Professor Les Ebdon, the new head of the Office for Fair Access has this week outlined his plans to force universities to give preference to lower ability applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds in order to promote social mobility in higher education. His ideas have caused controversy by the suggestion that students from good schools will now find themselves disadvantaged in their application to university. The media is full of this story, the final outcome of what has long been debated in government and in the press. But what does this mean for applicants to Oxford and Cambridge and should bright students from good schools, both independent and state, be worried? We all know that Oxford and Cambridge devote a huge amount of time, energy and resources to finding the best students. No other university in the world (where interviews are conducted by top academics in the field rather than administrative staff) interviews so many applicants per place.
The aim of this rigorous admissions process is to identify an applicant’s potential, not to examine what they have been taught to date. It is this idea of potential that confuses people – does having already had an excellent education, where you have regularly debated complex ideas with a teacher who is as knowledgeable as they are passionate about the subject mean you have less academic potential than someone who has taught themselves the basics of the history syllabus because their teacher didn’t and ended up with a low A at A level? We believe the answer is no.
Whatsmore, all the evidence suggests that Oxford and Cambridge Admissions Tutors have been looking for potential, rather than academic achievement to date, for longer than this debate has raged. So how do you demonstrate your potential? It’s about genuinely wanting to learn about your subject, from the books you read, the lectures you go to and the practical work that you do and, even more importantly, from your peers and tutors. It’s about giving in to your curiosity to explore all the areas of your subject, and to enjoy thinking about problems from different perspectives. You then need to be able to demonstrate this in your personal statement, and again at interview. No one can teach you to have potential. What you can learn, however, is how to demonstrate it, and not to allow your potential or personality to hide beneath nerves, badly structured answers or a misunderstanding of how you should be in an academic interview, no matter what your background.