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Image courtesy of British GQ
Applying to the University of Oxford was one of the hardest and most stressful experiences of my adult life. I, alongside my close friend, was the first from my school (to my knowledge) to have ever applied to Oxbridge. The school I attended was one of the lowest ranking institutions in my local borough, constantly outperformed by the grammar schools that towered over it. However, being on track for my predicted 3 A’s at A-Level, my 17-year-old-self decided to take the plunge and go for it. I had no idea then of the barriers I would come to face, not only at my school but also within myself.
Though the number of state-sector pupils applying to Oxbridge has increased over recent years, the statistics are omissive of the ways that state-school culture creates an environment of alienation and exclusion from top-tier institutions. This, as I found out, may come to affect my application. When I first revealed that I was pursuing my interest in Oxford, I was met with a sea of surprised and shocked responses. The most common being: “Wow, that is going to be hard.” This was swiftly followed by “Oxford? That’s for posh people”. For a school in south-east London that had no ties to any top Russell Group university, Oxbridge did seem more of a rich fantasy land than a reality.
Nevertheless, my friend and I looked past the comments and had our eyes set on Oxford. With the support of my family, friends and the few teachers that I confided in throughout my application process, I felt surprisingly calm and normal in my decision. This was to change. Despite my best efforts and a minority of teacher support, my school was not equipped to fully aid my application process. My inquiry to sit the ELAT (the English Literature Admissions Test) at my school was denied, despite it being necessary to my advancement in the admissions process because just one student sitting it would cost too much for the school to validate. I then had to sit it at a neighbouring grammar school, surrounded by pupils that had been normalised into the Oxbridge application process for years and having had role models from their school to encourage them. It is hard to convey now the level of frustration I felt.
Despite the feeling of alienation, I managed to pass the exam as well as the essay-submission stage and made it to an on-site interview. Of course, I was congratulated by my school, but what started as a sincere moment of pride quickly turned into a marketing tool. My friend and I were soon to become a selling point at open evenings and prospective student visits. This only added to the pressure. Coming from a school where no one had previously applied, my interview preparation was left completely in the dark. I was left feeling more out of my depth than ever.
Going to the University of Oxford left me both in awe. On the one hand, I saw the prospect of my potential future standing before me, but on the other, the tall, centuries-old buildings graced with years of infamous academics only reminded me of how far from the Oxford lifestyle I truly was. It was intimidating to say the least. The experience, however daunting, was one I will never forget; to talk about my favourite literature with academics at the top of the field was once in a lifetime.
Months later, I received the all-important letter that would either make me an offer or reject my advancement in the process. As a Kent student, I am sure it is evident what the letter read. However, looking back, I remember feeling disappointed not for myself and my personal failure, but for not being the girl who finally made it to Oxbridge from my school. I did not care about disappointing myself, but for not being the success story that my school had hoped for.
In hindsight, I am glad that I applied to Oxford. It helped me become the student and the person that I am today. I know now that the University would not have been a good fit for me as a person. My choice to come to Kent was the right one. The experience of applying to Oxford, though, highlighted to me so many issues that the statistics cannot convey. It is not the abilities or ambitions of state school pupils that holds them back from applying to top institutions, itis the way that state school underachievement and settling for less has been normalised. The marginalisation of non-grammar schools or non-independently educated students from places like Oxford is much more deep-rooted than what it appears. Students do not apply because they do not see it as a place that they could achieve; constantly out of reach and a place for the socially elite. We must work to break down social and economic barriers in order to encourage students in such environments to believe in their abilities and provide their respective schools with the means to aid them. This means more than just facilities and introducing programmes, it means changing the self-defeating attitude if many state school cultures.
I did not get into the University of Oxford, but I am proud of what I was able to do and learn in the process. The ideas it had planted in my mind can truly affect how you view yourself, your aspirations and your future. It exposed me to a state school culture that holds itself back. If nothing else, educational institutions must find new ways to make students, no matter their socio-economic background or place of learning, feel as though no place is off-limits. No place is “too posh” to aspire to. Only then will the barriers preventing certain disadvantaged students from reaching, or even envisaging, their academic goals start to break down.
This article is part of our one-off edition of IQ Magazine, out from November the 29th 2019. Pick up the magazine on campus in our InQuire distribution bins in Keynes, Co-op, the Templeman library and other locations on campus.