'We have to break down misconceptions'

Georgia's path to Cambridge - and her work to encourage others to follow

Georgia King

Georgia King is reading Law at Jesus College. She went to a large state school in the West Midlands and was the first person in her family to apply to university, after taking part in several widening participation schemes at Cambridge. While studying for her degree, she has mentored prospective students from similar backgrounds to her, providing support and advice and encouraging them to apply too.

In many ways, Cambridge is a different world to the one I come from. My dad’s from the north east and he’d known one person who had gone to Cambridge. He was worried that everyone at Cambridge would be from a very different background to us, and that I might struggle because of that. It did feel like stepping quite far out of my comfort zone; none of my friends at school were applying to Cambridge. Some have gone on to other universities and some are getting jobs where we grew up. It’s quite funny because when I go home, my friends sometimes introduce me to other people by saying: “This is Georgia, she’s at Cambridge!” That’s how different the two worlds are.

The most important thing is breaking down misconceptions. My perception of Cambridge was skewed by TV shows and the media; the stereotype that it is very posh and very inaccessible. That’s a perception that definitely has changed, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be overwhelming at times. Even now, sometimes, I’ll be in a conversation and I’ll sit back and think ‘Oh my God, I’m sure I haven’t got anything in common with these people.’ But then you speak to them a bit more and you discover that people are normal here – I think that surprised me the most. Because you expect everyone to be taking themselves really seriously all the time, but thankfully that’s not the case.

Cambridge can feel daunting, but in a way that’s exciting rather than scary. And sometimes you’re just in awe because it’s so gorgeous; every now and then the sun will be shining on a building and I think, ‘Wow, I’m living here!’ The degree is a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding and I like being busy; it’s not unmanageable, but you do have to stay on top of it. The small group learning - or supervisions - really help. It’s so much easier to understand something when you can sit there and break it down. When you go to your first supervision you’re not sure what to expect – you might be used to one teacher in a classroom with 30 students, not just two, three, or four students. Having the opportunity to ask questions so directly is amazing. And the college system means there is plenty of support, including around accommodation which is all dealt with by your College. Other universities are dealing centrally with thousands and thousands of students, but here the individual Colleges are working with a much smaller number, and there are welfare tutors at your college and resources at the University too. It makes you feel more ‘seen’ in a way, because there is that support focused on you.

Georgia King with Cambridge University friends

It’s important that Cambridge attracts people from everywhere. It’s just brilliant to meet so many different kinds of people from so many different backgrounds and places. People have different views and different ways of articulating things and a lot of that is a product of your upbringing and your environment. Even just sitting with your friends here, everyone has a different slant because of their upbringing. Allowing everyone the possibility to come to Cambridge, to have that voice and that platform and be somewhere that is challenging, is vital. I think it’s important that everyone is represented, but also that you bring in the best of the best, not just the best of a particular section of people. That’s the big thing, because it benefits the university too.

I never thought about applying to Cambridge until I got to sixth-form college. There were 2,000 students in my sixth form, so resources were pretty stretched. But there was a member of staff who really encouraged me through the Cambridge application process. I basically sat down at the induction day and she said: ‘Looking at your GCSE grades, you should apply for Oxbridge.’ That was the first time I’d ever thought about it. My GCSEs were good, but they weren’t all 9s. Before sixth-form college, I was at a school in Worcestershire. When I got there, it had just gone into special measures, and was soon taken over by an academy. It was very up and down, lots of new staff, lots of turnover. I did my best, but Cambridge wouldn’t have crossed my mind. I always wanted to go to University, but the idea of Cambridge wasn’t even on the horizon. It seemed like there was a certain type of person who went to Cambridge, and I thought that person wasn’t me!

I went on a lot of different access schemes and residentials, and doing that made it feel much more doable. I spoke to so many people from similar backgrounds who were already at Oxbridge. One of the initiatives I took part in was the Shadowing Scheme, run by Cambridge Students’ Union. That was helpful, because actually coming to Cambridge made it all seem more real. I came to Cambridge a couple of times. I also got a free place on The Cambridge University Sixth Form Law Conference. It would never have seemed possible, but doing all these different schemes – which were free to attend, with travelling paid for, and organised at the University - made it seem possible. Without them, there would have been a huge barrier.

"If people see someone from a similar background, it makes being a Cambridge student seem a lot more possible."

