In an old notebook that my mum probably got from Poundland, I once wrote a fictional story about two talking horses who would become superheroes and embark on an adventure to save the world, with James Bond by their side. I never finished it, I got to around one hundred fifty pages. I got my inspiration from two talking horse teddies that the ‘Hungary Horse’ restaurant chain gave out on Christmas Day as free gifts, where I spent Christmas at the age of ten. Looking back, this story wasn’t really ‘fiction’ as such but was based on my observations. The two horses went on the London Underground, something I was lucky enough to do as a child. While working with 007 agent James Bond to defeat evil robots, they also somehow had time to engage in more conventional aspects of life such as staying at hotels and going to shopping malls.
Although there are most likely many occasions where it has showed previously, that only my relatives can remember, I like to think that this was my beginning of my fascination and enjoyment of observing and analysing the world, and also my love for writing.
This may sound like I’m some sort of child oracle with a gift for writing who was always destined to be in the position that I find myself in, but that is not the case. For starters, my family and background is no where near what people would describe as ‘affluent’, or what you would consider your typical Oxbridge candidate to have. Secondly, I never really discovered my passion for certain subject areas and a passion for academic aspiration until very late in my school journey. Certainly, it was a LOT later compared to your typical Oxbridge candidate. You hear stories of people who have been dreaming of Oxbridge all their life, who have been trained by their school to realise their dreams etc. I didn’t dream of Oxbridge all of my life. I had no prior training or dreaming. My journey to becoming a University of Cambridge student is a lot different to the stereotype. To help you realise what I mean, let me take you back in time.
Primary school was neither particularly good, or particularly bad. I liked achieving academically and reaping the rewards such as being let out to break time early, but I found primary school quite restricting for the most part, and like most children at that age, couldn’t wait for the bell at the end of the day.
It was only when I got into Year Six that I started to enjoy my time there, being taught by a teacher who was tough but pushed the boundaries of the most gifted students. For the first time someone outside of my family taught me that achieving above the average of what was expected was indeed possible. She rewarded those who were willing to put the work in instead of having a magnifying glass on those who misbehaved, something I had become accustomed to for most of my academic life. Her signature method was ‘stamping’ where if you behaved well in a class, you would receive a physical stamp on a piece of card. Everyone had their own card to try and achieve as many stamps as possible. If you achieved 50 stamps, you would achieve a small certificate and a lollipop. If you achieved 100 stamps, you’d receive a bigger certificate and a bigger lollipop, and so on at fifty intervals. Along with a few other individuals, I saw this as an opportunity to achieve and make myself proud. I remember my teacher saying to me that no student she had taught ever achieved 150 stamps in a primary school year. I made it my ambition to achieve that many for my piece of card, and sure enough I did.
For the first time academically, I had broken down a barrier. It left ten year old me feeling very pleased with herself. I think the teacher who gave me this experience has migrated and is under a different name somewhere in Mexico now (seriously, I enquired about her location in order to reach out to her last year and that was the answer I received), but wherever she is I hope she knows how much of an impact she had on young children’s mindsets to achieve at my primary school. She left in the same year my year took the big jump; going to the state comprehensive high school in my small town which had previously been rated inadequate by OFTSED. This is when things changed. I would not re-discover that mindset of breaking boundaries down again for another six years.
“I would not re-discover the mindset of breaking boundaries down for another six years.”
At my comprehensive state school, I was isolated from most of my friends that I had made in primary school. They were either in different ‘academic sets’ or they simply didn’t want anything to do with me. This had an impact on my grades in most subjects. I had no motivation to study, as much as a year seven perhaps can, and I was quite unhappy throughout most school days. Although I was for most of the time the top classes for most subjects, I quickly developed a mindset that many students in my classes were on a different level of intelligence to me. This is largely because they would answer all the class questions with great confidence, using all the correct terminology and would receive the upmost praise and attention from the teachers. I didn’t consciously realise I was becoming under-confident in my academic ability at the time; I hadn’t bothered to grasp the concept of being an academic. I definitely did it subconsciously though, and I kept my mouth firmly shut despite knowing answers to questions and having opinions in class debates. With my confidence already shattered due to isolation in school, this doubled the feeling: isolation in both friendship and intelligence. I felt like nothing I said would be right.
