j4 has been posting a series about how she ended up at Oxford, and this seems an interesting exercise, so I'm copying her idea.
I'm very much the sort of person that people expect to be at Oxford. Those expectations are not entirely fair, but the facts are: I'm intelligent in ways that show up well in conventional education and exams; my parents are both university graduates (my father was at Oxford himself), and sent me to an academically competitive girls' private school. Between all those, I've always been encouraged to think of myself as the sort of person who could do well academically, and given resources to make it easy to convince other people of this. I think when I was five or six I was talking about how I was going to be a maths professor at Oxford, having little idea what maths was or what a professor did other than being good at it.
Realistically, though, it was about midway through secondary school when it was clear that I was keeping up steadily good marks and not being thrown off course by puberty, that my teachers started taking it for granted that I would be in the Oxbridge stream. Mind you, the kind of school it was that really only meant being in the top quartile of the sixth form. I had a really hard time choosing A Levels; the only GCSE subjects I was happy to drop were English and physics, English because I couldn't stand literary analysis, and physics because the kind of people who ended up teaching physics at a girls' school tended to be a bit wet. Chemistry and maths were pretty much a given, and I let myself get talked into further maths without much persuasion. but that only left me with one more slot. I wanted to take French, but a combination of the teachers, my mother (a biologist) and my best friend Spanish M persuaded me that I'd be better off with biology. I was still really unhappy about having to give up French, though, and somehow or other it ended up happening that my French teacher took a public bet that I could get an A in French A Level if I just showed up to some of the classes and didn't bother doing any homework that looked like it was going to interfere with my important subjects. School managed to fiddle the timetable so that I could take five subjects, which wasn't really allowed, though I wasn't the only one who did. The school had I think about 80 girls going into sixth form, and they prided themselves on giving everyone total free choice in subject combinations, not forcing you to take related subjects. I think they achieved this by all the teachers spending a week in the summer vac shuffling labels around until they could make it all work like a giant sudoku.
I had some really fantastic teaching at A Level, going way beyond what was in the formal curriculum and inspiring real curiosity about the subjects. (In retrospect, physics A Level would likely have been fine, because the teachers I looked down on for their inability to control a class of recalcitrant 15-year-olds would have been fine with sixth formers who actually wanted to learn.) I learnt to speak French nearly fluently, and just started to get the hang of analytic reading that had been so opaque and deathly in English GCSE. I loved the intellectual challenge of maths and chemistry, like a complex puzzle where all the clues were properly in place and if you really exerted yourself you could come up with a satisfying solution. And I got into biology enough to understand that it wasn't just a collection of miscellaneous facts to memorize, and to discover that there was a whole field of molecular biology which was exactly like the genetics I'd loved as a kid.
There was some amount of support for Oxbridge candidates, advice on how to choose a college and practice papers for those subjects where you needed to take an entrance exam or S / Step papers. But the most useful stuff was available to everybody, interview practice and advice on filling in UCAS forms and most importantly, general confidence that we were intelligent and could expect universities to be fighting over us. I wanted to do some kind of joint honours, biology and chemistry, or biochemistry and French (still having that problem with dropping subjects I was enjoying!) but that wasn't offered at Oxford, and I didn't really want to stay in Cambridge or go for the Natural Sciences tripos. So I applied to Oxford for biochemistry, and Manchester, York, Nottingham and Sussex for weird joint honours or modular degrees. And, um, Southampton I think as an "insurance choice", somewhere that would take me if I bombed out of A Levels. I went through the Oxford prospectus trying to get "vibes" off the different colleges; I assumed that all their descriptions were exaggerated, but I could get some good ideas based on which unrealistic claims they thought worth pretending to. I ended up with a shortlist of three colleges, and since one of them was my father's old college, Merton, that seemed a reasonable deciding factor.
Interviews were in December. I dressed up smarter than I had in my life up to then, a matching tartan skirt and waistcoat and a nice blouse. Almost the only thing I remember about the interview days is meeting MK and instantly getting into the kind of deep, wonderful conversation that only happens when you're 17 and you've just met a soulmate. His future wife was up for physics and he was so busy talking to me that he didn't even notice her. At some point it got late, all my good intentions about spending the day before the interview doing more reading and making myself noticed by influential people were quite forgotten, so we decided to leave the JCR and continue the conversation in "my" room in Rose Lane. My whole upbringing had told me never ever to invite a strange man up to my room, but I was so high on wonderful conversation that I really didn't care. Of course MK had no dishonourable intentions at all, and this led to me entirely rejecting all the messages about why I should never trust men. That might have been the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction, but not assuming men are predators has stood me in good stead. And it was very liberating to be able to consciously throw out such a frequently repeated piece of life advice, it was the realization that I was my own woman and could make my own judgements, albeit based on limited experience.
