Victoria is a second-year Geography student at Queens’. She grew up in East London and was only the second person from her school to come to Oxbridge, the first coming up to Cambridge two years before her.
How did you find the whole process of applying to Cambridge?
There were three charities that helped me through my application: the Social Mobility Foundation, Into University and the Sutton Trust.
I went on a Sutton Trust summer school studying Geography at Queens’ when I was in year 12, which is why I ended up choosing to apply to Queens’. The Social Mobility Foundation gave me advice on how to apply to Cambridge and introduced me to current Cambridge students from less advantaged backgrounds, including a mentor who studied Economics at Cambridge. I was lucky to have a lot of exposure to people who went to Cambridge, who all encouraged me to apply.
Through Into University I had a mentor who was a Geography Graduate of St John’s College. I was also fortunate to meet another Cambridge Geography Graduate through a work experience programme I applied to with the charity Career Ready when I was in year 12. Both of these mentors helped me with my personal statement and later my interview, all for free.
Do you do any mentoring of potential applicants now?
Yes, I do. I just finished mentoring four students through their UCAS applications, they sent them all off last month in time for the deadline! I have also helped out at two summer schools, one with the Sutton Trust and one with the Cambridge Admissions Office.
With the Cambridge interviews coming up in December, a lot of applicants will be looking for advice on how to prepare. What would you recommend?
Definitely get a mock interview with someone who has studied your subject. If you can, make a LinkedIn profile, because one of the mentors and some of the mentees I have, I found or they reached out to me through LinkedIn. LinkedIn in a social platform where students can create a profile and then you can just search for ‘Cambridge University Geography’ and see who comes up.
When I do mentoring and speaking in state schools I always tell the students to ask for assistance. The worst that’s going to happen is they’ll say no. And, I think I might have invented this quote, but I always say: ‘If you don’t ask you don’t get, and if you don’t get then you might regret!’ You could just write to someone, explain that you’ve got an interview coming up and there’s isn’t much help support available at your school and ask them whether they might be able to give you a mock interview or some insight into the questions they were asked and how they prepared.
Another useful method of preparation is just getting used to talking out loud. I would listen to BBC Radio 4 in the mornings as I was getting ready for school and pause it halfway through and say: ‘What do you think about that, Victoria?’ And I would literally speak out loud about it.
I also read short academic articles or the books I’d mentioned on my personal statement and practiced speaking about them.
A lot of it is to do with building confidence. Sometimes, the knowledge is there, but it’s about having the confidence in an interview setting – it’s a very pressurised environment and you have to try and draw out that knowledge.
To people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds I would say: definitely never let your background stop you. If you let your background stand in your way, you might not be able to achieve the things you really want and are passionate about and instead might settle for less – you deserve more and you can do more!
Always tap into any good support networks available to you, whether that be teachers or family members who believe in you and are advocates for your success. Having a good support network has always really helped me.
What were your preconceptions of Cambridge before you arrived and how did you find it once you were here?
A lot of people did say to me, ‘Aren’t you worried about it being such a posh environment?’ To be honest, I was never worried about that. I was always worried about the workload and whether or not I would be able to keep up. And that has nothing to do with financial background of a student.
I think many undergraduates find it hard for a multitude of reasons. It was hard to realise that there is support out there, in the College and in the Department – it’s about having the confidence to actually reach out for it.
I have been told and have to keep reminding myself: I am supposed to be here. The admissions teams very rarely make mistakes. I deserve to be here and as long as I get the right support, then I’ll be able to thrive, even if it takes a while.
Mentoring can be really helpful in this. There’s a great quote that I like from Marian Wright Edelman, an African-American activist and writer, she says ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Seeing people from a similar background to you, whether that be geographically, culturally, or in any other way, makes you feel much more comfortable and able to achieve more.
That being said, when I went back home last summer a lot of people asked me, ‘Do you think Cambridge has changed you? How do you feel being a girl from inner city London going to Cambridge?’ And I really enjoy it! Yes, Cambridge is different to East London – a lot of places in the world are different to East London! But that’s the beauty of it – it’s ok to have experiences that are different to my day-to-day life back at home. University is all about learning, developing myself and getting out of my comfort zone.
How would you sum up your experiences at Queens’ in three words?
Access. I’ve done a lot of access work.
Friendly. I have met a lot of really friendly people.
Horizons. Horizons because you meet people who are amazing and it makes me think about how I can achieve more in my life, not just for myself but for my community. You get exposed to a lot more in this life.