“I quickly developed a mindset that many students in my classes were on a different level of intelligence to me“
Sometimes, I would lie awake at night in pure fear of going into school the next day, as I knew I would be met with the all too familiar feeling of isolation, anxiety and nervousness in my stomach. I would be pushed to working with other pupils who I knew were secretly laughing at me or mocking me behind my back or when they went off for their lunch, or would be left to feel hopeless as I was too anxious to ask for help from any of my teachers. Because of this, my grades were not brilliant: English and Maths were big standouts but I wasn’t doing too well in others. I was barely passing Science (according to the Year Seven grading) and for subjects like Design and Technology my grades were horrific. The poor grades were made worse by the fact my school highlighted them in bright red on my school reports. As twelve year old me read her report card, the red seemed to scream: ‘you’re not performing up to the standard we expect, do better’. I felt ashamed, but I didn’t act. I had no motivation, and I didn’t know how to change that.
After the first horrific year of Year Seven, things got slightly better in the next two years. I made friends, and although the feelings of anxiety didn’t go away entirely, it became a lot more manageable. I gained more confidence in subjects that used to give me great horror. However, confidence does not equal motivation which thus does not equal success. At a time of life when the typical Oxbridge teenage candidtate is starting to think about their future plans, my horizons were still very much limited. When people asked what I wanted to be when I was older, I normally responding with ‘I don’t know’ or avoid the question entirely.
From this point after, my mental health absolutely deteriorated. I am not going to go into too much detail with the events that happened in Year 9, Year 10 and Year 11- I don’t need to, and you don’t need to hear them.
In terms of academia, I was an absolute demotivated wreck. It was a miracle if I ever completed my homework before the night it was due in- and in school I was disinterested, bored and normally couldn’t wait to be at another concert, away from the school and its’ environment. I had absolutely no interest in academia. Throughout these three years, I stayed in top set for almost all of my classes but I was by no means a stand out in classes, apart from in History where I was excelling. And, perhaps most importantly, I never did any revision unless it was rushed or very close to the exam. I never felt prepared; I normally tried to fluke mock exams. I have a vivid memory of my mum pressuring me to do some revision the week before my first set of Year Eleven mock exams in January, and I responded with ‘it’s too early’ and instead chose to watch funny Youtube videos for the rest of the evening.
This may sound like typical behaviour from a fifteen year old to you, dear reader, and you may be questioning why I’m highlighting what I was like. Think of it like this though: when you hear other Oxbridge students ‘stories’ you hear about their hardworking ethic throughout their early teenage years, and how they achieved amazingly in their GCSES, with their grade reports being dominated by the best grades and thus being the highest performing students in the country. For me, this was not the case. Apart from a predicted Grade 8 in History (in old grading terms: an A*) I was not really predicted anything above a seven. I wasn’t achieving much above that prediction either in my other subjects.
Socially, it was a very difficult time in these years and my mental health suffered beyond belief. I’m not going into detail, as once again I don’t need to, but in many lessons I put my head down on the desk and had to ask to have some time out of class, when key information was being taught for my GCSE exams, so I could have an anxiety or a panic attack (sometimes both). I was in such a poor mental health state. I had to take counselling in Year 11 when my thoughts in my head sometimes became intrusive. I didn’t really learn much in my counselling as I would always bombard the session with an outpouring as to how I was feeling at the time. The time that counselling took up for Year Eleven me wasn’t brilliant either- I missed out on crucial lesson content for my GCSEs as my sessions clashed with my crucial school lessons.
I had no idea about my future. I had no ambition. The one vague idea I had about a career was becoming a worker in shop chain ‘CEX’ because I was keen on the idea of getting discount in there on video games and I liked the music that they played in there. Sixth form? Didn’t know. College? Didn’t know. Academic aspiration? Not a chance.
It was April 2018 when I snapped mentally, the day of my Spanish speaking GCSE exam. Again, I’m not going to detail as I don’t need to, but it led to me screaming ‘help’ in a medical room. As I held a sick bucket close to my face, I felt hopeless. I was shaking to my core and it took me an hour to calm down. I’m ashamed of the behaviour that I exhibited to certain people afterwards. Because of certain events, I was snappy, angry and overall a quite awful person to be around.I somehow managed to pull myself together and do my Spanish speaking exam.
