Image credit: Haochen Wang

Demystifying Oxford

Shrouded in mystery, prestige and academic rigour, Oxford has long been an institution that many people have dreamt of studying at – me being one of them. But with the last single-sex college not admitting women until 1985, it’s easy to forget that not all too long ago, 50.89% of us (according to a 2022 statistic on the number of female students at Oxford) would not be welcome.

Given Oxford’s history, a prospective applicant – and even a current student – can find themselves struggling to navigate the intimidating aura that Oxford’s reputation exudes.

Coming from a single-parent, low-income family and attending a comprehensive state-school in an economically poor area in North Wales, the most frightening part of the application process to Oxford was not the personal statement, entrance exams or interviews… It was having to summon the courage to believe that I was good enough to apply. That was quite possibly the biggest culture shock I experienced coming to Oxford – not the collegiate system, nor the tutorials or the crewdates, but the fact that almost every student from a private or selective school that I met, arrived with some level of self-confidence.

In 2022, 198 students from Westminster applied to Oxford, with a 40% success rate. In 2020, my English teacher told me to “reschedule my Oxford interview” as my “chances were low” and I could not miss an hour of her class to attend it. It is this disparity in encouragement that can affect a student’s entire belief system from a young age and my story is not unique – the 93% club is proof of that. Thus, the need for student-founded ‘Access Oxford’ platforms grew.

The summer before my arrival in Oxford, an ad popped up on Instagram for an organisation called ‘That Oxford Girl.’ A free Oxford access platform consisting of a community of female students from all different backgrounds (both undergraduates and postgraduates) offered the supportive framework myself and many others had never had. Founded by Oxford graduate Tilly Rose who was “seriously ill when applying to Oxford…and told not to bother taking her GCSES or applying to University,” Rose established ‘That Oxford Girl’ with the aim to “set up a fun, free resource to support young people through the application process.” The networking opportunities in exchange for one self-written article per term, to be published on their blog, seemed almost too good to be true, but I had made it this far so why not apply.

Following my acceptance as an ambassador into ‘That Oxford Girl’, I was given opportunities that I never would have experienced elsewhere. All of a sudden, my engagement in the community led to invites to attend press nights at the theatre, seated alongside well known Oxonians such as Ruby Granger. ‘That Oxford Girl’ provided a whirlwind of networking benefits that greatly helped in bridging the gap between state school and an elite institution like Oxford.

That was quite possibly the biggest culture shock I experienced coming to Oxford – not the collegiate system, nor the tutorials or the crewdates, but the fact that almost every student from a private or selective school that I met, arrived with some level of self-confidence.

Sadly, Rose’s condition worsened and at the start of my second year I stepped up as Editor in Chief of ‘That Oxford Girl’ to allow her time to recover. I gained a new perspective of ‘That Oxford Girl.’ It was never a surprise to me how beneficial ‘That Oxford Girl’ was, I had certainly benefited as an ambassador, but now I got to hear it directly from our audience. By looking at website data and reading messages sent in by prospective applicants, a blog post as simple as ‘An Oxford Language Dictionary’ did wonders when it came to demystifying Oxford and breaking down the jargon which is equally entertaining to a current student, as it can be isolating to a prospective student.

Eager to find out the reality of living at Oxford, students were drawn to our ‘day in the life’ stories where we debunked common myths and gave a genuine insight into the highs and lows of Oxford – including how to cope with the toll on your mental health that being at Oxford can have on you. The aim is never to glorify Oxford, after all university is not best suited for everyone, but to provide people with enough information to make a well-educated decision – reducing the chance of the next great mind missing out due to fear. Our posts seemed to be especially popular with international students in allowing them to find their footing upon arrival. Not only do access organisations offer an insight into Oxford, but for some they can ease the nerves of coming to live in the United Kingdom for the first time.

The inspiration that these organisations give their ambassadors is, at times, as impactful as the organisation itself. Wanting to give back to the community and improve outreach programmes, I joined Zero Gravity – a social mobility company founded by Oxford graduate Joe Seddon. Over the course of 2 years, I mentored 7 students, 5 of whom received offers to Oxford and Cambridge and one of whom ended up becoming an ambassador for That Oxford Girl upon her arrival this year. Student-founded, student-led organisations have such a prominent ripple effect that is capable of, in Rose’s words, “inspiring future generations” and encouraging many to build self-confidence. These organisations are crucial in demystifying Oxford, reducing imposter syndrome, and breaking down perpetuated stereotypes and barriers engrained in the University’s history.

Image description: The Radcliffe Camera