I got through the interview itself on adrenalin replacing sleep. Tim Softley interviewed me, and I can't remember who else. I had been prepared to be thrown curve ball questions, and I felt very confident. I think I didn't care if I got into Oxford or not; I was fairly certain that one of the redbricks would take me, and I felt like having met MK would be worth it whatever happened. The interview was largely fair; they asked questions that probed my ability to think about biology rather than specific domain knowledge. I think the only unreasonable question I got was: I can see from your CV that you're quite religious; how do you think you will cope attending a university that has produced such famous atheists as Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkin? I was quite indignant that they thought my convictions so weak I might tremble at the prospect of being in the same city with people who didn't share my views.
Other than that, I remember the candidates buzzing with rage about the story that a candidate for Medicine from Brunei had been asked why she wanted to bother studying modern medicine that relies on the latest technology, when she would just go back to her primitive third world country and all her knowledge would be irrelevant. Even if they were trying to see how she'd react to an outrageous question that was inappropriate. The next day MK got called for interviews at pool colleges, and I got sent home.
I was annoyed with the university for keeping me on tenterhooks for weeks after that, and then demanding a firm commitment within three days when the offer finally arrived. I later learnt that they'd had nine candidates for three places, six indistinguishably excellent (really, what can you say about a bunch of 17-year-olds beyond their predicted A Level marks?) and three reasonably good, and had rejected the three weakest, offered places to the three of us who had both chemistry and biology A Levels, and pooled the rest (including MK). In a way that wasn't totally fair, because the university literature said that only chemistry was a requirement and they didn't care what subjects you did as long as you had three solid A Levels, and anyway there were pooled candidates like MK who were not English and therefore didn't take A Levels at all. In a way it was, though, because if they had nothing to choose between us, they might as well go for some minor difference that would make our lives easier when we joined the course. So I was lucky that I got good advice from my school that if you were intending to read science at uni you should have at least two science A Levels.
MK was treated very badly by his pool college, Christ Church, and ended up at Imperial. Even aside from the fact that he met his wife there, she having been turned down by Merton also, this suited him much, much better than Oxford would have done. If the aim of the admissions system was to choose the most brilliant scientists, they should certainly have picked MK over me, but if the aim was to pick the three people most likely to thrive at Oxford, they made the right choice. MK would have been very impatient with all the quaint Oxford customs and the education designed, even today, to make you a gentleman as much as to prepare you for academia, whereas the truly excellent scientific education at Imperial was exactly what he wanted.
If you have that political inclination, it's easy enough to read this and conclude that I only got into Oxford because I had a whole bunch of privileges in my life up to that point. Certainly I did have many advantages that made Oxford seem attainable and desirable. But when I got there, I found that the place was not at all filled with people like me. I met people of every different background imaginable, different countries, different social strata, different ethnic background, different ages and life situations, you name it. And you simply couldn't tell someone's background by how they took to Oxford society; the people from conventional middle-class backgrounds and private schools with lots of extra coaching weren't all mediocre but confident beyond their ability, and some of the most appallingly posh tweedy, braying types actually came from poor backgrounds and schools that didn't believe in sending their pupils to university, they just chose to adopt that persona and social set.
It seems plausible that there are some people who are at least as objectively "clever" as I am, who didn't go to Oxford because they came from the wrong backgrounds. But I think it's more likely that they never got to the point of applying in the first place, than that they were unfairly rejected because of not being middle class enough. At the same time, I did see direct evidence of unfairness, in the form of Christ Church telling MK that his inhumanly high Abitur scores were an obscure German qualification that didn't count for anything, and the way that the Merton medics were openly racist towards one candidate.
What it comes down to is that Oxford is going to end up with several uniformly excellent candidates for each place available, and almost any means of choosing between them is going to have the potential for unfairness. That doesn't mean that unfairness is a good thing, of course. But I don't think it's as simple as the system being rigged to favour people from posh schools.