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Meet the Cambridge graduate with 35 A levels who wants your finance job

Cambridge graduate with 35 A Levels is now interning at Virgin's investment arm

Cambridge graduate with 35 A Levels is now interning at Virgin's investment arm

If you’re an experienced banker trying to hold onto your seat, beware. Not only are banks dumping expensive senior staff in an effort to cut spending on salaries, but the new crop of juniors is exceptionally well-qualified and ambitious.

We’ve noted the highly impressive CVs of junior bankers before – Stanford Bernstein hired Anojja Shah, an analyst with an undergraduate degree from Wharton, an MBA from Columbia and stints at Deutsche Bank, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch. However, there are even more highly qualified juniors out there than Shah. Take Zulfiqar Ali, a Cambridge graduate with no fewer than 35 A Levels, 31 at grade A (including 6 A*s), 3 at B and 1 at C.

For those unfamiliar with the British education system, A levels are typically taken by 16-18 year-olds before going to university. Most students take at least 3, some take 5; no one takes 35. 27% of students received an A or A* in 2012. 

Ali puts his extraordinary A Level achievement down to determination and the buzz of doing well. “I wanted to push myself as far as I could,” he told us. “I wanted to see where my intellectual boundaries lay and I wanted the adrenaline rush that comes from that kind of achievement.”

Ali studied his 35 A Levels over a standard two year period. He achieved the 35 passes by managing his time very carefully and developing a system. “I got to know how the exams worked – I looked for the most important component of the syllabus and was able to intuitively see the major points. It helped that I had a structured way of thinking and writing,” he said. Ali also developed humorous mnemonics based on a simplification of the data he was trying to memorize – “I found that the funnier the analogy, the better the information stuck in my head. If I had something really complex, I would simplify it into a diagram or arrow tree, and associate it with something silly, like Michael Jackson.”

Now, Ali (who got a 2.i in his Cambridge law degree) wants to work in fund management or private equity. He says his A Level grades have been a big help in securing job interviews.  “I get a lot of calls for finance interviews because of my A Levels, and I know that I’ll always be asked about my exam passes. Having a broad A Level base also made it easier for me to shift from law into finance – I already knew a lot about economics and maths.”

Ali has already interned at Standard Chartered and the Pakistani bank KASB. He’s currently interning at Virgin, in Richard Branson’s private office and the Virgin investment fund, a position he achieved through www.City-internships.com, an organisation that arranges internships for students who want to work in the City.

“I’ve tried fund management and private equity and I still don’t know enough about either to make an informed decision. Right now, I’m just enjoying working in private equity,” he told us.

Comments (19)

  1. One concern would be a lack of focus – having done 35 A levels shows a degree of indecision. Attention would naturally turn also to the 1 C. Some explaining to do there. The next question would clearly focus on the 2.i – why not a first?

  2. 35 A Levels but then a 2.i only at Cambridge…. just goes to show how easy A Levels must be….

  3. He’s not for any type of job. Yes, 35-A levels are great, but if really nobody else does it, that goes to show that they are not that much of a statement. Also, it seems they are easier and less time-consuming than our Maturas or the SAT.

    Rather than indecision, what this shows is – fascination with doing something you find easy and others find “difficult”. If by others we mean your lazier classmates. Was the real reason that he was bullied at school? I don’t know.

    Job-wise, that’s something that will positively impress the checklist-obsessed recruiters. If I were to have to make the decision whether to hire this guy, I’d find the achievement at 18 unsettling. A bit like Al Bundy with his 4 touchdowns in one highschool football game.

  4. Can we stop obsessing on having numerous A-Levels? I have 4 of the things myself (all at A) but I don’t by any means regard these as the most important characteristics. I have generally found those individuals who do find having 5+ them to be the most important characterstics to usually be ‘deficient’ in other important areas: emotional intelligence, maturity, originality of thought, wider ‘life knowledge’…

    Based on 20+ years working in various international companies, many of these ‘5+’ A-Level candidates seem to vanish. Few become Nobel Laureates or University Professors (with the odd exception) and few seem to do anything particularly remarkable in the commercial world. What happens to them?

