Hearing from current students can unlock Cambridge as a possibility for many secondary school pupilsLucas Maddalena for Varsity

“I can see from your personal statement you’ve read a lot about the ethics of eating animals, so I was wondering: what are your thoughts on the ethics of eating humans?”

This is how my interview to study philosophy at Cambridge started. It was a challenging, unconventional question delivered with such nonchalance, it was as if the interviewer was asking me what my favourite biscuit was. It was unexpected, but this was not the first time I had been asked a complex philosophical question in an interview setting. A few weeks before, I had two mock interviews with alumni from my school. They were philosophy students at Oxbridge who gave me feedback and guidance on how to approach the interview, as well as some sorely needed confidence to help me believe I could do it. Without that help, I doubt I would be here today.

I am not the only one to have benefitted from the long-running tradition of Cambridge students helping their old schools: every admissions cycle, swathes of Cantabs work with their old teachers to answer admissions questions, give personal statement advice, and deliver mock interviews.

“There are just things that current students can do that nobody else can”

For many high-performing grammar and state schools, alumni play a critical role in helping them compete with better-funded private schools. The Oxbridge coordinator at one grammar school told me: “There are just things that current students can do that nobody else can.”

Current Cambridge students have a wealth of knowledge about their degree, the university, and the admissions process. All of this information is vital in helping applicants decide where they want to go, what they should study, and how to get in. As a result, “Current students have the best answers to questions about universities.”

Moreover, as people who have successfully gone through the process, Cambridge students can provide an authentic voice to validate the advice and information they receive from their teachers. It is much easier for students to quash the Cambridge interview myths that the interview will be in Latin, you can’t make a single mistake, or that all other applicants are members of MENSA.

Yet the role of alumni is not limited to just answering questions and delivering mock interviews: they are also vital in inspiring younger years to apply, particularly for potential applicants whose families have never gone to university. One student told me that the most valuable thing he got from his state college’s Oxbridge program was that it got him thinking about applying to Cambridge in the first place. Hearing from alumni who were at Cambridge “showed that real students from the college could get in.”

There is no shortage of potential help for high-performing schools to use, with many of the current Cambridge students I spoke to saying they are eager to volunteer. When I asked a student at St John’s why she continues to answer questions and deliver mock interviews for pupils at her old school, she told me it was her way of giving back to an institution she benefited so greatly from: “I had a great time at school, I really enjoyed it. I may as well help if I can.”

However, as Cambridge looks to make the admissions process fairer and more equal, should this tradition continue? While there is the argument that this practice evens the playing field between some private schools and high-performing state schools, those without alumni are left further behind. They not only miss out on the knowledge Cambridge students can provide, but also a source of inspiration for potential applicants to apply.

I spoke to a current Cambridge student who was the first from his state comprehensive school to go to Oxbridge in years. It had been his ambition to go to Cambridge since he was 15, so he worked extremely hard to get it: he went to all the university-organised outreach programmes, public talks, and open days, as well as participated in mentoring schemes.

“At the time I didn’t really realise the whole extent of what I was missing out on”

Yet his school gave him very little Oxbridge support, and there was no alumni network for him to reach out to. The student had to organise everything himself, something he thought was the norm: “At the time I didn’t really realise the whole extent of what I was missing out on.”

“Now being here and speaking to lots of people, especially those from private schools and grammar schools, I’ve realised how much support they have, especially from previous students who are now at Cambridge.”

When I asked if he thought more people would have got in or be interested in applying to Oxbridge if his school had similar support systems, he replied: “Absolutely. I think there are a number of exceptionally bright people at my school, as there are at every school, who are just as intelligent as people here.”

But what can Cambridge do to make the system fairer? “It’s tricky” the student admitted. People can’t be stopped from helping their old school, all of whom go back with noble intentions. Perhaps, the student suggested, those who are the first from their school to get into Oxbridge should be encouraged by Cambridge to return to their old school and begin an alumni network. However, even this solution would leave many schools behind.

I spoke to the Gonville & Caius Outreach team, which has been working incredibly hard to improve the fairness of the admissions process, about the problem. They said: “One resource that we often find students from under-represented groups don’t have access to is the opportunity to directly hear from Oxbridge alumni, be it about the application process or, more importantly, their experiences of Oxbridge.”

They are concerned that the information, advice and guidance from current Cambridge students can’t be accessed by everyone, so to combat this, the Caius outreach team told me they must take on this role for under-represented schools.

Caius currently has a variety of schemes designed to address the imbalance, including school visit days, online programmes of support, social media campaigns, and higher aspiration schemes. All aim to “encourage talented young people to consider study at top universities, regardless of their background.”


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Recent admission statistics show that their strategy is working: 70% of freshers are from state schools, more than ever before. However, the work is not over. Students from high-performing schools still have a significant advantage, and finding a fair solution to the problem will be challenging and require a lot of work. Whatever the future holds for Cambridge’s admissions process, I just hope no one else has to begin their interview discussing the ethics of cannibalism.

All people who contributed to this article were kept anonymous so that they felt comfortable expressing their opinions.