Attending the UK’s elite universities when you’re from an ethnic minority background

The University of Cambridge offers an academic and social environment based on merit and equal opportunities regardless of race, gender or background. As part of that, they maintain a policy of open discussion and conversation to ensure each individual thinking of attending the university has a safe environment in which to ask any questions they may have about attending the university. 
When the university hosted a Q&A for students from ethnic minority backgrounds, they were able to ask questions about student life at Cambridge, and have them answered by Dr Kamran Yunus, Fellow in Chemical Engineering, as well as six current students. 
At CamVision, one of the key services that we offer students is our consultancy programme, which offers guidance and support when it comes to deciding which school or university to go to. Our recommendations are based on both the academic and social environments that we believe will best suit students, supporting their needs and helping them to achieve their potential. We then help them navigate the application processes and help prepare them for their journey into the next stage of their education.
Many members of the CamVision team attended Oxford and Cambridge Universities themselves, and as such have a particular understanding of the experience and support that students can expect to find there. As many members of the team identify as coming from an ethnic minority background, we understand that access to the kind of support that Cambridge University can offer makes a huge difference to the success of the student experience at all levels. 
Having attended the Q&A ourselves, we wanted to share some of the questions that students had and provide access to the reassurance and responses from the university. Here we have selected a range of questions and have compiled the answers from those given by several students:

What is your favourite part of being a student at Cambridge? 

The friends you make and the chance to study with world-class experts. It gives you one of the best educations you could possibly get. 

What’s the most important thing when writing your personal statement? 

Admissions officers at Cambridge care mostly about two things. Firstly, they want their students to be teachable. Secondly, they want to be assured that you are really interested in the subjects they have applied for. So in your personal statement you should write about things that interest you and that you would be happy to talk about in more depth during your interview. Do make sure that you can back up what you are saying. Ultimately, your personal statement is supposed to be personal, so write what you want to write about! 

How did you choose your college? 

It depends on your priorities. Some things to consider might be how far away your prospective college is from where you have your lectures? Whether there are sports grounds in the college? Or how big it is in terms of student numbers? 

What tips do you have for the interview? 

Be open-minded and willing to change your thoughts on a topic, even if it means you have to contradict a statement you made earlier in your interview. Think out loud and show your thought-process. This shows the examiners that you can think logically and independently and that you are willing to engage with the information they provide you with. Keep in mind, you are expected not to know the answer to the questions you will be asked. 

Is personality important in interviews? 

Just be who you normally are. Get your points across and have faith in your ideas and how you think. 

Did you feel the need to make a point about your ethnic background in the personal statement? 

This can be intuitive and natural for some subjects, such as HSPS (Human, Social and Political Science). So, if it links to your subject, it may be appropriate. Otherwise, your academic credentials are more important. 

How did you find fresher’s week if you don’t go out or into clubs? 

Freshers’ week can be difficult, it’s just the first week of your degree. During normal term time, you can go to socials and not drink without any problem. There are lots of good non-alcoholic things on offer, too, such as vast amounts of free pizza! 

Does Cambridge host events from different cultures, such as the Chinese New Year? 

Yes. There are plenty of cultural, national and religious societies which host culture-specific events and holiday celebrations. The City of Cambridge occasionally also hosts these. For example, the Association of British and Chinese University Students (ABACUS) hosts a big Chinese New Year gala in the Cambridge Corn Exchange – a big event location – each year.)

How does the Cambridge Bursary work?

The Cambridge Bursary Scheme assesses your household income and will calculate a certain amount of money you will receive per year on the basis of this. There are also lots of other schemes available, such as hardship funds, travel grants, and research funds. If you need financial assistance, contact your tutor and they will be more than happy to help you out discreetly. 

Are the majority of your friends from your college, or your societies? 

This varies. Students with a different ethnic or linguistic background often like to gather around societies where they can meet people who share similar interests and hobbies to them. However, you will also have the opportunity to make lots of friends in college-based societies or in your college. 

As a female BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) applicant, did you ever doubt yourself? 

Admissions officers at Cambridge look at your ideas, not your identity. It can be daunting sometimes, but there are always clubs with like-minded people you can join. Cambridge provides a space for everyone to learn and make friends who are different to yourself, so be outgoing and try out something new! The university also has a support network in place for underrepresented groups. 

Have you ever experienced racial discrimination? 

Some people can work at the university for over 15 years and never experience any racism. Others may have experienced incidences, but if this does happen, there is a support structure in place. You can contact someone you trust as well as your college’s BAME officer who can represent and support you in this process. 

What was the most challenging part of applying as a BAME student to Cambridge? What could you have done differently, what could Cambridge have done differently? 

Admissions officers evaluate students on academic merit and potential first and foremost. However, they do also take into account that not everyone had the same support network available to them. What matters most is your potential, interest for the subject and your teachability. 

Have you ever been the only person of colour in your lecture or cohort? 

This can happen, but don’t let it discourage you. You have owned your place. If you ever struggle, you can contact any member of the support network that your college, the university and societies provide. 

Any final tips? 

Thoroughly research your subject and find the one you are really interested in. Get in touch with the university and colleges to ask questions. Also, try and enjoy the process of applying. The process itself can teach you a lot of things about your subject, about yourself and about your organisational skills. Do mock interviews with someone if you feel nervous. Be gentle with yourself, and finally, give it a shot and don’t have any regrets. 

Contact us to find out more about CamVision’s consultancy services