From this day, April 28th, I experienced frequent nightmares and would wake up having panic attacks. My parents were extremely concerned and I near enough stopped eating entirely. When I showed signs of getting better, I would get worse again. They were worried, and understandably. I broke down almost every night and sometimes I saw no purpose in living. One of my low moments came when after another argument, I collapsed in a park, luckily close to my house, in panic. A stranger, luckily someone who was trained in counselling but at the time was picking up their child from the nearby school, came and helped this teenager who was shaking and basically passed out on the grass. It was traumatic.
To say I was a bit of a mess at this time is an understatement, but at the same time, something changed in me permanently. I hadn’t cared to revise for the Religious Education exams, and saw most of the revision as some sort of past time or joke that I didn’t really take it seriously, but for the first time I was interested in what the textbook said as well as being keen to revise. I’ll never forget the moment when that truly hit me. As I was writing my flashcard for the RE exams, I also remember feeling a very significant emotion. I was proud of the work I was doing and that I was achieving by doing so. This was a first for me, something that I had not felt on a large scale since my superhero story about horses I wrote all those years ago. I complemented for the first time that it was a thing to be proud of the work that you had achieved in academics. It was quite a moment for my fifteen year old mind, and I have not been the same since.
From then, apart from breakdowns over my English exams and a full-on giving up with my Chemistry exam within the Combined Science papers, I worked, and worked, and worked. Throughout the May half term which is the intermission between GCSE exams, I never stopped revising. For the first time, I was pulling eight to nine hours a day of revising. With each day, I realised just how important working to your goal truly was. I had a motivation inside me that had never existed before, and still stays to this day. I wanted to do well. I wanted to succeed. More than anything, I wanted perfection in my History exams and to improve in my Combined Science exams.
I powered all the way to the end of my GCSE exams. When I finally finished my last GCSE, which was a separate qualification on Statistics, I packed up all of my various flashcards, post it notes and sheets of paper that were scattered across the floor but also on my little study table in the living room. I felt relieved, but also proud. For the first time, I felt incredibly proud of myself for working as hard as I did and putting the effort in something academic. I was not self aware of my behaviour throughout most of my academic life, but now I was aware I never went back. After my GCSES, I had the best summer of my life and before I knew it, it was GCSE results day. I went up to my school as a bundle of nerves. Could I have worked harder in some GCSE subjects? Would that show? would it reflect in my grades? I was handed my exam slip, stepped outside of the auditorium so not all eyes would be on me from around the room. I opened it. There were some disappointments, but overall I was happy.
English Language- 6
English Literature- 5
Religious Education – 9
Combined Science- 8 and 7
Hilariously my first reaction was not towards the highest exam grades. It was, quite loudly, ‘I PASSED SPANISH!’. Of course, I was very happy with my two nines (particularly in History, having always achieved an 8 in other previous exams) and I weeped in private over them a little later. Yet, as I sat in McDonalds with my parents as a celebratory treat, I felt slightly let down with myself. I had some spectacular grades, but I knew I could have done better in some other subjects, particularly English. I could blame other people, like the teachers in whatever way I wanted but it would not change the fact that I didn’t put enough work in. Once again, I emphasise the need for comparison with the typical Oxbridge student grades at this level. Although I had good grades, they are certainly not the array of perfect 8s and 9s down the exam slip that you hear about.
I would say that having the feeling of being let down was the ignition to the next two years of my life. I chose to go to my comprehensive state school’s sixth form. I had the option to go to my local grammar school as a scholar, but I chose not to.
On the first day, I vowed that I would start as I meant to go on. After my first Politics class, I looked at the information sheets again and made the entire information sheets into notes in my notebook. ‘What are you doing?’ I remember my friend asking, in the common room. ‘It’s only the first day.’
‘Starting as I mean to go on’ I chuckled, looking at my scruffy notes. Later on that evening, I went over all my notes again, made them into flashcards, and then covered the flashcards and wrote everything down again so I knew the knowledge had been implemented and I understood it. This is a pattern of revising that I would repeat again and again, for almost all of my subject content. I would race through homework and instead do this activity again and again to revise and make sure I had a clear understanding. I did this for all three subjects, and made sure that I had time for it. After switching History A-level to English Language A-level in October, I learnt everything through this method for my new subject in the half term that I may have missed in first half term lessons. I gave myself two days off at the start of October half term. The rest I spent working all day, everyday.
My first test of my ability and of this technique came in the form of two Sociology mock exams. I revised my socks off for these. I worked how I had never worked before. I was pulling 6pm-11pm revision sessions after sixth form. In the exams I wrote everything I could and at the end was extremely satisfied with my effort. We got our marks quite quickly, a few days after we did them, thanks to Ms. Knight being very efficient in her marking. She handed me my first paper back, on ‘Education with Sociological Contexts and Methods.’
