top barristers, 54 per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs, 51 per cent of top medics – and, yes, 54 per cent of top journalists – were privately educated. But even a well-funded start in life is no longer a guarantee of a high-status job. Just studying hard and getting great grades isn't enough in itself. CVs need to come garlanded with impressive work placements. Getting that first break into the world of employment often means working as an unpaid intern. It's a system which admittedly rewards those with talent and a strong work ethic, but is also only really open to those with enough cash to keep them afloat. Not to mention the thorny question of how you get these opportunities in the first place.

So what does it take to make it to the top as a young person in today's climate? We talk to some high-flyers who aced degrees at some of the UK's most prestigious academic institutions in 2010. A year on, and even in the current tricky environment, they are already soaring, with further qualifications and jobs working for industry leaders in their chosen fields.

It's not just about privileged beginnings; in any competitive sector, you're going to need plenty of brains and talent. But it also helps to have a qualification or three from certain highly-regarded institutions, prizes on your mantelpiece, supportive parents, a raft of contacts or the ability to network like a demon, good luck, good teachers, self-confidence, a love of your work and a degree of ambition. But what do you mostly seem to need? A willingness to work very hard indeed...

Hashi Mohamed, 27

Studied: at City Law School

Works: as a pupil barrister at 39 Essex Street

Iam a first-generation immigrant. I came here when I was nine. I didn't speak a word of English, and now I'm soon to be a pupil barrister. This does not necessarily mean we're a socially mobile society; I don't want anyone to extrapolate that from my story. I was born in Kenya to Somali parents, and my mum was never formally educated. I was brought up in Nairobi and my father died when I was nine. I came to the UK, without my mother, in June 1993.

I was raised exclusively on state benefits and attended very poor-performing schools in north-west London. I didn't really pay much attention at school – I was moving around different houses and relatives, there were lots of issues – but I scraped through my A-levels. I went to the University of Hertfordshire, starting French from scratch and studying law. My fees were paid for, but I was living off a student loan. When I finished, I wrote an e-mail to the editor of Newsnight – I told him I had no journalism experience; I wanted to explore it. He put me on a project, I got a paid salary, and I worked on several news programmes. I got that job through chutzpah, but also it was the character of that man, Peter Barron, who took a risk with me. You won't often meet people like that.

Meanwhile, I applied to Oxford for a masters and got in, with a scholarship. They offer counselling to people from poorer backgrounds, because it's difficult to adjust. But for me, I thought: 'This is where I was born to be'. Instead of being intimidated by my peers, I was inspired. If I picked up one thing from Oxford, it was sharpened discipline, how to manage my time.

After Oxford, I did the Bar course, without which you can't be a barrister. I got a £10,000 scholarship and took out a loan for £10,000. There are about 2,500 people graduating from these courses each year – and only around 500 pupillages. And before you can get a pupillage, there's a thing called a mini-pupillage. For a year and half, I couldn't get one. Although there's an application process, you really get them through contacts. Of course I think it's unfair. But there's no point trying to pick a fight with a system that has been around for a long time. Now I go into schools, telling kids if they don't stop speaking street slang when it's inappropriate and lift up their trousers, they're not going to get far.

I finished Bar school last May and accepted the pupillage at 39 Essex Street, one of the best chambers in the country.

My story is a combination of people who've believed in me, various e-mails being answered, scholarships that I could never afford, and a discipline that meant I worked very, very hard over many years. That's not something that you can expect every child on every estate to replicate. Any government policy that assumes that is a flawed one – and it's quite insulting. There is no easy answer.

Amandine Kastler, 29

Studied: architecture at the Architectural Association

Works: at David Chipperfield Architects

Architecture had always interested me but I wasn't like, 'I want to be an architect' since I was a child. I guess I started to really appreciate it when I lived in so many different places, and you understand that architecture is what, in a way, defines the environments you live in. I grew up in Oregon and I went to high school there but I graduated a year early. I studied hard because I thought – 'I want to get out'. I took some years out and travelled around.

I came to London when I decided I wanted to study architecture. I started by doing community college courses and building up a portfolio. That got me on to the foundation art course at London Metropolitan University, and through that I got myself into the Architectural Association school. It's pretty competitive – we were only 38 in my year.

