This blog was written by Daniel Dipper, a current student at the University of Oxford. Daniel is on Twitter @DanielDipper1.
This article intends to outline the initiatives that supported me to get to the University of Oxford, being the first in my immediate family to go to university and coming from a non-selective state school. There are such a range of access and widening participation initiatives and in my experience, it was a combination that was so valuable in getting my place at the university I wanted to attend.
My first exposure to Oxbridge was attending a University of Cambridge talk on choosing A level subjects. This talk was something my mum found online and was not mentioned in my school, so a key point to raise is that universities should forge partnerships with schools so that the profile of these events can be raised.
My next exposure to university study was attending the University of Cambridge Subject Masterclasses. These were opportunities to hear from leading speakers at the university, as well as to get admissions advice from tutors. These were so useful for introducing me to periods of history I had not studied, w. Additionally, breaking down the admissions process supported me to realise I had a realistic chance of getting into a top university. Making some of these talks freely available online (as Yale University have done) would be an amazing way to demonstrate what university study is like.
I was very lucky to be made aware of the University of Cambridge Sixth Form Law Conference – this was my first opportunity to get to stay in a university for one week and I had an amazing experience academically and socially. While I chose not to pursue law for my undergraduate degree, it certainly put a conversion course on my radar for a later date and the international law lecture particularly gave me a new perspective on my studies of geopolitics in Geography.
The biggest challenge in participating in this course was missing school time, as my school initially were not keen on me missing time. Having worked on access programmes this year, this problem seems only to have been exaggerated due to coronavirus taking so much teaching time away. I hope schools are supportive so students can get to participate in these amazing opportunities.
The programme that was really a turning point for me was UNIQ – run by the University of Oxford, the programme is aimed at Year 12 students from backgrounds which traditionally do not apply to top universities. The week was action packed, starting at 8am and finishing at 10pm and was incredible to hear from so many inspiring academics as well as to get so much support with admissions assessments. The programme ran for one week and every weekday we would get at least 1 hour to focus on the admissions process, from getting feedback on personal statements to hearing what tutors were looking for in our admissions assessment. We wrote a mini essay on what we learnt during the week and it was great that time was dedicated to listening to each other’s thoughts on the course material. The amount of admissions support on the programme, as well as the fact UNIQ went above and beyond to accommodate my disability, were persuasive when I came to university applications.
The Sutton Trust summer school was the other residential I participated in. The Sutton Trust works with several leading universities to host their summer schools, giving so much choice as to what institution to study at. I chose to apply to Durham University because of their reduced grade requirement offer for those who successfully completed an essay on the programme: their entry requirements for History were shifted from A*AA to AAB. The programme added to my understanding of university life. Recently, I joined the Sutton Trust Alumni Leadership Board having previously volunteered for the Trust. In addition, on the Alumni Community, they regularly post opportunities to go to careers workshops or for other social mobility programmes. Therefore, participating has given me the opportunity to both give back and to develop my transferable skills.
The Social Mobility Foundation Aspiring Professionals Programme is a mixture of careers and academic support. They run monthly webinars, initially focusing on university applications and later shifting to introducing employers or providing internship application advice. The biggest perk is their mentorship programme: in Year 12 and Year 13, I was assigned to somebody in the careers sector I was interested in (for me Politics). The civil servant I was assigned supported me to hone my writing style, as well as exploring careers options with me. I now have a mentor from a consultancy firm who are supporting me to apply for summer schemes. Being connected to sectors I am interested in is so invaluable and as a result it has helped to accelerate development of my commercial awareness.
The programme that I believed supported me most to secure my place at Oxford though was Zero Gravity. This online platform connected me with a History and Politics student at Oxford. Through weekly mentoring sessions and messaging in-between, my mentor supported me with my admissions assessment, selection of written work and interview technique. Having just completed an internship there, it is incredible to see the massive impact a small intervention can make – UCAS estimates that through this one hour per week of video mentoring, low-income students are twice as likely to get a place at a top university as those without this support.
Work to widen accessibility to top universities is not just something for prospective students: last year I was part of the inaugural Opportunity Oxford cohort. This two-week programme is led by the University of Oxford and targets students from areas where there are low rates of progression to higher education. Participating is a condition of your offer to the university but the grade requirements are exactly the same and so is your experience from the start of the first term. The programme is composed of an online and an in-person component, each lasting two weeks. The programme is designed to support students to make the most of their first term, to ensure they have the core skills to thrive and to be more transparent about exactly what is expected of an Oxford student.
Having been a participant myself last year – and now a student ambassador – I can say the programme is hugely helpful. The programme meant I knew where most things were in the city and how to use the library system, while also giving me a support network across the university of people from similar backgrounds to my own. Some have remained my closest friends so the social aspect of these programmes should not be underplayed. If programmes like this could be rolled out to more students, I believe they would have a hugely beneficial impact.
Together, all these programmes provided a coherent journey from the start of Year 12 to where I am today – from summer schools and masterclasses giving me an academic insight, to Zero Gravity helping me with applications, to Opportunity Oxford helping me to settle into university and the Social Mobility Foundation supporting my careers development. I think it is great that there were so many opportunities, each with different approaches which added to my overall understanding. However, if I had not had access to all these programmes I may have been lacking in some areas. Programmes that provide longer-term support I feel are the most impactful and I would recommend more long-term interventions going forward.