What it is like for a black student to go to Cambridge
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Special Report news every morning.
I am the first in my family to go to university and faced a lot of the obstacles students of colour encounter when aiming for Oxford and Cambridge.
Educated at state school, I graduated from Cambridge last year as one of only seven women of mixed white and black heritage in my year of 3,371 undergraduates.
As one of the first black students to read English at Trinity Hall college, I had to deal with different degrees of racism day to day, as well as cultural challenges that my background had not prepared me for.
I want to help make it easier for other students like myself to enter elite institutions that can offer a fast track to a successful career.
Getting into Cambridge was a struggle. My first attempt failed. For my A-levels, I had moved from a comprehensive to a grammar school. My A and A* grades at GCSE, considered exceptional at my old school, paled alongside the straight A* scores of my new classmates. I was not chosen by the grammar school for Oxbridge preparation sessions or open days.
One teacher told me not to apply as she explained: “It’s bad for the school’s reputation if our candidates don’t get in.” Her words stayed with me. I had never been in the gifted and talented class at either school, so maybe she was right, I thought.
Explore the complete EMpower rankings
• 50 Future leaders and profile
• 100 Ethnic minority executives and profile
• 15 Advocates and profile
Read the Methodology
But, ever optimistic, I applied for Cambridge anyway, with no idea what to expect because I did not know anybody who had been there. I secured an interview, for which my Ghanaian mother encouraged me to wear a formal black dress.
Her parting words of advice were that I should smile, be polite and refrain from arguing with my interviewers. In Ghanaian culture, elders are respected, not challenged. This was a well-meaning suggestion but not what the interviewers wanted. On the way to my interview, I bumped into an applicant from a public school who had just emerged from his on a confident high. “That was brilliant,” he told me. One of my privately educated friends told me that, at her interview, she simply regurgitated what she had been taught to say in special coaching sessions. According to her, this meant “getting into Oxbridge was a given”.
My own experience could hardly have been more different. Flustered, intimidated and constantly tugging at my dress, I was barely able to think. I managed to waffle about Othello and received pitying looks in return. I was not surprised to be rejected.
I received only one university offer that year, from my fifth choice, which I felt would not be worth the £30,000 investment. As I had gained 3 A*s at A Level, I decided to find a job and reapply to universities later. I used this time to develop the skills I needed to shine at an Oxbridge interview — self-confidence, strong opinions and the ability to argue one’s case. As an admissions tutor told me: “We don’t care about what — or how much — you have read, but what you’ve thought about what you’ve read.” On my second attempt, I was offered a place.
During my first term, I came across a succession of “micro-aggressions” — subtle forms of discrimination which, whether intentional or not, were always awkward. At my first tutorial, the supervisor tried to break the ice by asking me if I liked the rapper Kanye West. The other students exchanged nervous glances. Later when I braided my hair, I was mistaken for another black student who also had braids, even though our hair colour was different and we did not look alike. After a term of this, I decided to never wear my hair like that again.
Black undergraduates are regularly mistaken for tourists or asked to show their ID cards on college grounds. And we used to joke that in order to make it past the porters at King’s College, which is often visited by day-trippers, you needed a college scarf, library books and a white friend.
One way of combating such behaviour would be to introduce compulsory training in how to spot unconscious bias. This is currently optional in many colleges. Schools need to do the same for teachers as many still discourage bright black applicants from applying to Oxbridge.
The best way to encourage more applicants from diverse backgrounds to aim for Cambridge is by showing them students like themselves who have succeeded.
Last year, a post from the Afro-Caribbean Society, with a photograph of 14 of the 15 UK black male students admitted to Cambridge in 2015, went viral. It challenged white Cambridge student stereotypes and urged more sixth-formers to apply. Yet candidates need practical help as well as role-models.
Some of the young men featured had been coached by Target Oxbridge, a scheme that helps black students gain places by providing interview practice, one-to-one tuition and summer schools.
Mentoring is also critical. There is nothing like hearing a first-hand account from a past student to motivate the hesitant. I mentored three black applicants and two of them received offers at Trinity Hall.
One of the women I mentored told me that seeing ethnic minority Cambridge students on social media or YouTube had pushed her to apply. And my example, she added, had provided the clinching argument: “You know what? What the heck — let’s do this.” Let’s hope more follow suit.
Rianna Croxford is a freelance journalist and FT intern