Want an Oxbridge place? Dye your hair

This term sees students all over the country preparing for the interview season at Oxbridge.

Some students will turn up for their interview fully coached with well-rehearsed responses to every question the interviewer throws at them while others will turn up with little preparation and thus nothing more than their raw intellect. The question is whether the latter is really enough to get your students in - and the answer, from my experience, is probably no.

The very nature of the Oxbridge selection process is arbitrary. But then that's understandable, after all how do you differentiate between applicants all predicted to get three As at A-level? On average more than two-thirds of those who are interviewed are turned down. It stands to reason therefore that mistakes will be made and very good students will be rejected while some of those given places will fail to make the grade. So who does get in and why?

Unfortunately, we are all guilty of making judgments about someone based on what they look like - even the most learned academics in the world are guilty of this! I know of one girl who wore a man's suit and tie to her Oxford interview thinking it showed her to be an original free thinker (she was actually one of the dullest and dogmatic of people I have ever known!!) Did she get in? Yes, as did the English applicant who dyed her hair pink especially for the interview as she thought it made her look creative and a little bohemian.

Of course I'm not suggesting that what an applicant wears determines absolutely whether they get in or not, it's just that first impressions do count and when 20 equally qualified applicants are lined up, all in typical interview garb, then the one with pink hair or the girl in the man's suit is likely to stand out and be remembered. And that's what it is all about - to be remembered when the decisions are being made.

Indeed, first impressions do count and this is something recognised by the public schools who regularly send a significant proportion of their sixth forms to Oxbridge. The coaching and preparation that goes into each application is far more than at even the best comprehensives.

How is a state- school student expected to cope against a public-school rival who has spent hours being told how to approach an interview? Also, many public schools have links with particular colleges and teachers actually know the tutors who will be interviewing their pupils.

No one could seriously believe that these pupils aren't more likely to get in above an equally bright sixth-former whose state school has no previous links with Oxbridge let alone a particular college or tutor.

Oxbridge application forms are scrutinised before an applicant comes up for interview and I believe that many decisions are already made before tutors meet the actual students. What therefore is the point of interviewing? Just to make sure a good applicant doesn't slip through the net? To make sure those already earmarked for places aren't complete dunces in real life?

The whole Oxbridge selection process is flawed - it allows brilliant students like Anastasia Fedotova, the comprehensive student with six A grades at A- level who made the news recently and who would make the most of an Oxbridge education, to slip through the net.

From my state school alone, I can think of two students who were turned down who, in my opinion, would have made better students than some of those I have encountered during my first year at Cambridge. I don't think anyone can disagree that the Oxbridge selection process is an un-level playing field. But how can this ever be alleviated?

Perhaps it would be better if Oxford and Cambridge brought back entrance exams. If practice papers were made widely available then there would be equality between private and state schools as each would know what to expect and thus each would perform to the best of their abilities. The best brains would then be offered places.

But the application process will always be seen as unfair when state-school sixth-formers are up against their public school counterparts for a very limited number of places. Maybe things can never change.

Laura-Jane Foley is a former student of Walton high school, Stafford. She is about to begin her second year at Cambridge University Libby Purves, back page

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