‘I’m so disappointed in you. So many faults.’ She said, as she placed my paper upside down on the table. My face dropped as she looked at me with quite a serious expression on her face, and then she smiled. I turned over my paper as she went to give a marked exam paper to another student and I smiled too.
40/40. I was so happy. My work was paying off, but it hit perfection that I never thought was possible. A couple of days later I learnt that I had also achieved 40/40 in my second paper on ‘Families and Households.’ I was over the moon. I kept repeating my method of revising for all my subjects as a result.
Fast forward a month, and my Politics teacher seemed to have disappeared. All of his stuff was in his room, yet no one knew of his whereabouts, not even the teachers. The whole school was very concerned. To this day, I still don’t know, but I wouldn’t like to speculate. This meant however that I was received less and less political tutoring. As a school, there was no backup. I previously had two politics teachers, but the other one could cover two out of the five hours a week that we had set in our timetables for this subject. This meant we were left with a (normally clueless) substitute teacher that would let our class do what we wanted. For many, this was the perfect opportunity to relax and go on their phones. Who could blame them? But me, the ever-eager over the top workaholic always conscious of their final grade, was extremely concerned. Thus, this resulted in a LOT of self teach from the textbook. I spent a lot of hours trying to make myself understand political concepts and I worked when others were not. I had a lot of anxiety over the subject going into the year twenty-nineteen because I felt I did not have all the key information to achieve, and I didn’t understand some of the concepts.
In addition, I wasn’t getting assessed. There were no mock exams that determined how well I had picked up the information, simply because they were not arranged. It would be around three/four months until my school eventually found a replacement who came in. This replacement would be the individual who would single-handedly change my life path forever.
The new politics teacher who joined in February was a stark contrast to anything I had experienced in my state school before. Not only did I understand the concept, which was the UK Constitution, extremely well, I also for the first time went to explain everything to my mum when I got home. We were travelling to see a Liverpool Football Club game that particular night, and I blabbed on and on about what statute law, common law and conventions all meant to her, much to her delight. It felt so engaging, so interesting, and also so important. I would say this is where my proper interest and experience with extra curricular work began. By this I mean going beyond revising what the textbook said, but actually being interested in ‘my subject’ which for me was, and is, Politics.
At the time, Theresa May was suffering awful defeats over her Brexit deal in the House of Commons. I took an interest in this and watched the votes come through on BBC Parliament. Later on in the year, my new teacher would also run a lesson dedicated entirely to studying the Conservative party leadership contest which I took an amazing amount of interest in afterwards. If an academic can get you interested in that, that proves just how much of an amazing teacher they are. I loved every lesson I was in and my interest for the subject absolutely soared. It was amazing.
As the months went on, the volume of Future Prospects Talk went considerably up in sixth form. Here’s where I must stress an important comparison point. We had one properly trained careers advisor for the whole school, who visited once every few weeks. The sixth form didn’t have an Oxbridge officer like you hear about in other schools because no one had ever successfully got into Oxbridge. Not a single student.
Unfortunately, the school and its sixth form branch I went to is a very under-performing institution. While teachers can do their best in lessons to get their students interested in their subjects, the career advice I got from my sixth form was next to nothing. We filled out some Word documents about what we possibly may have wanted from our careers, but after we sent those off they were never talked about again.
I do worry that so many students at my school and at other underperforming schools have slipped through the gaps because of approaches like this. Students may have the talent and potential, but that is never recognised because the sixth form’s horizons are so narrow.
At the time, I had ideas. Somewhat. I was very interested in the University of Liverpool. I loved the look of it and wanted to study Politics. The Uni of Liverpool is an absolutely fantastic university, do not get me wrong. But if I’m being totally honest here, my one motivation is because I loved the city beyond words and I also loved Liverpool Football Club and wanted to be in the middle of that ‘atmosphere.’ Apart from that though, I didn’t really think about future prospects and instead vowed to continue working.
