After my first term at the University of Oxford, I was invited back to my old sixth-form college in Norfolk to talk to students who were thinking about university applications. Norfolk has a historically low percentage of young people applying for higher education. Trying to convince them that they should try applying to Oxbridge was an uphill battle and I could see why – I had also been there.
For a long time, I had wanted to become a tennis coach and academia didn’t interest me. It was only after talking to my parents’ friends who encouraged me to get a degree first and then come back to tennis that I took applying seriously. Listing the University of Oxford as one of my five choices on the UCAS application form was simply a “have-a-go” moment.
Several months later, having attended an interview at Corpus Christi College, I received my offer letter. In my first week, however, my shock at getting accepted was soon replaced by a realisation of the enormous challenge that confronted me, which only became more apparent when the work started.
One early struggle was getting used to independent research and the dedicated hours put into pouring over books in the libraries across Oxford. Each week I was required to complete one or two several thousand word essays, ticking off sources from the reading list as I went by.
What I found most astonishing was that tasks such as these revealed the difference in schooling experiences among me and my new friends. Those who had attended independent or grammar schools seemed to adapt more easily. They had undertaken research before, knew what to look for and how to go about writing essays. Compared to my own heavily teacher-led experiences, they seemed at an advantage. I rarely remember being set homework at school and had never written a 2,000 word essay prior to university.
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I was encouraged to read beyond the facts, to make my own assumptions and to prove and disprove theories. Before, my only requirement had been to copy off the board or from a textbook. I didn’t realise at the time that these same things that had first made Oxford so difficult were actually the things that made the experience so liberating.
Another shock for me was that now – for the first time – my opinion actually mattered. Rather than simply regurgitate the textbook, tutors were asking me what I thought. The format that tutorials take, with often only two students in the room, allowed for me to engage in deep and personal debates with experts in the field. It is a great system for learning, rarely offered elsewhere.
Alongside the work, I had reservations about the kind of place that Oxford would be. While still in Norfolk, I imagined it as complex, with the historic buildings, exclusive lingo and academic dress all part of an elitist image that I wasn’t sure I could be a part of. This same concern was expressed by the sixth-form students I went back to talk to.
But this was quite far from the truth. The Junior Common Room, the hub of most undergraduate activity, became a space for relaxing conversations where great friendships were made. Over time, these friendships helped make the university seem less imposing and the ever-increasing workload more manageable.
It is for this reason that students should not be put off applying to Oxford and similar institutions. Great strides have been made to make the university more inclusive and to ensure that access to help and advice services is made easy, although more can and needs to be done. The student members of the JCRs are great influencers in this respect, often being the initial source of information about mental health and welfare services.
I became a peer supporter at Corpus Christi, undergoing more than 30 hours of training at the Oxford University Counselling Service to help fellow students deal with a range of personal and mental health issues. As is often the case, students can be of great help to others who are struggling, having gone through similar issues or stresses themselves. While professional help is always available, the skills I learnt as part of the programme have been used numerous times since, both at university and at home.
I have now completed three years at Oxford. I graduated with a first-class degree in history and have now been accepted to study for a master's in October. If I were to return to my former sixth form today, I would tell them this: no student should think they do not deserve, or would not be able to apply to a prestigious university.
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