Image credit: Jesus College Oxford

“We’re just a group of humans trying to solve problems” – In conversation with Dr Matthew Williams

Every year, the months-long application process to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge culminate in an offer released in January, and this year was no different. On January 9, 2024, the University of Oxford released around 3,800 undergraduate offers. Immediately, relevant social media algorithms began displaying two types of polarised, yet dovetailed, content: the first being offer-holders delightfully sharing their joyous news, and the flip-side being videos from those who had not received an offer in bygone years assuring that it’d all turn out all right. Indeed, to many aspiring applicants, an offer from an institution as prestigious as Oxford could be the culmination of years of hard work, and the lack of one, the seemingly crashing down of an empty promise.

Amidst this cacophony, I sat down with Dr Matthew Williams, Access Fellow and Politics tutor at Jesus College, to learn more about the vast and challenging work that is admissions to Oxford. Many likely know Matt from his concise, to-the-point, but information-rich videos released on the Jesus College Oxford YouTube channel where he shares a variety of application tips and guides. Safe to say, I watched his videos religiously when I was applying.

What do tutors look for in a successful applicant?

We look for academic ability and potential as we always have. But we’re also looking to make sure that more people feel like they have the confidence and the power to apply. There are many more people who are eligible to apply than who actually do apply. So, there is a large pool of talent out there who are, for various reasons, just not choosing Oxford, and that’s a problem for us because that means we’re missing out on potentially some amazing students. We have some amazing students, but we don’t want to be in a situation where, maybe a few years from now, a lot more people will start to think, actually, I don’t want to choose Oxford either. And it becomes more of a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that Oxford becomes increasingly less diverse, and we lose out even more. So, in terms of what we’re looking for, it’s not changed – it’s always been academic ability and potential. And we don’t operate any biases against people who come from particular backgrounds, such as those recovering from independent schools, but we just want to make sure we’ve taken the best.

…my role is to make clear that no, we are not just the old, historic buildings; we are not just the thousand year heritage; but we’re also, more importantly, just a group of humans that want to solve some problems.

Oxford is intimidating, and it’s often daunting to truly believe you – as a student – belong here. What do you think the role of tutors, especially access fellows, are in terms of demystifying Oxford, such a historic and prestigious institution?

I see my role as to try and humanise the place because the most powerful thing about Oxford are the human beings, the humans are the most important resource. It’s a very beautiful city, there are some amazing buildings, there are some fantastic facilities, but that is not Oxford University. For me, Oxford University is this group of incredible humans that have agglomerated in this city for hundreds of years to try and solve problems. That’s Oxford University. And so, tutors are always trying to make clear that this is a human institution with a humane face to it, that’s my job as an access fellow. In a lot of people in their interactions with Oxford, they see it as a brand, which sort of dehumanises it as the University doesn’t seem to have much institutional vulnerability – there are no access points that allow people to think, well, where do I even start? “This is a thousand year old brand, how could they possibly have any interest in someone like me?” is a very common way of thinking. So my role is to make clear that no, we are not just the old, historic buildings; we are not just the thousand year heritage; but we’re also, more importantly, just a group of humans that want to solve some problems.

Many of us know you, particularly, from your brilliant YouTube videos which you’ve been making for quite a while now, what incentivised you to take on such a prominent role in the social media scene for Oxford?

It all started by accident, really, I didn’t have a plan to make lots of videos and reach an audience. It was really the pandemic that it all kicked off.

We had a handful of videos on YouTube prior to then which were quite randomly curated, without anything particularly knitting them together. And when the pandemic struck, we were supposed to be running a summer school for access, but it all had to be cancelled. So I just thought, well, I’ll record the sessions that we’re delivering online anyway, and just post it on YouTube, assuming that only a handful of people would watch it – probably the people that were supposed to attend the sessions – and that would be it. But it ended up gaining a lot more traction than I was anticipating, so that made me realize that there is great potential here to work with individuals that normally wouldn’t be able to access Oxford. So, I had just wanted to open-source a lot of the information that some people have ready access to – because of various privileges they have – to others who don’t.

When I was going through school, I had a lot of access to privileged information, and I believe it would be fairer if more people had access to that information, and YouTube is a very good platform to proliferate information.

Looking at the pandemic, it has obviously had a huge impact on education. What effects did the pandemic and its repercussions have on Oxford as an institution?

I would say the repercussions not just on Oxford, but on British education, has been predictably, but disproportionately affecting people from less advantaged, less privileged backgrounds. The lost years of education and the impact on other factors of life has been more severe for those that have had fewer advantages in the first place. So, the gap – which was already quite wide in Britain – between those who are more versus those who are less advantaged, got even wider. We’ve seen that come through with school results. Aside from the brief period where the less-advantaged students benefitted from school-assessed results, those pandemic years of lost or disrupted education hit people from poorer backgrounds very hard.

As an educational institution, this is a social problem that does affect us because we as tutors and admissions are just trying to make sure that we take the best students and that we have the fairest possible admissions process. And that will mean having people from very privileged backgrounds, including myself, coming to universities, but it will also mean getting people from very poor and very difficult backgrounds coming as well, because they have the ability and the talent.

We spend on average 20 person-hours on every application, so making mistakes is incredibly unusual.

The elephant in the room, unfortunately, is rejection, and with so much competition, most students aren’t going to secure a place, and are going to be invariably disappointed at not getting in. What advice do you have for handling rejections?

I do try and produce something around this time of year on rejections, just because I’m conscious of the fact that 85% of applicants won’t be admitted. So, there does seem to be this very strong sense and label of being an “Oxbridge reject”, which is a problem.