Soon the July mock exams for Year 12 rolled around. This was the first time that I would be assessed in any capacity in Politics, so I was very, very nervous. It was also the first serious exams completed in the sports hall. For my English Language exam, I had a horrendous issue with timing and didn’t finish the last question, which was writing an article. I broke down and felt so defeated after this. I still remember the gut wrenching feeling of knowing you wouldn’t finish in time as you watched the time tick down on the sports hall clock every ten seconds or so. Everyone reminded me it was a mock, I reminded them that this was a very important mock as it would determine how well I was doing. What can I say? It’s the downfall of taking your work seriously. What you regard as ‘failures’ hit you ten times harder.
“What you regard as failures hit you ten times harder”
In my mocks, I received the results A*- Sociology, A- Politics B- English Language. I got 80/80 in Sociology again, with my teacher saying that even though she read through the paper so many times, she could not find any faults in it. I found out my results subject by subject by talking to my subject teachers while completing my work experience, which was decorating and doing other odd jobs during the July end of term period within my sixth form. Again, I highlight ‘typical Oxbridge story’ comparisons. Many go off to do amazing and rewarding work experiences such as working in a firm or in the Houses of Parliament. My work experience consisted of doing up display boards and having a boogie to the ‘Ultimate Party Classics’ playlist on Spotify while doing so.
I was very proud of my display board.
I had a week off from working so heavily but during the summer holidays I started my methods again. I rarely had a day off, and if I were to have an evening off I would make sure I would work extremely hard in the day. I had to self teach so much key A-level content. Outside of Sociology, I knew some key information and units had not been taught and compared to other schools, I was behind. So, I set about working twelve hour long days in the boiling sun to try and catch up. It made me so sad when I heard my fellow A-level peers in my classes say they didn’t understand a question in their mock as usually this was no fault of their own; it was the fault of the sixth form for not teaching it properly or not at all. After this summer of study, I was somehow more motivated to start Year 13 off strong I know. I don’t know how I did it either.
I put in seven h0ur study sessions after sixth form each day in Year 13. For the first time, I was also giving up leisure time that I set aside to do things like watch football in Year 12. Looking back, I DO NOT recommend this. It’s very important to have breaks and to kick back every once in a while. In the midst of all my working, I also went to university open days. My first was at King’s College, London.
Stepping into the campus facilities with their towering buildings and pretty architecture, I felt beyond intimidated. I didn’t feel like I was worthy of being in the taster lectures or study at a place like King’s. I was beyond excited at the thought of it, but I didn’t feel like I could ever successfully apply there. It just wouldn’t happen.
Oxbridge never once crossed my mind as I worked through September. One weekend, I started working on my personal statement early, mostly so I could get it out of the way to focus more on studying. By the end of September, I had completely a very rough outline of a first draft that was no where complete but it was a start. I talked about the recent proguing of Parliament, the upcoming presidential elections in Tunisia (as you do) and my blog. I didn’t know who to go to to help with my sixth form to improve it. My institution is by no means high in the league tables. As I’ve said, the sixth form had no Oxbridge officers as no one had ever gone there and the institutions horizons were so narrow. This is largely because the sixth form had never had someone go to Oxbridge in its’ history.
Wanting specialist subject advice from someone who may be able to help, I went to the teacher who had covered my Politics lessons, who had joined the school permanently. I arranged an appointment to discuss my personal statement and I was very nervous when the day arrived.
I awkwardly watched him read over my personal statement before he leaned back in his chair and said the words that would change my life forever.
“Have you considered Oxbridge?”
I stuttered a lot in response. I didn’t know what to say, really. Oxbridge. It was such a scary word. It was something that was only for the ‘elites’ in society. It wasn’t for people like me. Was it? That word was meant for the people who answered all the questions in class when I was in the lower years in high school, if that. It wasn’t meant for me.
Despite feeling apprehensive, I agreed to it. I explained my non- affluent background and how I believed anything like Oxbridge was not meant for people like me. My mum was a guest services advisor and my dad was a manual worker in a factory. Oxbridge wasn’t for people like me. I was reassured that there were many people like me at the University, but I didn’t really believe that initially. This was the first time in my sixth form life that my head had been tilted up towards the glass ceiling. I decided I wanted to apply to Cambridge, and the subject I would apply for would be HSPS- Human, Social and Political Sciences.
I must stress that this meeting happened in early October. To be exact, it happened nine days before the deadline for Oxbridge applications arrived. Nine days! Nine. Days. I only had a rough outline of a personal statement! Because of this, I was assigned lots of reading to do, which was also my first proper exposure to academic reading, over three days. I read three books in three days. It was all bananas!