I picked the AA because it's like a family, close-knit; you develop a community which, for me, has become essential. But I knew I couldn't go there unless I could get a scholarship, because it's private and expensive. I had two-thirds paid and I got a student loan for the rest – I'm in serious debt! I think the fees were £12,500 a year – which is about what it's going to cost to go to a university soon anyway.

Architecture is creative but it's also very rigorous and formulaic. You have to know the reasoning behind what you do. It takes seven years before you can call yourself an architect, which is a pretty big undertaking.

I did three years at the AA to get my RIBA part 1 qualification. At the end of my part 1, I did a project called The Cabinet of Curiosities, looking at building an extension of two galleries in the Victoria & Albert museum, and I won the RIBA Bronze medal for it. So that was a pretty big deal. I was completely shocked.

I then took a year out and interned in Rotterdam at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture [OMA, the practice led by Rem Koolhaas] for a year. It was an amazing environment to be in, with people coming from everywhere to work there.

There are no architects in my family. But I got a tough work ethic from my stepfather.

I went back to the AA for my part 2 and graduated with honours. I took four months off and then started working for David Chipperfield. It's an office that interested me, but I also have quite a few friends that work here. If somebody knows you and they say, 'Oh, they're a hard worker, I can vouch for them', it helps. It's great to have a good CV, but it's even better to have a character reference. I want to work for other people for a while, get the experience and then I'll see where I want to go with it. I don't know yet what type of buildings I want to do.

Lalin Navaratne, 25

Studied: Medicine at UCL

Works: as a doctor at New Park Hospital

When I was young I considered doing medicine, because my father was a doctor. I've got two older brothers who didn't do medicine – they studied engineering and law – but I thought I could potentially follow in my father's footsteps. Then in my teen years I went off the idea, and wanted to join the army. At our school we had a keen cadet force, and I started at 13 or 14. At 16, I applied for a place at Sandhurst. You have seven years to take it up before it expires – which obviously leaves you enough time to do your A-levels and go to university.

I went to Maidstone Grammar School, in Kent. When I started my A-levels, I was doing double mathematics, chemistry, physics and IT. Three months in, I decided to change IT for biology, and applied for medical school. It's strange, I made the decision pretty much overnight, it just came into my head – why not do medicine?

My offer from UCL was 'ABB'. I got five A grades. I think it's got even harder to get in to medical school now; some places ask for the new A* grades.

I had a great time at university. There's a strong work ethic but I also did lots of other stuff – I played rugby and other sports, had big nights out.

I got a first in my intercalated BSc degree in Anatomy and Developmental Biology, and I managed to come first in my year in the MBBS examinations. The first two years at UCL you don't see any patients, you sit in a lecture theatre. Years 4, 5 and 6 are clinical, so in a sense your last three years are an internship. I received an Army Medical Cadetship in 2007, when I began my commission as an Army Officer, rank 2nd Lieutenant – this was awarded for the last three clinical years of medical school. Once qualified, I was promoted to Lieutenant and this month I was promoted to Captain. Since graduating, I've been working at New Park hospital and I'll be here for my two foundation years. It's an NHS hospital but in partnership with the Ministry of Defence.

I will take two or three years out from the usual career ladder. I've got to do my commissioning course at Sandhurst for 10-12 weeks and then I'll be placed with a regiment or field hospital for about 18 months. If they are placed abroad during that time, I'll go with them. And after that, my plan is to do core surgical training.

You don't really get told how competitive medicine is once you've graduated; certain specialisms are really tough to get into. It's a bit of a shock – 50-60 per cent of graduates become GPs. Most of them want to, but not all. I want to specialise in surgery, so I've been doing my surgical exams and I'll have more in October. Graduates maybe 10 years ago were in no real hurry to pick their specialism; now, the pressure is really on to try to push people into a specialism much quicker.

Lilly Heine, 27

Studied: Fashion at Central Saint Martins

Works: at Dries Van Noten

My parents are German, and my dad was quite a successful journalist – he was a correspondent for German radio in Washington and then worked in London when I was 10. That was when my interest in fashion started. Both of my parents were extremely supportive and they've always wanted me and my sister to be happy, whatever we wanted to do.

