The University of Cambridge has a worldwide reputation for excellence, which is both awe-inspiring and intimidating. We often speak to talented students who worry that they are not Cambridge Uni ‘material’, perhaps because they didn’t go to a public school or because they don’t think they have the ‘right’ background. Here, one of our University of Cambridge graduates speaks to a prospective applicant about going from state school to Oxbridge.
Theo is 24. He’s bright and has a passion for film and publishing. He has a bachelors and a masters, both from Cambridge University, and he has learned Japanese. Having attended a British state school, he’s passionate to share his experience by mentoring teenagers about getting to the best university for them.
Danielle is 15. She’s bright and determined. She has a natural leaning towards the sciences, and is coming up to her GCSEs at a UK state academy. Her teachers predict she will get very good grades in her exams. She lives with her mother and two brothers and wonders if Oxbridge could really be right for her?
Danielle: What was your dream at school?
I think my dream shifted a bit. For a while I wanted to be a translator, then I wanted to be a film editor, and then I became interested in being a film and literature critic. The unifying theme was that I wanted to focus on learning as much as I could about the subjects that I loved. I realised that my love is for academia itself, which makes the act of studying and working extremely rewarding.
Danielle: What were your three favourite subjects?
My first favourite subject was English Literature because I read a lot in my free time anyway, so studying and thinking about books didn’t really feel like work! It’s important that you have a real passion for your subjects, as it will make it easier to put in the work. Couple this with the fact that my teacher gave us a lot of freedom, rather than being overly prescriptive, and it was the perfect class for me.
My second favourite was Government & Politics. The greatest appeal of this was that it was a subject that you could only study at A Level at my school, making it feel really exciting and new. While I enjoyed studying History, Politics gave me the opportunity to use many of the skills I had learnt up to that point and apply them to completely new paradigms. Furthermore, we were studying really up to date information, so it felt like the subject would never be the same from one year to the next.
My third favourite subject was Maths. Though I would go on to favour more essay based subjects, I did really enjoy the problem solving element of maths. You are given the basic skills to understand questions, and then you have to work out which skills are applicable where, often having to combine them in interesting ways. I was by no means a maths genius, but it provided something different and engaging where otherwise all of my subjects were the same.
Danielle: Did you just study for the curriculum?
Studying for the curriculum was a springboard for learning about my subjects in other exciting ways. For me, this mainly took the form of more reading. We were learning about The Gothic and second-wave feminism in English literature, so I read Dracula and The Female Eunuch; in Politics we studied the history of political ideologies, so I read On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. Reading isn’t everything though, so I had friends who looked to join super curricular clubs or enter academic competitions. Studying beyond the curriculum will be most effective if it feels like a choice, rather than an obligation, so you should do so in a manner that you feel comfortable with.
Danielle: What was the most exciting prospect of going to university?
I think it was the idea that I would be surrounded by a group of people who were as passionate about my subject as I was. I studied Japanese, which I knew would be a small subject, but it also meant that those who did choose to study it would be deeply invested in it. Even outside of my subject, the prospect of being able to meet a huge number of new people was greatly exciting, and one of the biggest draws of university.
Danielle: Did you really like the idea of the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford or other Russell Group universities?
Truth be told, I grew up in Oxford, so I wasn’t interested in studying there, as I wanted to be a bit farther from home! I would be lying if I said that the prestige of the University of Cambridge was not a draw, but it also happened that the course they offered in my subject felt really comprehensive when compared to other universities.
I also applied to SOAS, Sheffield, Manchester, and Edinburgh, all of which are excellent, and others may have preferred the courses at other universities. I think it’s worth remembering that you will be spending at least three years studying at university, so on top of it being a good university, you want to make sure that the course is something you are happy to do for such a long period of time.
Danielle: What’s the difference between Oxford, Cambridge, and other universities?
The key distinction that Oxford and Cambridge holds is the tutorial, or supervision system. This is when you produce a piece of work for homework, and then in a small group, or even one-on-one, you discuss that work with an expert in the field. It means that you get a lot of personalised contact time, and can easily ask questions directly.