  5. What people seem to forget is that in reality the majority of finance jobs rely on being able to get on with others, being able to interact on different levels with many different people, having a personality and being able to network. Unfortunately from my experience and particularly when interviewing it is often the case that those people with the most academic qualifications are often those with the less developed social skills. In reality you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to get on in finance – the interpersonal skills are equally if not more important at the end of the day and unfortunately it is much more difficult to study for those!!!

  6. In my experience the interpersonal skills are equally important and you can’t study for those!!!

  7. Wow 35 A levels, that is reallly nice but all the education in the world isn’t any good if you have no common sense or are not street smart. I have worked with educated people and they cannot deal with normal everyday thinking. In a bank you need a mixture of both educated and regular Joe’s, If you look at a lot of the people who have caused banks to almost go bust a lot of them are educated apart from a couple. I am stuggling to get a job as a non graduate person but I am very intelligent and street smart because of this “emphasis” on education. If anyone has any positions for a very experiensed Data Analysts please let me know.

  8. come on people give the guy some credit, he’s a genius. 35 A Levels is an incredible achievement. when people say “what about the soft skills?” well he probably has those too, but conveniently for people making those assertions, you can’t measure “soft skills” in any meaningful way, and as for the claim of “what happened to all the star A Level candidates?” – they’re probably rocketing up the career ladder, where is the actual evidence to say that they don’t?

    oh dear sour grapes Reply
  9. Where is the evidence that they don’t ‘rocket up the career ladder’? In 20+ years of working in several international corporates (at fairly senior levels) I have seen hardly any senior people with such stacks of e.g. A-Levels. Therre are many with 4 or 5 but hardly any with more. Equally, the skills required to move on and up have little to do with the A-Levels or equivalent. The point being made here is, of course, getting X+ A-Levels is, in itself, a great achievement but, a) no, it does not automatically imply genius and b) hardly any innovators, commercial people come from this group, ie an article on A-levels alone is itself imbalanced. All that is being done here is to redress that balance and inject some common sense.

  10. interesting :) Just look at the IIT entrance exam pass rate (under 2%) and ACA pass rate in India (2-5%).

  11. Sounds like someone lacking a life, who is more than likely going to be unable to understand a marketplace, more interested in chasing paper qualifications, destined for a low level role in some conglomerate.

  12. 35 A-levels
    2:1 degree from a top university
    Clearly clever but nothing special

  13. Social skills or not, Zulfiqar has achieved something that is difficult for most, through sheer persistence, hard work and self-organization. That is an asset already in a person.

    It is very disappointing that people try to find flaws in these achievements, that too so early in his life. What he becomes now or later in his future will depend on guidance he receives and the type of interactions he has in his life, but he certainly has a strong foundation to achieve what he wants to.

  14. The one thing this young person demonstrates is that A-Levels performance does not translate into academic abilities – and this is a bad news for our future prospects as a nation.

    We should think about how to give a chance of furthering development to truly deserving young scholars. Those who are capable of achieving true greateness and can contribute in R&D or create seminal works.

    Something China and India are clearly incapable of doing.

  15. I sweated for 3 A*s at Cambridge A level, but I am not grumbling about where I am right now. Surely this young man is a capable genius, period! He has got a good start. The article says he is also humarous so the soft skills must be in the bag as well. Serious investment houses must consider offering him a job.

  16. Wow guys – Give him a break a 2.1 from Cambridge is pretty good. I wish him best of luck in getting the job he wants… he’s achieved something which wasnt easy…

  17. I think this article is misguided. Bankers generally do not like overachievers. This is also echoed by most recruiters that want good applicants not extraordinary or smartest applicants to work with. They screen out extreme applicants. Everyone wants to play and stay safe. 35 A-levels makes him freakish, not a good candidate in the labour market at all. This is a lesson Oxbridge grads have to learn in the real world. No one likes extremes. Jim Simons is unemployable in this regard. But we have to remember that he can afford to be that way. Oxbridge grads with excellent academic records and no real talents tend to do a lot worse in life than 2.1 bankers from red-brick universities.

    OpinionfromFlatland Reply
  18. That website is one where you have to pay for internships (I think). After all that, he had to pay for an internship??

  19. As somebody currently studying Law at Cambridge, I have two points to make:

    1) All the people saying, “Only a 2:1, not that impressive” have no clue how hard it is to get a 2:1.doing LAW at CAMBRIDGE. It takes a ridiculous amount of work.

    2) Zulfiqar is an absolute weirdo.

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