Things were happening so fast that I didn’t really have a chance to step back and think about it all. I was suddenly in my politics teachers’ office a lot of the time as he talked me through what Oxbridge like seeing in a personal statement, from years of experience. I tried to keep knowledge of it happening off the radar but this soon proved to be impossible. Word got out and suddenly it felt like I was carrying the school’s name entirely on my back and everyone in the corridors began to ask about me. I had to do well. I had to succeed. Otherwise, I would let them down. I got stopped by every single teacher in the corridor who wanted to hear updates. Some teachers talked of a ‘statue’ being built of me. One called me ‘Miss Cambridge.’ Some students said I would ‘be fine’ and I would ‘definitely get in because I was so smart.’ This pressure really took a toll on my mental health and it would keep boiling up until Results Day.
Away from my Cambridge application and my never-ending study antics, I was starting to receive other university offers. I received my first offer from the University of Liverpool, then Manchester, Kings College London. I was over the moon with all of them. They came in such a short space of time as well: all of them came back my Cambridge written assessment at the end of October. Each one I celebrated by cracking open a can of coca cola and listening to ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’ full volume.
ALLEZ, ALLEZ, ALLEZ.
I wasn’t sure how well I did in my Cambridge assessment, largely because my mind throughout it was somewhere else. My dad had gone into hospital a couple of days before, and the doctors were not sure what was the matter with him. He was released a week after my assessment, and not too long after that I got a letter from the post. It had the University of Cambridge logo on the front.
I opened it. I had been invited to an interview. I couldn’t believe it. Straight away, I ran up to the school to find my politics teacher to share the amazing news. He smiled but said there was no time to lose, and my preparation would start as soon as possible.
The time I had to prepare was two weeks. I somehow managed to balance preparation and doing mock interviews while still intensely revising and self-teaching, as I seemed to discover everyday that key A-level content was being missed out of my lessons. It was like I was living a double life: I studied with the rest of my peers and then occasionally went off to learn about Ancient Greek politics or the work of George Orwell in preparation for my interview during some of my free periods. I did two mock interviews thanks to the connections that my politics teacher had.
The mock interviews were enjoyable because it was an experience of academia talk that I had never had the chance to participate in during sixth form. I smiled as I gave my interviewers my responses because they understood every word of what I was saying in terms of political polls, the impact of the media on politics and so on. They challenged my wording or my answers which only brought my thinking to a higher path as I thought of new ways I could answer their questions. According to the feedback that my sixth form received from the mock interviewers, I had done exceptionally well.
Suddenly, it was the day of my official Cambridge interview.
December 9th. It was just over two months since the idea of ever applying to Oxbridge was first introduced to me. Since then, my life had morphed into a pressurised period of preparation, uncertainty and self teaching/revising- always at a rapid pace. It all felt so surreal.
The train ride to Cambridge was one of the longest train rides I’ve ever experienced- and I only live around forty minutes away! I felt like my insides were turning in on themselves due to the nerves.
Despite everything, my background, my short preparation time, my bad high school experience, and everything I’ve mentioned above: I like to believe that my interviews went relatively well. My first one was for Sociology where I talked about Marxism and the glass ceiling. I also intertwined my personal experiences into the points I was making: to not only emphasise my atypical background, but also to show that I was observant to the world around me in a sociological way.
In my politics interview, I was quizzed on the essays that I had submitted to Cambridge during the applications process about the power of EXOP within the US Presidency. I was also asked about one of my favourite subjects: political education. My answer that I gave to that question was extremely long! When asked about any wider reading I had done outside of politics, I mentioned Sociology- which displayed to the interviewers how I was relevant for the particular Cambridge course. I wasn’t just interested in one area of HSPS, but all of it.
The wait over the Christmas holidays to find out if I had got in was typically awful, as any Oxbridge canditate will tell you. I would find out the decision on January 15th. How did I feel around the time? It was a mix of normal nerves, but also intense pressure. No one had ever got in from my state comphrensive sixth form. Everyone always asked about me and how I was getting on. How would tell each and every one of those staff that I didn’t get in, if that’s what happened? I was applying with one other boy from my sixth form who was in the same year as me, and I’m not sure if he felt the same pressure as I did. He applied for HSPS too, but at a different college. The days, although nerve-wracking, went quite fast.
January 15th. My phone buzzed. It was an email notification from Robinson College. I got in.
