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When I was in Year 10, everyone who had achieved above average exam results was asked to complete a questionnaire. We were not told what the purpose of this questionnaire was, nor what the outcome would be. After the routine requests for name and date of birth, we were asked: “Has anyone in your family ever attended university?”
I spent a lot of time reading that question. I knew that no one in my family had ever been to university, or had A levels for that matter, but that was not what I was finding difficult. Instead of providing the correct answer, I was too concerned with trying to figure out what these answers would mean and what answers I should give.
By this point, I had assumed that the questionnaire was part of some early university admissions process; the first part of an application or an eligibility check. I remember thinking that if I admitted (as it did feel a bit like a confession) that no one in my family had entered higher education, then that would put the university off me and scupper my chances of getting a degree some day.
In the end, I chose “I don’t know”, because it was neither a complete lie nor a “fatal” declaration of what I then thought was an embarrassing and problematic truth – that I would be the first person in my family to try to go to university.
It turned out that I had the wrong end of the stick. After that questionnaire, I was enrolled on to a widening participation programme called Aimhigher, a project that introduced university to young people who had little or no history of higher education in their family, by providing advice and guidance on applications and funding, by taking us on trips to universities and through running summer schools. If I had lied and tried to impress an admissions officer, I probably would have had a much harder time transitioning to university, or possibly would not have gone at all.
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It was on this programme that I first visited a university and properly encountered students, on a trip to the University of Sussex. I still remember the student ambassador, an economics undergraduate, telling us that you didn’t have to wear a uniform, and giving us a tour of huge libraries, lecture theatres, drama studios, and accommodation blocks. I can still see the students wearing sandwich boards, protesting over something that I didn’t understand at the time and can’t recall now. All I knew was that this was the sort of place where I wanted to be.
I had made up my mind that I wanted to go to the University of Sussex. Brighton was my home, I liked the campus, and studying at this nearby university wouldn’t be a terrifying leap into the unknown. My friends, however, who had brothers and sisters at university, told me that going to university in your home town was not the done thing. The whole point of university, they said, was to gain some freedom, experience a new place, and learn to live independently.
I grew up in a small city, with parents who had been born and raised there and the idea of moving to a new city on my own was disturbing. Perhaps it would be OK if my friends and I went to the same university together? But, no, they told me, that was not what you did – you had to make new friends.
For the next few years, that was pretty much what my knowledge of university consisted of: a school trip, the odd assembly on the topic, and advice passed on from friends and their families. During my time at college, studying for A levels, I tried to take control of my own learning in a way that I hadn’t done at school, both in my classes but also in my preparations for university. I grilled my teachers, asking where they went to university and what it was like: “How much reading did you do?”; “How many essays and exams?”; “How can I get started now?”
I developed a taste for books, films, and television shows set in universities. However far-fetched or remote from my own experiences of growing up in a working-class family in the South, Educating Rita, Brideshead Revisited, A Single Man, The History Boys, Fresh Meat, An Education, Lucky Jim, and Starter for Ten all felt like the most relevant and exciting research I could be doing. In many ways, this merely gave me an unrealistic impression of what university would be like, but I’m sure that it’s responsible for the sense of eagerness and romance that characterised my thoughts about university.
Despite being excited about university, a lack of information about admissions proved to be a barrier. I pored over university league tables, assuming that these would tell me the best places to study my chosen degree subject, English. After researching those top institutions, I found that I did not have the right combination of A levels, of what I now know are called “facilitating subjects” (subjects that some universities seem to value more than others), and that I did not have good enough GCSE grades to study at those places.
In a surprising shift, I had gone from acquiring average grades at school to achieving As and A*s at college, but this only made me feel more frustrated that my GCSEs seemed to be holding me back. I didn’t know that they would affect my university applications, and I wish that I had worked as hard then as I did for my A levels. For many of us, university applications are the first time that we learn how our past, and what we did or didn’t do in it, limits (or enables) our present and future. I think that we need to let young people know this during their time at school.
Ultimately I ended up at a good university, outside of Brighton, where I did well and was happy. I’ve no doubt that this was as much to do with luck than any well-reasoned decision on my part. I visited only two universities prior to and during my applications. One of them – the one I ended up at – was for an interview that I almost didn’t attend. Up until then, my first choice, unoriginally, was the university where my best friend’s brother had read English. It wasn’t until that interview day, when I spoke one-on-one with an academic about my reading, heard about the course in detail and saw the campus, that I knew that the degree suited me and my interests and that I would feel comfortable there.
I do not regret my choice, but I do wish that I had made more of an effort to see different universities and English departments throughout the country, if only to make sure that I was making the right one. If I were to do anything differently, I would focus less on league tables and reputations, and I’d spend more time looking around campuses and speaking to university staff about what the degree programme is like. Having more options makes deciding on a university harder, but I know too many people who ended up at a university that was wrong for them, to realise that my choice of the right university was far too much of a close shave.
Charlie Pullen is an English literature master’s student at Queen Mary University of London
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