An interview with
Rory Salt from St Benet’s Hall
What’s your background?
I’m middle class, from a state comprehensive school and I’m first generation going to university.
What made you want to apply to Oxford?
Our school had a programme to try and get people in. We would have someone get into Oxford every 1-2 years and about 10 people applied in my year. I wasn’t sure about applying but my form tutor helped with the personal statement and did a lot of encouraging. The main message – which stuck with me – was what do you have to lose by not applying.
Did you feel like it was within your ability to apply because you’re school had that past record, do you think that schools having previous success creates a culture Oxbridge seeming attainable which makes applying easier?
Yes it definitely does, even if it’s a school like mine that has a much smaller amount that get in than like King Edwards grammar – also in Birmingham. Also the fact that the school focussed on 10 or less people to try to get in also made it feel more attainable, as though they had picked you out.
What college did you apply for and why?
I went with an open offer because even after googling around I had no idea which college to go for and read that open offer could be strategically good for getting in.
So you didn’t particularly have any desires from a college e.g state school community like in Mansfield or financial considerations in terms of battels, social aspect etc?
The money aspect was definitely in my consciousness. I seem to remember looking up the average living costs of Oxford compared to others and discussing with my parents whether we could afford it. But we were lucky enough to do so
How helpful were your school in applying?
They were very helpful and encouraging but it was more so the teachers themselves that voluntarily helped out that really made a difference. I went to interviews on a school day and before school started at 7:45am my history teacher went through interview questions with me from 6:30-7:30 just to help me out.
Were your family supportive?
Yes. They didn’t know how the whole system worked and sort of just let me do whatever I wanted. But to emphasise the point that I applied because I had nothing to lose and not because of a life-long dream to go to Oxford, we didn’t go to an open day or anything for Oxford.
Did home situation make it difficult to study?
Not particularly, our school let us stay behind for an hour to do homework so I would do that instead of having to work at home.
How has your background affected your experience at Oxford in Freshers?
I was very socially anxious and probably had a bit of imposter syndrome. It was scary being the first time away on my own whereas people who went to boarding school etc. were already ahead in this regard.
What about everyday?
One small thing was the food and dining schedule as we were in catered accommodation. I wasn’t used to dining with so many people and was used to eating on my own or with family so it was a culture shock. Also the timings were annoying with diner at 7pm when I was used to more like 4:30-5. But I soon adjusted and got over problems like this.
How did you feel about wider uni e.g clubs/societies –
It didn’t really affect things at all. Societies did allow me to get my fix talking about hobbies I enjoyed though and being able to talk to new people about a common hobby went a long way in boosting my confidence.
Are you self-conscious or embarrassed in some situations e.g accent, dress etc?
For sure, I had a thick Birmingham accent and people would comment on it as a topic of conversation. Most people are from London so when there’s a different regional accent it really stands out. Now it’s the opposite after 2 years in Oxford, I get told I’ve gone posh by Birmingham friends!
Do you find these experiences difficult to talk about with the majority of people?
Not at all, people are generally nice and it’s a non-offensive topic of conversation to me. A lot of people just won’t understand though, especially on the social anxiety stuff and how crippling it was and still can be in certain situations.Do you find/think that colleges differ?
From the perspective of a smaller college, I believe we stand out more and the bigger colleges often turn into a homogenous blob. I think one of the big differences is that people who go to bigger colleges spend more time with societies or groups outside of their college whereas in smaller ones like Benets a lot of people just stick with their colleges and maybe 1 other society/group.
I agree, I guess the issue arises if you don’t really make any friends with your cohort in college. Did you find that people already had those external networks set up upon their arrival?
Some people had existing friends which was obviously private school people mainly, especially London bubble types. But they were still some of the most welcoming people. It was mainly a fear that I had, intimidated that they wouldn’t be friends with someone like me. For example, It took a third party to make me even talk to the Etonians in my year. That fear was all of my own creation; partly imposter syndrome, partly social anxiety.
What do you wish your college did better or what do they do well?
I wish my college had less of a grip over students, there are no secrets in a small college not just within the student body but also the staff. There can be a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere here sometimes.
Do you think that can be really counter productive to self growth and can sour the community aspect- there’s simply no anonymity? It’s a fine line
Yeah it is a fine line but I think it seriously impedes social growth in an age where people are not truly independent until their late 20s sometimes.
Are there any non college facilities e.g clubs/societies that help with access?
Societies like Oxford first gen are really good and though I’ve never gone because I don’t like to define myself as a ‘first gen state-schooler’ for people who do or even struggle with adjusting groups like that can be a real help. When I was applying and waiting to come to Oxford, just the existence of groups like this made Oxford seem more welcoming and comfortable.
Do you think it’s unhelpful to categorise people into boxes like that to their feelings of belonging and fitting in at Oxford?
I think it can be but equally people will naturally congregate around others who have similar life experiences and interests. People from a similar socio-economic background will inherently find comfort around those with a similar experience. So I think providing a platform – as long as it’s a positive and welcoming categorisation – should have no problems.
How can it improve?
The major thing for me is the London bubble. A ridiculously disproportionate amount of Londoners get in. Obviously as it’s the capital, hub of commerce etc. it makes sense that it’s like this but even a lot of the access focus is placed on London schools and should be emphasised as much on other areas of the country.
Is there any advice you would give to applicants from your background before applying:
I would reiterate the advice that even if you’re on the edge of deciding to apply or not, you have nothing to lose by doing so and everything to gain.