Of course, this does not inherently make Oxbridge ‘better’ than other universities, but it is a distinction that you might want to consider. If you think that you would benefit from the intellectual stimulation and pressure of supervisions you may want to consider Oxbridge.
Danielle: Did you ever think that uni wasn’t going to work for you?
Theo: I didn’t see myself as being able to succeed elsewhere, so I always assumed that university would be the best option for me. That said, there were definitely times when it got difficult, especially in the first year. Having a small class fomented some inadvertent academic competition, wherein everyone felt that they knew where they were within a ranking of the class. This distracted from the joys of studying and learning, and required taking a different approach to drown out the noise. As I grew closer with my classmates it became less of an issue, which I was very grateful for.
Danielle: Did you ever think that Oxbridge was just going to be full of posh rich kids?
I did, and going to Cambridge didn’t really challenge this impression. While the statistics do show that there are more state school students than private school students, the proportion compared to the national average is still very skewed, and the state school count includes grammar schools, which are clearly distinct from standard state schools.
The ease with which people discuss money and their previous elite education will always be jarring. That said, I gravitated more towards other state school students because initial conversations could flow more naturally than the artifice involved in speaking to someone who you know to be very different to yourself.
Danielle: How did you prepare your personal statement and interview?
I received guidance from my school teachers on the personal statement. You don’t have that much space in which to introduce yourself so it was mainly a matter of distilling the information down to the most important stuff, and structuring it in the best possible order. My general advice would be to avoid cliches or unnecessary flourishes; just be honest about why you love the subject, and why the university should want to take you on as a student. As for my interview, I did very little preparation.
My school did not have a teacher in a relevant subject who could give me a full mock interview, but I discussed the interview process with one of the language teachers, which put my mind at ease. In the arts and humanities the interview will primarily focus on your personal statement, so don’t put anything on there that you are not happy to speak about at the interview. The tales of Oxbridge interview curveballs are greatly exaggerated, and very few of my friends got a question during their interview that didn’t feel directly related to something else that had previously been brought up.
Danielle: How did you feel about student loans?
Thankfully, the system in the UK is such that no money upfront is needed. I come from a single-parent household, so received a larger maintenance grant than standard, and on top of this, Cambridge have a bursary scheme in which any student from a household income of lower than £42,000 is entitled to further financial aid from the university, which I received for all three years I was living in college.
My friend had a way of thinking about loans which I think is useful: she thinks of student loan repayment as more of a ‘graduate tax,’ in which you retroactively pay for your education out of your paycheck. This not only justifies the money paid, but it makes it feel passive, and not like it is money you are otherwise losing out on. Since starting work, I have not felt as if my student loans have had a significant effect on the money I am earning.
Danielle: Will you ever get a real job after uni?
You absolutely will. If nothing else, university makes it far more likely that you will get a job than if you had not gone to university. It might not be in the field you initially envisaged that you get a job in, but the job will come. Universities have lots of careers and recruitment opportunities that you should take full advantage of, as you will not be afforded these same opportunities once you leave university.
Danielle: What was your best experience at uni? Was there fun to be had?
My best experiences at university mainly came from the societies I joined. You are really spoilt for choice, and there will be a society that matches every interest. For me, I chose the quiz society, through which I made some great friends and travelled around the country for a number of quiz tournaments. Through improving my abilities at quiz society I was also able to go on the television show University Challenge, which has always been a dream of mine. It can get very easy to think that you have to be working constantly at university, but such an attitude is not tenable, so seeking fun in the societies you join is imperative to making the most of your university experience.
Danielle: Were there more difficult times?
Absolutely; you spend 18 years in the comfort of your own home only to be thrown amongst entirely new surroundings. Freshers week is a blur, but after that it can definitely get lonely, as it’s before you’ve made any really close friends. It’s also very easy to get caught up in academic stress. People have different ways of coping; my recommendation would be to try and work in different places, otherwise you can come to resent your regular work station. Be honest and fair to yourself, knowing when to give yourself some time off. I was very strict with my timetable by the end, and would not do any work after 8pm, giving me time to relax and watch a film, meet up with my friends, or read for pleasure. It is impossible to prevent the bad times completely, but you should look to learn how to cope with them as best as you can.