The scramble for places at Oxford and Cambridge universities is tough for all students, regardless of how outstanding their academic credentials may be. But statistics showing that black applicants are much less likely than their white peers to make it through the selection process has prompted action from former students.
A pioneering team of black Oxbridge graduates has launched a new scheme to address the "woeful" under-representation of black people at the elite academic institutions, its founder has said. Target Oxbridge will offer a mentoring programme to talented Year 11 and 12 pupils of African and Caribbean descent, to support them through their A-level and degree course choices and the application process.
The project, launched last month, matches pupils with mentors who hope to shatter the myths that prevent pupils from making successful applications. Participants will benefit from visits to the universities to meet students, make contacts and see that the path has been trodden before.
Oxford graduate Raphael Mokades, who gained a first- class degree in history, is the founder of Rare Recruitment, the black and ethnic minority consultancy behind the scheme. "Black people are woefully under-represented in the top professions and at Oxbridge," he said. "Universities do a huge amount and schools do a huge amount, but on the issue of Afro-Caribbean representation, the numbers are not what they should be.
"We are uniquely situated to do this as our staff understand the game. Lots of black kids apply for the most competitive subjects like law and economics, when the ratio of applicants is lower for subjects such as classics and theology.
"They also need to understand that you don't need to study law to become a lawyer."
Just last week, a poll by the Sutton Trust education charity found that nearly half of state secondary teachers never or rarely advised academically gifted pupils to apply to Oxbridge.
Mr Mokades said the scheme would allow candidates to receive the kind of advice that pupils at independent schools are already given as a matter of course.
Mentor Andre Flemmings, who studied philosophy and German at Oxford, said one of the key problems was that black candidates might "self-select" themselves out of the process because of a lack of confidence or lack of a precedent among their families or peers.
"A lot of black and minority ethnic people will look at the practicalities first, or they might look at a place where they feel comfortable because there are a lot of other black people there," he said. "If you're applying to somewhere like Oxford and you don't know anyone there, you've heard a lot of rumours through the press, you might not even go to the open day, even though it's a perfect opportunity.
"Oxford and Cambridge have that mystique that's difficult to overcome."
Mr Flemmings said Target Oxbridge's long-term mentoring scheme would also help pupils learn to deal with people on an intellectual basis in a one-to-one situation. "There's that element of having intellectual confidence - it took me a while at Oxford," he said.
Mr Flemmings said mock interviews would ideally be conducted in an "imposing venue" such as the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London.
The pilot project has recruited 12 candidates for mentoring this year, but programme coordinator Naomi Kellman said there were some 2,000 black students in England gaining five A*-A grades at GCSE who could potentially benefit.
"By offering mentoring from black Oxbridge graduates, Rare is providing the Target Oxbridge students with the chance to meet role models they can relate to, convincing them that people similar to them really can go on to study at Oxbridge and enjoy the experience," she added.
A spokeswoman for the University of Oxford said its work encouraging applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds was "increasingly targeted at working with schools and teachers", rather than specific groups of students.
The University of Cambridge has run the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications since 1989 and says it has raised the proportion of ethnic minorities on undergraduate courses from 5.5 per cent to 15 per cent in that time.
Short on numbers
7 - Number of candidates from black Caribbean backgrounds accepted for undergraduate study at Oxford in 2011
21 - Number of candidates from mixed white and black Caribbean backgrounds accepted to Oxford in 2011
1 in 6 - Overall acceptance rate for black applicants to Cambridge between 1999 and 2009
1 in 3 - Overall acceptance rate for white applicants to Cambridge between 2003 and 2009
71 - Number of black Caribbean pupils in the UK achieving three As at A level in 2009.