Oxford and Cambridge are admitting fewer state school pupils, and those that do make it come mainly from grammars and sixth-form colleges. So how do students who are getting good results at a comprehensive with no Oxbridge tradition get their foot in the door?
My triplet daughters got excellent GCSE results at their local Isle of Wight comprehensive. They were aiming for four A-levels each and appeared to be the well-rounded students that Oxford and Cambridge were looking for. I didn't see why they should miss out, just because they were at a state school.
The question was, would they want to apply? They'd had mixed messages from school. What was so special about Oxford and Cambridge? Would they find them too posh or traditional, or too high-pressured? It helped that a couple of my daughters' favourite teachers were themselves Oxbridge graduates, and very positive. But how would my daughters know what they thought if they didn't see for themselves?
I encouraged them to scour the prospectuses, and they used the university online message boards to quiz students. We spent a day in Oxford, racing in and out of colleges, collecting brochures and gawping at the architecture.
My daughters' first taste of Cambridge was through the shadowing scheme run by the Cambridge University Student Union. Staying in college and shadowing undergraduates for three days cleared up any misconceptions they had about Cambridge being stuffy: they loved it and were impressed by the friendly students. Plus it helped them decide what subjects they wanted to study. Once they knew, they were even more focused at school.
The next step was to select a college. They attended open days at the end of June, which helped them settle on their choices. AS level results in August showed that they were all on course for A grades at A-level, so they filled in their UCAS forms, agonising over their personal statements, which have to be spot on, especially when applying to universities where all applicants are likely to have high grades. The school's comments are also crucial - luckily, their head of sixth form knew this.
Oxford and Cambridge interview almost all applicants in early December. "It'll be good life experience, whatever happens," I reassured my daughters, though I wasn't sure if I believed it - what if it was just plain traumatic?
The interviews are key to whether candidates will be made an offer, and state school pupils are reckoned to be less polished at them, but paying for coaching struck me as a potential waste of money, when the universities themselves give candidates a good idea of how to prepare through their open days and booklets. Maybe I'm naive, but I hoped they'd get in on merit.
Cambridge was particularly scrupulous: before their interviews, Becky and Alex completed forms detailing what they had covered in their AS and A-levels so that discussion could be tailored accordingly.
There were no trick questions, but Olivia found her first subject interview at Oxford - she applied for human sciences at St Hugh's - unnerving. "They had a smiley lady and a glum bearded guy stroking his chin and going, 'Hmmm', impassively."
It knocked her confidence. She was interviewed at a second college, where she was more at ease, but still came away feeling that she hadn't really done herself justice.
Alex's only complaint at Cambridge (Queens for social and political sciences) was that 25 minutes wasn't long enough, and she worried that she had gone off on too many tangents.
Becky's experience (English at Clare, Cambridge) was the most thorough: she sat a written test and had two interviews. It was clear from her excited call that, far from being overawed, she had had fun, which I took as a good sign. Oxford gets the news out faster: in mid-December Olivia had a rejection letter; and on New Year's Eve Becky was ecstatic to receive an offer from Cambridge (AAA), but we couldn't celebrate openly because Alex was left in limbo.
She'd been pooled, meaning her application had been rejected by Queens but passed to other colleges. She had to wait a further two weeks for the final rejection. That was tough; Alex had pictured herself at Cambridge and found it hard to imagine an alternative. Luckily the alternatives were very good: Olivia and Alex had offers from other high-ranked universities on their lists, and eventually plumped for Durham and Warwick. All three girls successfully completed A-levels. So, that October their dad and I spent two emotional weekends helping them migrate to three corners of England.
Is the Oxbridge system fair to state pupils? The short answer is, I don't know. On the one hand, the universities take the trouble to interview applicants. On the other, candidates take a chance that what's under scrutiny is not necessarily their ability, but their confidence.
Becky held her own during rigorous interviews, was a perfect match for her subject, and got in. Olivia was shakier during interview, missed out, but turned out to be the highest achiever in her year group, with four As at A-level. I guess that's life.
Oxbridge is the place - or is it? The experiences of three undergraduates...
Becky, now in her second year studying English at Clare College, Cambridge, is happy. "It's a wonderful place with wonderful people, and the English course is brilliant," she says. "It's cosier than I expected, but in general Cambridge life corresponds to the clichés: punting, black tie, Shakespeare, late nights in the library and everyone being quite clever. I still think of it as being a bit like Hogwarts; there's something idyllic and faintly ridiculous about it."
The most frequent complaint is that it's all a bit too nice and sheltered, she says. "It's better than I anticipated; more fun, and less stuffy. The work is manageable and most people are unpretentious. How students handle the work depends on how much pressure they put on themselves, rather than the work being impossible; perfectionism can be a problem. Individual attention from tutors makes the course more enjoyable - and more intensive."
Alex, in her second year at Warwick studying history and culture, has no regrets about having applied to Cambridge. "It was an interesting, other-worldly experience," she says. "I'm busy fulfilling many ambitions at Warwick and have met wonderful people here."
Aesthetically, Warwick's blocky campus can't compete with Cambridge, and it can't provide that cosy college atmosphere, but that isn't really important, she thinks. At Cambridge, she would have had to write an essay every four days. At Warwick, she writes three to five essays a term. "I think that's the only difference - a student will have more time on their hands at Warwick, although they're unlikely to be disappointed by the teaching. For a student with diverse, perhaps creative or sporting ambitions, this is a wonderful place. I have so much time and opportunity to throw myself into journalism and drama. I think I'm better able to explore those avenues (without sacrificing my degree) through not getting into Cambridge!"
Olivia, in her second year at Durham studying natural sciences, is happy with her course, her friends, and her university town. "Durham has an atmosphere of its own," she says. "It's smaller, greener, and more northern; it seems less controlling. But if the drinking culture suffered a remission, it wouldn't be such a bad thing."Reuse content