Published: 06:00, 16 June 2021
Back in the 1980s, enrolling on a secretarial course at West Kent College in Tonbridge committed you to several things, among them understanding the often bamboozling language of shorthand and learning the ability to correct your typing with a carefully deployed strip of Tipp-Ex.
But while many have since used the skills they learned to great effect – and evolved them for the more digital age – it's probably fair to say Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, has people who can do that for her.
Yet it was at the further education college she toiled in her pursuit of learning to touch type and take copious notes which she will have hoped and prayed she could later read back.
Today, that young student has become one of the Queen's closest family members – a confidante who has not only won over the respect of the monarch, but for whom there is clearly a mutual warmth and affection.
In fact, following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh earlier this year, one of those anonymous 'close to the royals' types you see quoted in the tabloid press, said Sophie had been a “tremendous source of comfort” to the Queen. And we can assume that wasn't because she could hit a solid 80 words-per-minute on a keyboard.
So just how did Sophie go from secretarial student in west Kent to royal favourite?
Sophie Rhys-Jones was, like so many others, termed 'the girl next door' when she started dating the Queen's youngest son, Edward, in 1993. Her family were not nobility. She didn't live in a palace and she had plenty of ambition and drive to succeed in the world of business.
But that is not to say she was short of a bob or two.
She grew up in the family home in Brenchley, a quintessentially English village six miles outside Tunbridge Wells.
It's the sort of place where the house prices are not for the faint of heart. The High Street's jewel, among many, is a magnificent timber-framed Tudor building, while its neighbours' architecture ranges from the 17th to 19th century plus a splash of the Arts and Crafts era of the early 20th century.
In short, it's prime, desirable west Kent commuter belt country, surrounded by orchards and fields.
And it was there, in a Grade II-listed, four-bedroom 17th century farmhouse, Sophie Rhys-Jones moved when she was a child (she was born in Oxford) and lived with her "middle class" parents and older brother. Her father, Christopher, was a sales director at an importer of industrial tyres and rubber goods. He is, today, 89. Her mother, Mary, a charity worker, died aged 71 at the Kent and Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells in 2005.
It also became something of a honey-pot for tabloid journalists to congregate in their bid for an exclusive tit-bit as the royal relationship emerged.
Sophie had a privileged upbringing, first attending Dulwich Preparatory School in Cranbrook before heading off to Kent College in Pembury, another public school. She rounded off her education at West Kent College which, with no disrespect intended, had far fewer airs and graces.
From there she began a career in public relations and it wasn't long before she landed a plum job in the press and promotions department of Capital Radio.
She became pals with breakfast show host Chris Tarrant and, while on a promotional trip to Spain in 1988, a notorious picture was snapped which showed the DJ and TV star exposing one of Sophie's breasts as the two larked about.
The picture would resurface when it was sold by a former colleague to The Sun for £80,000 in a move which Buckingham Palace condemned and The Sun was forced to apologise over.
It was while she was at Capital she first met Prince Edward who at the time was dating a friend of hers.
Sophie was clearly both popular and doing a good job, as she skipped across roles at a number of top London PR firms. But it was in 1993 when her life would take a major turn.
It was during a charity tennis event, Sophie and Edward's paths would cross again and the two started stepping out, some five years after they had first clapped eyes on one another.
Looking not unlike Princess Diana, there was considerable excitement and comparisons made by a hungry tabloid press pack.
Despite coming perilously close to splitting up just a year later, the pair's relationship gelled and in 1999 they tied the knot at Windsor Castle. It saw Sophie Rhys-Jones disappear and Sophie, Countess of Wessex emerge in her place.
Since then, the couple have had two children, bringing the Queen's grandchild count up to a healthy 10.
And while their profile is among the lowest of the key royal figures (Edward, the Earl of Wessex is, after all, a lowly 12th in line to the throne with even Princess Eugenie's three-month-old son, August Brooksbank, higher up the list), they have become very much part of the establishment.
Remarkably, theirs is now the longest-surviving marriage – albeit not necessarily the longest relationship (we're looking at you Charles and Camilla) – of any of the Queen's other children and this month marks their 22nd anniversary.
Which means, if nothing else, the Queen has got very used to seeing Sophie. But why are they so close? So close, in fact, someone was recently quoted as saying "she is like another daughter to Her Majesty".
Well, it will come as little surprise that there is no official word on their relationship – Buckingham Palace doesn't entertain such tittle-tattle – but those anonymous 'royal sources' have certainly divulged plenty of educated guess work.
So take your pick. It's either because of their "shared importance of religion" or, strangely, their "shared fascination of military history". Who knew? Or could it be that the Queen finds Sophie's presence "soothing".
What is, perhaps, more likely, is that Sophie gives her mother-in-law little to fret over. A far cry from Diana or Sarah Ferguson. In truth, she's ruffled so few feathers she appears universally adored within the corridors of royal residences.
A slightly more believable 'source' recently said: "The Queen is mindful Sophie’s marriage has survived where her other children’s relationships have failed – and she knows that is in no small way down to Sophie’s dedication – she is aware, as Edward’s mother, what a tricky creature he can be.
"And not only has Sophie flourished as a dedicated, albeit still relatively junior member of the Royal family, she has brought up two teenagers who are well-balanced, sporty, amusing and delightful."
That's in addition to going about her royal duties with the lack of fuss and diligence the Queen no doubt appreciates – and to which she herself lives by.
I wonder if they taught her that at West Kent College?