I took sewing lessons from the age of 12, just for fun, though I took it pretty seriously!When I was 13, I worked in my friend's dad's shop, which sold Indian/British designs, textiles and garments. I did an internship at a theatre in Hamburg, in costume design, straight from school, then another one at Oper Frankfurt, after which I realised costume wasn't really for me. I started studying English and French literature at university in Frankfurt but my course was very dry and the people boring.

So I did some drawings and sent them off to Wimbledon School of Art. At 19, I did the foundation course there, which I loved – having tutors who knew what they were talking about and really criticised you. I worked very hard. After that, I did a BA at Chelsea College of Art and Design. That was for three years and every summer I did a long internship. The first year, I did three months at Jonathan Saunders, and in my second year, three months at Alexander McQueen, which was the one that particularly shaped me. I was making prints all day, every day, for 16 hours. And, in the end, I designed prints that actually got used – it was really exciting for me! That was for the spring/summer collection 2008.

The internships were organised through the university, and I took them really seriously. Now if I see interns who are a little bit half-hearted, or going home early – I cannot understand them.

After my third year I went straight on to my MA in fashion at Central Saint Martins. Louise Wilson, the head of that course, looks at what you do and makes you better at designing, but in your own style. It moulded my character and my style and confidence. I wanted to be on the best course; I never did it to earn money, I did it because I wanted to be better than the next person.

I won the Harrods prize at the end of my MA. After that, I did a collection for Topshop – it's like every designer's dream. Then I did some freelance prints for people like Jimmy Choo and Stella McCartney.

I got to do a lot of great things, but there were also long periods of not having a job and that's pretty frustrating. After nine months, I got a job at Alexander McQueen as assistant print designer – it was thanks to knowing people from having done an internship there. After that, I got a call from Dries Van Noten, and moved to Antwerp to work with him. Now I just want see what happens.

Wen Du, 23

Studied: economics at LSE

Works: at a major investment bank

I was born in Shanghai but I did my A-levels here, at a boarding school in a small town near Birmingham. I came down to London for my undergrad in 2007, where I studied econometrics and mathematical economics at the London School of Economics.

My dad is a doctor, my mum is the first generation working for foreign companies – so I guess she has had quite a bit of influence on me. She works in consumer goods. Coming to England was probably one of the best decisions I've made in my life. In China, our high school education is really good, but in terms of university, Western universities do have quite an advantage. In order to get into a good university, say LSE or Oxford, you have to do your A-levels here.

I really enjoyed LSE and my course; it's very tough and I learnt a lot, but the way they teach is very flexible and applied, and it also has a very good career department. The LSE culture is to be trying to find jobs, and doing internships. I did two banking internships in my second year and third year.

Even in my second year, I found an internship in my summer and that was just after Lehman collapsed. Being at LSE helps you get those positions, but it's still quite difficult. I definitely read my Wall Street Journal, and I went to loads of networking things and to extra educational lecturing. You need certain grades so they are interested in interviewing you, but after that it's more about how much you know about banking and how genuinely you are interested in it.

I did long hours during my internships, working 12-13 hours a day, getting to the office before 7am. But if you are learning, you don't feel the hours are that long. I should have started working after I finished university, but I deferred my contract because I wanted to do a masters. I had the opportunity to go to Cambridge, so I thought I should seize it. I studied for an MPhil in finance.

I start my contract as an analyst this month, in the same department as I did my internship. It is selective, they do have headcounts, but they're not that strict – I guess if you are good then they will employ you. It is a challenge to get a first job, but my way of thinking is that if you put enough time into it and never give up and keep learning, you will definitely find a job. You apply, apply, apply – the more interviews you do, the better you are! I did at least four interviews before I got mine, and that was actually quite lucky.

I don't believe salary is the most important thing in a first job – it's about how much you can learn, and how much responsibility your line manager will give you. But I guess banking jobs do pay well. I want to do well in my career, but because there are so many uncertainties I can't foresee where I'll be in five years.

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