The admissions information gap and how to solve it

Comment National Issues University/Local Issues

Image description: a photograph of Christ Church, taken from the meadows

I realised how alone I was in my application to Oxford when I was mistakenly taken away from a lesson one morning to sit the TSA. For admissions to Geography in 2018, no admissions test was required. Through no fault of their own – simply because of time constraints and a lack of information – the staff at my sixth form had assumed I needed to sit one. 

As one of the just two students applying to Oxbridge in my year group, the realisation that I knew the admissions process better than those supposed to be tutoring me was disheartening, polarising, lonely: you get the gist.

I wrote my personal statement without mentorship, relying on online advice to make sure it was of “Oxford standard” and presenting it once to a teacher who signed it off as “good”. Don’t get me wrong, the school was as pastorally supportive as possible while I completed the process, but many teachers attempted to dampen my expectations. I was a comprehensively educated Scouse girl from a low-income background, and we both knew that the odds all lined up against me. All I could do was throw my hat in the ring and hope for the best, as my Head of Sixth Form told me.

I wrote my personal statement without mentorship, relying on online advice to make sure it was of “Oxford standard” and presenting it once to a teacher who signed it off as “good”.

I attended a small comprehensive school in Liverpool’s inner city, where less than 20% of students every year proceed to Russell Group universities. From my own memory, at least one student applied to Oxbridge every year, but getting an offer was unusual. I was the first student in over five years to successfully get an offer and fulfil it. I knew then that my school lacked the information and resources to support me, because of the gap in funding, information and experience which severs schools by arbitrary categories like postcode and school status.

So, I resorted to finding resources and support online in the fragmented and very difficult to navigate world of access and outreach initiatives. While vloggers documented their admissions processes online, I couldn’t find anything helpful for what I wanted to study specifically. I delved into the student forums to find some testimonies, but all I came across was precocious political and philosophical discussions in the threads. After trawling the web for hundreds of hours, frankly, I was exhausted.

While vloggers documented their admissions processes online, I couldn’t find anything helpful for what I wanted to study specifically.

Once arriving in Oxford, my comprehensively educated and Liverpool-based friends corroborated my experiences. Not only did their school have no way to find information and resources to support them, but when they tried to online, it felt like checking out at a certain supermarket where everything is thrown at you too quickly, and without any real order. From the initiatives of college-based access teams, departments, the Student Union and the masses of societies, the information is no more easily utilised than if it were floating about in space.

To make matters worse, there is also a big information gap between private, grammar and comprehensive schools. Compared to the grammar schools, the amount of information and support received by my comprehensively educated friends and I was negligible. We received very little mentorship when writing our personal statements, no admissions test tutoring where applicable, and no mock interview support. I knew that attending a comprehensive school in a deprived area of the city weakened my chances, but I didn’t realise how much I was going to miss out on while applying.  

Compared to the grammar schools, the amount of information and support received by my comprehensively educated friends and I was negligible.

Admissions to Oxford from Liverpool and Merseyside are low each year, and sit within the particularly low admission rate from the North West of England of just 8.1% each year. Knowing that some independent, grammar (and ex-independent) schools in Liverpool and Merseyside send students every year to Oxbridge, it’s clear that they have a growing bank of experience to draw on, while the comprehensive schools lag behind, perhaps sending one student every two years or so.

If there’s such a clear disparity in support and successful admissions, why is the information not being shared in an effort to resolve this? And if the access sphere is so fragmented and difficult to navigate, why’s there no collaboration between schools, universities and organisations to coordinate production of information and content in a concise and useful way?

The project InsideUni was set up to tackle exactly these issues. Of course it hasn’t, and won’t ever be a complete solution – no single access project ever can be – but the resources it provides do represent an important step in closing the the information gap which plagues so many students. 

Since beginning to work with InsideUni, I’ve learned that student-contributed material is so much more valuable when it is simply presented in a single source. InsideUni.org provides student-written subject and course application guides, and nearly 1000 interview testimonies between Oxford and Cambridge. As a student contributor and content writer, I get to help re-simplify the access sphere, directing students, parents and teachers to various initiatives, schemes, and informative documents from a single, easy to navigate webpage.

Since beginning to work with InsideUni, I’ve learned that student-contributed material is so much more valuable when it is simply presented in a single source.

Because of the innovative work InsideUni is doing, we were recently nominated for the Community Choice Award by the Fair Education Alliance. Winning the award would bag the organisation £500, enough to run the whole organisation for a whole year and help us to grow by recruiting new volunteers. Voting takes a few seconds and can be done by clicking through here.

Initiatives like these give students like me from low-performing schools the confidence to apply to Oxbridge. The information gap is well known, with stories like mine being common for those who came from schools where Oxford offers were out of the ordinary. Without a framework of simplicity, the growing world of outreach and access will become even more difficult to navigate, potentially leaving the admissions gap wider than it was before.

Image credit: @shyshkina via Unsplash

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