I can’t describe the feeling. I wish I could relive it again. It was a mix of being happy, feeling proud, feeling great about myself but still not quite believing it. Had the last few months REALLY happened? My life had been turned on its head, and it was changed forever. I knew I had to achieve the grades, A*AA, to officially get in, but I vowed to myself that I would, at whatever cost. There was no going back now. I had achieved the impossible dream at my sixth form. I had gone where no one else at the sixth form had gone before.
Although I can say I put lots of work in to make this happen, if you’ve read everything above you’ll realise that luck is a large element in my story. I recognise that too. What would have happened if it wasn’t suggested by my politics teacher? I certainly wouldn’t have even considered applying to Oxbridge, as my horizons were never broadened in that way. They would have never been broadened in that way. This is what I worry about. There are so many students like me, who have the potential to achieve but their horizons are never broadened due to the sixth form that they go to. They never experience the quality assistance in making their future job prospects a reality like so many private schools and even better state comprehensives do across the country. Instead, those students slip through the gaps and never realise how truly intelligent and smart they are. I will fight to try this all my life, in whatever way I can. That’s why I’m writing this blog post. If I can inspire even one student with my story, that will make me happy beyond belief.
In the last set of mock exams that I completed just after February half term I achieved two A*s and one A. Around that time, I worked so hard one evening that I was physically passed out on the floor. It took me a long time to move again and stand up.
My body was caving in from overwork. I was still self-teaching as the lessons never covered everything we needed to know for our exams, on top of revising. I was getting less and less sleep each night, as I believed I needed to work all the time. I wasn’t resting. This is something I do not reccomend. It is so, so important to have some rest and time for yourself, no matter how much work you’ve got to do! I am a firm believer that if you don’t make time for rest, your body will pick it for you.
An image from of my long studying sessions. I thought the advertisement on Spotify was quite amusing given me what I was doing. It’s almost like it knew! ^
We all know what happened next. In March, the UK went into a national lockdown to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. A week before this, the A-level exams were cancelled. I felt defeated for a very long time. I had been putting in over 110 hours of studying per week. Because I studied all the time previously, when everything suddenly stopped it was quite hard to find my feet and myself again. Comparing myself in April 2020 to April 2018 is quite a contrast. It shows how significantly I turned my academic career around, but it also gives me incentive to help others; I am not the typical Oxbridge candidate by any means and I follow quite a unique journey. I’m from humble beginnings and I was never the shining light in my high school classroom.
I’m from humble beginnings and I was never the shining light in my high school classroom
Over the months of the first lockdown I plunged myself deep into academic reading for the first time, as I had the time. I also rediscovered who I truly was after all the hard work I put in. Amidst of all the pressure, I realised I had lost myself a little. Applying to such a prestigious university, especially when you take into account my mindset towards studying a few years ago, was a surreal experience. It changed my life and for that I will forever be thankful. However, the heaps of pressure that so many people piled onto me and the enormity of applying took a toll on me. I had been working under such intense conditions and it felt like the sixth form everyday was counting on me to do well. I of course myself wanted to do well. All of that, as well as the physical effort that comes from studying, took a toll on my body and for the first couple of months of lockdown I suffered from severe burnout.
I will not go into detail about what I experienced on Results Day. A blog post detailing my experiences can be found on this blog page. In short, it was a horrible experience and for a while my place was denied at the University of Cambridge. This did eventually change and my place was confirmed- and after a few weeks I decided to take a gap year.
My story isn’t your typical Oxbridge story. It isn’t a story of years and years of training and it isn’t even a story of realising my potential in high school. Instead, it is evidence that anyone can achieve going to a prestigious university. I was the first ever from my sixth form to do so. This fills my pride but also gives me an incentive. Every day so many students are not being guided or advised as they should, compared to students who go to more prestigious schools on their high school journey. Some students at comprehensive state schools never realise how wonderful learning and academia can truly be. They never land themselves a job in a field that they should be in because they never receive the right guidance. They don’t even know the glass ceiling is there. All because their schools are so underfunded and they don’t have the resources that a student who wants to highly achieve needs, both physically and mentally.
If you are a student reading this, or even a person who has high aspirations that they feel like they can’t achieve, this is your sign saying that you can. Even if you feel like you can’t do it, I promise you can. My life momentally changed in under two years. Whatever you’re aiming for, you can do it, I promise you. It doesn’t matter if you feel like others are more experienced than you, smarter than you, more able than you. You are you. You can do it.
Thank you for reading this blog post.