Georgia King with Cambridge University friends

No one in my family had ever applied to go to university, never mind Cambridge. My dad was saying: “Hmm, are you sure you want to do that? It’s quite a big step.” I’d got stressed out around GCSEs and put quite a bit of pressure on myself, and he was worried I would put myself under even more stress. But in the end both my parents said: “You might as well try, because you’ll kick yourself later if you don’t.” But we were all quite astonished at the idea.

I spent a lot of time on University and College websites during the application process - Googling Cambridge, and tips on applying. At school, we had a presentation on how to apply, and then I was sent off over the summer holidays to write everything up, and it felt a bit like, ‘Oh God, how do I do this?’ I was looking at different online forums for tips on writing a personal statement, and I ended up writing about 20 drafts! It was a lot of stumbling through. Eventually I had something I was happy with, but it was quite a long process. I was going through it earlier than those who were applying to other universities, and I had no family or friends who had ever done it before, so it was just Googling, and Googling and Googling. I discovered that, even if you don’t have someone next to you who you can ask questions, there is a lot of information and support out there, resources online and people at the University and Colleges you can ask. The University wants the best of the best, so you shouldn’t let anything stop you applying.

When it came to preparing for my Cambridge interview, one question I had was – what do I wear? It might sound trivial, but it was something I had to think about because this was unlike anything I’d done before; I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have smart, businessy clothes lying around at home, and I couldn’t justify buying some just for this. I was searching online, ‘What do people wear to a Cambridge interview?’, and in the end I went with jeans and a jumper. And then, of course, I went to the interview and the other candidates had suits on, and I thought ‘This was a mistake!’ But the interviewers aren’t interested in what you’re wearing, they’re interested in who you are, and what you’ve got to say and contribute.

Georgia King with Cambridge University friends

At the interview, they want to see you’ve got the kind of mind that will thrive in this environment. The big thing they want to see is how you think, how you work, how you process things, how you deal with challenges. They want to understand how you get from A to B. You don’t have to have a perfectly tuned answer to every question, you’re not going to know everything and they don’t want you to, because they wouldn’t be able to teach you anything. So the main thing is to try not to be too nervous beforehand, which is so much easier said than done! Sometimes the interviewers refer to your personal statement, so you need to know it inside out. You can also read the news around your subjects, and make sure you stay on top of that. But you can’t know exactly what to expect, so you have to try and be comfortable in that grey area. And you can practise - you can ask a friend or a family member to put you on the spot with different types of random question, it’s a very useful skill to have.

I got involved with access work at the University because it made such a difference to me when I was applying – it made me feel like the University was reaching out to me as much as I was reaching out to the University. I’m on Jesus College’s student union committee, and I’ve been an ambassador and a mentor since I arrived. I’ve also been a mentor on CSU’s Shadowing Scheme. I wanted to make the same difference to people who are in the same situation I was, so I take part in access events, school tours, and mentoring – helping people to prepare for their interview. I’ve taken part in Q&A sessions with students at my old school, talking them through it, breaking down misconceptions and encouraging them to apply. If people see a person from a similar background it makes being a Cambridge student seem a lot more possible.

The Cambridge Bursary makes a huge difference. When I was deciding where to apply, I looked at the bursaries available at different universities, and what extra money they might be able to offer students. Cambridge is very generous; the Bursary is up to £3,500 a year, and now there is an enhanced bursary available. I knew that I’d have to get a student loan, because I wouldn’t be able to afford it any other way, so I wasn’t going to let that be a barrier. But other than working in the holidays, I wouldn’t be able to get extra top ups from anywhere else - I couldn’t ask my parents for money. I’ve always been quite good at budgeting, but without the Bursary it would have been impossible – and it was a big part of my decision to come here.

I’m halfway through my degree and I can’t believe how fast the time has gone. I’m already thinking about the next stage of my career; I’m looking at going into commercial law, down the solicitor route. The careers advice at Cambridge has been great. The University has a law society and all the different colleges have law societies too. When you study Law, you’re taught by people who are lawyers, and at Jesus the Master runs weekly careers sessions, bringing in people from different fields to give talks. There’s also a careers team at the College, and a Careers Service at the University. It’s great to have that support and it be so accessible – it’s easy to reach out and ask for advice with a job application, or ask the best way to prepare for a particular interview. I’ve got an internship lined up for the summer, and after that the next thing will be applying for a permanent job and hopefully having that lined up for when I finish university!

More information on applying to Cambridge as an undergraduate.

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