This column was originally written for a Danish audience, so I’m going to start with some context before diving into the story.

In Denmark, the process for applying to university differs depending on which programme you’re applying for. For most programmes, you’ll be offered a spot if you meet the entry requirements. However, for the programmes where the number of applicants exceeds the number of spots, the quota system steps in.

Quota 1 or the first round, largely hinges on the applicant’s academic abilities and students are admitted based on their grade point average (GPA). The second round (Quota 2) is a merit-based system, where admissions officers take a wide variety of factors into account such as work experience, extracurricular activities and supplementary courses. Also, due to the relatively small number of universities in Denmark (8), the driving factor in an applicant’s choice is often the quality of the programme they’re applying for and not the university itself. Students here often speak of their ‘dream programme’ rather than their ‘dream university.’ Now back to the story.

March 15th was the cut-off date for merit-based applicants in Denmark – a group that often doesn’t get into their programme of choice. This gives them an early resilience that will help them throughout their studies and beyond, as the workplace demands the kind of persistence and hard work they’re accustomed to.

I was a merit-based applicant. My mother died half a year before my final exams in high school, so studying and preparing for them became an obstacle-filled, uphill battle. I didn’t graduate with the GPA necessary to get into my dream programme, so I had to collect extra points and apply in the merit-based, second round. My GPA gave me some of the necessary points, my volunteer work at the Danish Refugee Council contributed some more and a mathematics course at night school also helped. I had at last collected 100 points and could write my motivation letter and apply.

Completing the application was an important element in the process. It forced me to reflect on why I was motivated to apply for this programme and why I went the extra mile to collect all the extra points. In principle, I could simply have chosen a different programme with more spots and made the entire process easier and less demanding.

I was accepted to the Psychology programme at the University of Copenhagen on my first try and it was one of the most important days of my youth. I had invested the extra time and effort necessary for me to get into my dream programme. And against all odds, I didn’t give up in advance. At the same time, I had become much more motivated to begin my studies and as time went by, I took nothing for granted. This process ended up making me, along with the other merit-based applicants, a high achiever. We deliberately chose not to take the easy way out.

The Quota 2 students I studied with were goal oriented, mature and were clearly there to stay. To get in on a merit-based application, where there were no guarantees, was a victory in itself. Getting accepted to their dream programme was no easy task. It had taken time to collect the necessary points and apply, so we were eager to get started and prepared to give it our all.

When we introduced ourselves in my team, I really looked up to the Quota 1 students – the ones with the ski-high GPA. I thought they were so cool. When I finished four-and-a-half years later, six months early, many of the Quota 1 students were lagging behind. That’s when I realized that the time and effort I had invested in the application process and the reflection and thought that went into a Quota 2 application had given me the strength to finish early. As it turns out, it was just as cool to be a Quota 2 student with the kind of tenacity and focus that the Quota 1 students didn’t necessarily have. 

When I look back today, my education has only to a limited extent contributed to the perseverance and robust mindset needed to be good at my job and be the kind of leader I want to be. My education has given me other important qualities as well as my academic qualifications but it was the period before I was accepted that shaped me the most: The early loss of my beloved mother, all the points I needed to collect without any guarantee of getting into my dream programme, talented people I met along the way and the understanding that being goal oriented pays off. 

When we recruit at Trustpilot, I’m always interested in taking a closer look at a candidate that was a Quota 2 entrant into university. This is because the preparation necessary for a Quota 2 application can help equip that candidate with a special set of tools beyond their education. This toolbox is handy to have for ‘the real world’ where there are no guarantees and nothing can be taken for granted. 

No matter where in the world you’re applying to universities, the earlier you’re able to focus on your goals and do what’s necessary to succeed, the sooner you’ll acquire unique characteristics that can’t be learned from books. When the time comes to compete for the best jobs, these are the kinds of skills that will help you stand out.