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Elfi Pallis replies to 'Setting the Record Straight', an online review by Geoff Parks, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, posted in February 2004

OXBRIDGE ENTRANCE: THE REAL RULES (Tell Books, 2003) ISBN 0954594401

Oxbridge Entrance has turned out to be an influential book. When it first appeared in September 2003, it generated media debates and empowered students, parents and teachers. Changes have since been made in the information for prospective undergraduates published by the University of Cambridge. The 2004-5 Cambridge prospectus addresses, for the first time ever, the financial worries of poorer applicants. For the first time, too, students are given helpful website hints on interview performance. To many students, and especially to those not attending Oxbridge-oriented schools, such additions will matter. They also prove that Cambridge is committed to widening its circle of potential candidates. This is an aim I share, as Dr. Parks rightly says.

I was equally delighted at the positive comments made by Dr. Parks about the book, which included the following: “Ms Pallis does an excellent job of identifying and describing what is good and distinctive about the two universities and why it is worth going to them. She also tries very hard to dispel some of the myths that continue to dog the images of the two universities – her statement ‘Well, Brideshead it ain’t, not any more’ will be quoted with relish by admissions tutors!”

Oxbridge Entrance, though, did more than just offer more detailed practical and academic guidance. It also made two general points. One was that Government expenditure on Access projects has not perceptibly raised the acceptance rates for state school students. The other was that Cambridge (and Oxford) often choose among their academically able candidates by considering extra-curricular activities.

Disappointingly, Dr. Parks fails to address the first point in his review of my book altogether. Puzzlingly, he denies the validity of the second. After all, pupils attending Cambridge interviews are regularly asked questions such as “What could you contribute to college life?” and “If you could pursue only three extra-curricular activities here, which ones would you choose?” To therefore suggest, as Dr. Parks does, that such activities “are entirely incidental” when it comes to gaining a place is rather odd.

This is not to claim that Dr. Parks has ever asked any such question himself. In fact, he is on record as disapproving of excessive non-academic interests. Interviewers, though, have a great deal of personal leeway and quite a few of them beg to differ. Faced with students who seem equally bright, they may opt for those who can offer “that little bit extra”. Some do so because they feel that a college whose students are outgoing and active is a happier and more productive place than one in which all noses are to the grindstone. Others firmly believe that the ability to pursue widely contrasting interests predicts adult success.

Extra-curricular activities may also affect Cambridge decision-making, even if a candidate does not mention them. Volunteering increases a student’s knowledge of the world, generates confidence and fosters a more mature outlook. Candidates who have been involved in drama, music or sport are often better than their peers at presenting themselves. This can result in a tutor appreciating (or even over-estimating) a candidate’s brains.

The above is not just a personal opinion. Nor does it merely reflect the talks I conducted with dons while researching my book. It is also a conclusion drawn by teachers whose schools regularly send groups of students to Cambridge. Keeping at least a mental score of the success rate among candidates with and without extra-curricular activities, they have no doubt that being active works. It is not a magic wand, of course, but does generate goodwill. Even admissions tutors ostensibly indifferent to it often pick the student who can throw a ball.

To say so is not to deny the Cambridge assertion that "selection is based overwhelmingly on academic potential". When that potential is assumed to be equal, though, extra-curricular activities still swing it for many candidates, and this fact currently favours students from independent schools. If the Cambridge intake is to become more representative, students from state schools need to be equally aware of the role these activities may play. Such guidance cannot simply be dismissed as “unsubstantiated claims”.

However, this debate should not obscure the fact that Cambridge is a truly wonderful university, albeit one with an imperfect entrance process. While it genuinely seeks talented, motivated and creative students, young people from ordinary homes can find it harder than others to prove that they fit the bill. My book, of which an updated edition addressing some of Dr. Parks’ other points is about to appear, was written to redress this imbalance.

Elfi Pallis
June 2004

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