Don’t wait to be told to apply to Oxbridge, start asking questions now

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Bicycle parked against a wall at university

On AS level results day, I arrived in my school assembly hall to find the brown envelope containing my results had a little note attached telling me to go see one a teacher in the next room. They sat me down and explained that my results were good enough for me to consider applying to Oxbridge University.

This is the first time anyone at my state school had ever actively encouraged me to think about it. I was really excited but a month later as I sat in front of my Cambridge application form, I faltered and decided not to apply.

Without a huge amount of signposting from my school, I didn’t really believe or understand how I was good enough to try. I lost my confidence and only got it back in the nick of time thanks in part to support from my parents, a couple of brilliant teachers and some friends who had chosen to apply as well.

When I spoke to Priyasha, a current student at Cambridge who applied from state school, she echoed these doubts: “I was really adamant not to go for a bit because I thought it would be too hard but I’m here now. It’s still hard and I don’t regret it!”

So, when even the brightest students have reservations about applying to Oxbridge University, what happens when you are alone with your decision? What if you are the first in your family to contemplate going to university, let alone Oxbridge?  What if your school doesn’t bring up the possibility even after a string of A grade exam results?

Whilst around one in 20 private school students went to Oxbridge in 2011, only one in 100 made it there from state school. Although that still means that the majority of students at Oxford and Cambridge are from state schools (just), individually it shows that, depending on what school you go to, you really could find yourself alone with that application form.

For state school pupils, Russell Group universities can be a sudden introduction to the mix and surely that makes it even more imperative that teachers step in and encourage students to think about applying to Oxbridge University.

However, a recent study by the Sutton Trust found that over four-in-10 teachers “rarely or never” advise academically talented students to apply to Oxbridge and, thanks to things like those wonderful  attendance stats above, were drastically underestimating their chances of getting in the first place.

The Sutton Trust campaigns for greater social mobility and believes that teachers are instrumental in giving pupils the confidence to apply to top universities. The trust runs summer schools to dispel myths around Oxbridge and motivate teachers to encourage pupils to make those October applications.

Lord Nash, the schools’ minister commented on the study: “For too long bright pupils with the potential to study at our world-class universities have missed out simply because they never thought of applying or knew they could.”

Whilst it’s absolutely crucial that teachers encourage students to explore all their options and aim for top universities, we think it’s also crucial for students to know that they don’t need permission to apply to Oxbridge University.

We don’t think that students should have to make their applications unsupported but it’s important that they can hear from current students independently, participate in access schemes, learn to separate the myths from the facts and find out the right questions to ask their teachers if they do want to apply.

Priyasha told us that one of her biggest regrets was expecting to meet ‘a certain type of person’ in Cambridge, when in reality she came into contact with students from every type of background. Perhaps for other students, knowing this in the first place might have given them the courage to put in an application when they wouldn’t have otherwise.

We hope that the more information that exists publicly to educate students and teachers about the realities of getting to and attending the UK’s top universities, the more open questions will be asked and the more young people will consider it as an option within their grasp.

To read the rest of our interview with Priyasha and find out more about life at Cambridge plus what to expect in your university interview click here.

More tips for Oxbridge applications

  • Russell Group universities: You might know that Oxbridge University belong to this group – but what's this select group of universities all about? And why is everyone so obsessed with them? You might be surprised to learn that they're self appointed, and that another university might be a better choice for you. Find out here.
  • Interview help: If you're applying to Oxbridge, you'll have to do be prepared to do an interview, but it's easier said than done, especially if you go to a state school. There are strategies and methods to help you perform well in interviews, even if you haven't had much experience or coaching. Check out some tips here.
  • Application forms: As well as your UCAS application, you have to complete a special application form for Oxford or Cambridge, so make sure you know how to write a good application. Get application advice here.


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