The real reasons why state school students don't apply to Oxbridge

Image credit: Imposing... © Mario Sánchez Prada

The plight of state students vs. Oxbridge is a well-documented one: some say it’s the universities’ prejudiced admissions that scare us away, others the ‘imposing’ architecture and public school cohort, a few blame our teachers for failing be adequately inspiring. So what is the real answer? Is there even a clear answer at all?

The University of Cambridge considers every application individually, that’s what we’re told, and personally I don’t doubt it. The problem is, no matter how aware an admissions team is of extenuating circumstances or the performance of a student’s school, grades are of the essence. Many aren’t made an offer even when they have them, and so a scarce few will ultimately secure a place without them.

Having spent a year at Cambridge, I understand better now than I ever did before why hitting these top grades is so non-negotiable; exams are paramount, and any hairline weaknesses appearing under the pressure of A levels will surely widen into gaping cracks when Cambridge exam term rolls around.

For whatever aspirational or educational reasons, by the time September of upper sixth arrives, state students with the necessary bank of excellent grades are spread more sparsely between schools than their privately-educated peers. Despite this, I wouldn’t say that grade requirements are the biggest problem in encouraging state school applicants. If I’m dismissing this answer, presumably I have another - especially as my entire secondary school education was delivered by a comprehensive Estyn placed in “special measures”. After all, these are the kind of state schools where potential applications really do flounder, not grammars with a succession of successful alumni or reputable colleges with an abundance of resources.

But of course, the problem with asking state students at Oxbridge why their old peers aren’t applying is that every single one of us is a lucky exception; we weren’t put off by the grades, we weren’t unnerved by the might of King’s Chapel or snubbed by apathetic public schoolboys. Some of us may have been guided by particularly enthusiastic teachers, but not all of us - while my school was supportive, the staff knew very little of Oxford and even less of Cambridge, consistently confusing the two and requiring explanations of the application process from me at each stage.

Whether Oxbridge’s state school applicants are taking the leap because they crave the challenges of a world-class institution, covet the fabled career prospects, or hold some romantic image of dreaming spires and cities soaked in history, they will all share some commonalities: namely, extraordinary aspirations compared to their peers and a willingness to look well beyond the bounds of their experiences.

I can guarantee these things because they are all that will overcome the biggest enemy to state-educated students: ignorance. Before you run away with that statement, let me remind you that ignorance is not necessarily an unpleasant thing, it is simply a lack of knowledge. Oxbridge is so far outside the sphere of ordinary life for many state school students - with teachers informed only by the stereotypes diligently perpetuated by the press and parents who may not have experienced university education at all - that it shouldn’t be a surprise when they skip right over Oxford and Cambridge while navigating the UCAS maze.

The fact is, making an Oxbridge application requires just the right concoction of formidable grades, a motivation to undergo the gruelling interview/test procedure, a knowledge of what is valuable about the Oxbridge experience, and an attraction to said experience, and adequate research into the financial support available to them. The positivity shown in Oxbridge prospectuses is a benchmark reached by all universities, so if a student takes the time to look into Oxford or Cambridge, sees little difference between them and any other university, and does not have the time, patience or optimism to research in more detail, what is there to convince them that the arduous application process, grade requirements and potential expense will be worth it?

This is where it becomes clear that it is not only the ignorance of state school students which is an obstacle in the campaign for more applications, but also the ignorance of the parents and teachers who could be researching right along with them. And yet again, this is through no real fault of their own. If Oxbridge is completely outside these people’s spheres of experience, and all they have ever read or heard are out-dated myths and tales of privilege, then isn’t it a little unrealistic to expect them to think any differently?

Cambridge’s access work is taking steps to improve this situation, but for every prospective student they inspire and every sceptical teacher they convert, another five are lost to the parade of articles and films with a damning message. Those state school students who manage to look past this negativity are few and far between because as a group they face more hurdles than their better-informed counterparts in other branches of the education system.

The only way this imbalance can be addressed is through more concentrated and concerted efforts to improve access and inform people of the positives Oxbridge has to offer students of all educations. Better communication with teachers, more opportunities for state students to attend taster days and summer schools, and an effort to show that tradition is not intrinsically linked with privilege is what will clear the ignorance and mystery that surrounds Oxford and Cambridge from the ‘ordinary’ person’s point of view, and lead to more applications from state-educated students.

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