I don’t know anyone who goes through life never being rejected from something. It’s just a part of the life experience. My theory is that when we have this idea of being an Oxbridge reject as being a bad thing, it discourages people from applying in the first place because they feel since the odds of getting in are about one in six, why bother? And that’s just a complete disaster.

I would personally find it more troubling if someone said, “I’m not going to try anything because of the fear of rejection”, rather than someone who says, “hey, give it a go, if it doesn’t work out, it’s fine. It’s not because I’m a bad person, nor because I’m not intelligent, it’s just because loads of factors, many of which are entirely beyond my control, didn’t work out. So, what’s the shame?” I suppose that my issue with rejection is that it has taken on this big emphasis, which it doesn’t deserve – it’s just a thing that will, at some point, inevitably happen.

I think part of the problem with Oxbridge in particular is that those that apply to Oxford and Cambridge tend to have been very successful academically for their whole lives – they’ve never really experienced a significant setback academically; they’ve also probably not applied for many jobs where they’ve not been accepted. So, they’re basically just not used to rejection. So when decision day comes around, the “No” from Oxford and Cambridge could be the first time that someone has told them “Sorry, we don’t think you’re ready”, or “we don’t think you’re good enough.” And that for a young person can be momentarily devastating. Everyone tends to get over it eventually, but in that instant, it can be difficult.

So, I just want to try and counteract that, primarily because it just shouldn’t be a thing to be embarrassed about, but secondarily, because that fear discourages thousands and thousands of people from applying because they are afraid of embarrassing themselves.

On the flip side, now that an applicant has received a conditional offer, they could also enter the most daunting period of their life: the time between getting the offer and getting confirmation of attendance. What sort of suggestions do you have for students to steer away from that perpetuating, snowballing cycle of anxiety?

It’s been a long time since I’ve been through that, but I can bet that it was pretty scary thinking about meeting your offer.

I suppose a common core source of that anxiety is imposter syndrome, which often carries on with people when they come to Oxford, as although they’ve been given this conditional offer of AAA or whatever, they are not sure that they deserved the offer in the first place, which sews doubt in whether they can get those grades or not, and it becomes a cycle of putting yourself down and assuming that some mistakes have been made in this process.

So, the obvious problem with that line of thought is that admissions mistakes are magnificently rare. We spend on average 20 person-hours on every application, so making mistakes is incredibly unusual. Yet a lot of people at Oxford during the period between offers and confirmations assume that probably loads of mistakes have been made, that they shouldn’t have their offer, which is just implausible. So, first of all, have confidence that if you’ve been given an offer, it’s because your school and the University are confident that you can get those grades and, if you can, you will flourish at Oxford.

Then, I just say to keep putting one foot in front of the other, not to think about the calamity that might happen if you don’t get in, don’t get your grades and don’t go to Oxford. Again, it just comes back to what I was saying earlier about rejection: if you don’t go to Oxford, it’s not the end of your life. It will be disappointing but provided you made the most of whatever opportunities that then came along, you’d be absolutely fine.

To inject some levity into the whole conversation, as a humanities student, how much of your vacation reading lists did you get through, and how much do you expect students to get through?

So, because I’m half blind, I tend to have to use screen readers and technology, which when I started as an undergraduate didn’t exist. So, the percentage that I got through in those days was quite small, probably about 10%, if I was lucky.

Now I’m responsible for making reading lists, and I always feel slightly conscious that I’m adding books and articles to it, and it’s getting unwieldy. One reading list that I was partly responsible for about 10 years ago was for “Comparative Government”, a Politics paper, and the reading list was 100 pages long for an eight-week tutorial course, which is a bit extreme.

I suppose the way we look at it as tutors is that we’re laying out this sort of luxurious buffet of options. The reading list is not like a taster menu where you have to try everything, because otherwise you’d be terribly sick. So, I suppose the direct answer to your question is far less than I would have hoped for, but was physically incapable of reading much faster. So, I found various ways in which I could get around some of that, which would be perhaps spending more time thinking about the little bits that I did read, being very targeted in my reading, and then giving myself time and space to think about it so I can maximise my analysis.

During your time here, which colleges had some of your favourite formals?

In no particular order: Merton, Pembroke, Wadham

Saltburn has taken the world by storm, what did you think of it, as a tutor at Oxford?

I was nervous. I’m always anxious that when Oxford is on film and TV that it will lead to even more people getting freaked out by the place and think that they can’t apply.

A few years ago, there was a film called The Riot Club, which was about dining societies and Oxford. It was basically about the Bullingdon Club, and that was horrifying because it just depicted Oxford as this debauched, snobby place. I thought Saltburn actually did a lot better in the sense that it clearly didn’t caricature Oxford students as one type or another. They did suggest that there was this sort of highly privileged elite within Oxford, but it did also point out that it’s more varied. So, I actually thought it was fine in terms of its depiction of Oxford.

Any final remarks?

I think everyone could do with being a lot kinder to themselves in this place. I think because it’s famous and old, and it comes with a big dollop of impostor syndrome, the people within Oxford are often a little bit sort of uptight, and have a sense that they’re not good enough.

So I think a general message is that we can all be a little bit kinder to ourselves, and we should celebrate this amazing place, but not forget that the reason it’s amazing is not because of thousand-year heritage, it’s because of the people here now and the people that will be here years from now.

I want Oxford to be around 1000 years from now, not just today, and I think if we think about ourselves as looking after this institution for future generations, it’s why it’s so important to make sure that we keep it relevant; we make sure that people don’t feel scared of coming here, of being here, and why it comes back to that sense of being kind to yourself and enjoying the place.