Page last updated at 13:22 GMT, Wednesday, 19 May 2010 14:22 UK

Making the grade for Cambridge

Young people from poorer backgrounds are still struggling to get into top universities, the agency in charge of widening access to higher education says.

But, given the right support and encouragement, it is possible for bright young people from what are known as "non-traditional backgrounds" to get into the UK's leading universities.

Here, three students from less-privileged homes and schools explain how they made it to Cambridge University.

ANDY MCGOWAN, LAW STUDENT, TRINITY HALL
Andy McGowan

Both my parents are disabled and I've been caring for them since I was six. Neither of them went to university. I used to think: 'Why would I go to university? No-one else is going, I will have to leave my friends and get into debt.' Now why would I want to do that?

At secondary school university wasn't mentioned once. I was doing football coaching, earning £7 an hour, and I thought that's what I'll do. It didn't occur to me that I could carry on with that at university.

Then at sixth form college, I did really well in my AS-levels and my teachers said I should look at top universities. My dad suggested going on an open day to Cambridge, so we brought our caravan down and stayed over. I thought it was an amazing university but it wouldn't be for someone like me. But just meeting the students, it sounds simple, was really beneficial.

After the open day, I thought I'd give it a go. I applied under the special access scheme [a university scheme to ensure those who have experienced personal, social or educational disadvantage are fairly assessed] because my attendance at school was affected by my caring responsibilities. That reassured me that Cambridge took other things into account; it made me feel they wanted to see me as an individual rather than as a piece of paper. But really, it was only when I got here that some of my pre-conceptions were dispelled.

JAMES MURRAY, GEOGRAPHY STUDENT, TRINITY HALL
James Murray

I'm the first person in about 30 years from my school to go to Oxbridge. I definitely wanted to go to university, but I'd never thought of going to Cambridge.

There was no promotion of Oxbridge through the school, but I read about a girl in the local newspaper who'd gone to Cambridge. There was a link on the story to a Cambridge University Students Union shadowing scheme, where people whose parents didn't go to university spend a few days shadowing an undergraduate here. So I came down and spent a few days at Emmanuel College to see Cambridge life. I saw it wasn't all library 24/7 and it made me see I would fit in if I did get in, but it didn't improve my confidence about getting a place.

I was pleased to be invited for an interview, but I didn't think I'd get in, so I took it all with a pinch of salt. I thought 'I'm going to treat this as a life experience' rather than stress about it, because no-one was expecting me to get in - but I did!

EMILY SMITH, MEDICAL STUDENT, CHURCHILL COLLEGE
Emily Smith

My school in Lincolnshire has sent low numbers of students to top universities - maybe four out of about 240 would go to Russell Group universities.

I went on a conference organised by the university to try and get people to apply, but before that I hadn't thought about it. It really changed my view; I spoke to students and saw they were normal. I knew I had good grades for my school, but I wasn't sure if they were good enough for here. I really didn't know if it was for me or not. But the academics at the conference were able to say it was realistic for me to apply and it wasn't silly me wanting to come here.

I thought I should give it a go because it would be such a good opportunity if I did get an offer. The standard of education was worth coming for because it's pretty rigorous. I think the opportunities you can get by coming to Cambridge are second to none.

I think there are a lot of very bright young people who for lots of reasons - lack of guidance or aspiration - don't realise their full potential. But I think when you do have the right information, it does make a difference. I've worked as access officer for my college, which means doing school visits, speaking at conferences, organising the CUSU shadowing scheme. Because I've benefitted from this myself, I want to give something back.



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