On paper I was an underdog. In reality, the very things that made me an underdog gave me a huge helping boost in getting into Oxford University.
Many people bemoan the fact that they didn’t have a good enough upbringing or they didn’t know the right people or didn’t go to the right school or that they are a minority. Little do these people know is that the following is the law of the Oxford universe:
All things being equal with regards to intelligence and personality, an underdog will beat a top dog almost every time.
I will explain what I mean by this but first I need to tell you just what an underdog is. It’s a profile that I (and many of my Oxford friends) fit into.
- Is from a state school (as I was).
- Has no family history in Oxford (I was the first in my family and extended family to even apply for university).
- Is working class or on benefits (not me but many of my friends definitely fall into this bracket and struggled for money).
A Top Dog…
- Is from a grammar or public school (Eton or Westminster, for example).
- Has parents or siblings who went to Oxford.
- Is higher-middle class or upper class.
If you fit the underdog description, feel confident, not defeated because…
A state-school educated individual whose parents did not go to university has a higher chance of getting into Oxford than a public-school educated individual whose parents did go to university.
Hear me out. You probably think that is a load of rubbish. But it’s not.
It certainly is the case that Oxford and Cambridge used to be places open only to the privileged. The further back in history you go, the more you will see this to be the case. But that simply isn’t true anymore. Oxford is now taking its charges of elitism very seriously. Of course, Oxford is still elite. They only choose the best. But they do not want people confusing ‘elite’ with ‘high social class’.
Just like most places in the modern Western world, Oxford embraces diversity. They also have quotas to fill.
The people in charge of accepting new students at Oxford try to fill around 50% of the places with students who come from less than favourable backgrounds. They do this so as to shed the image that Oxford is simply an upgraded boarding school for supremely privileged people.
If you apply to Oxford and you come from a state school, they are going to put a tick against your name. You have their attention. If neither of your parents attended the university, there is another tick. They are interested.
The boost might be marginal but it means that you are not contending equally with everyone (as far as my understanding).
Obviously you might feel defeated if you come from a very poor state school and you know that you will go up against hordes of public-school educated individuals. But really, you’re not competing with them. The university understands that you will not have experienced an academic life as thorough as they have. You are competing with the other state-school applicants. How do you feel about your chances against them?
Furthermore, there are far less state school applicants than public school applicants. Why? Because many public schools are in the business of churning out Oxbridge students. Many of these students study their whole lives with the aim of being accepted into Oxford. Hordes of these students are pushed through the application process. How many kids do you think were encouraged to apply to Oxford in my terrible secondary school? Just two. I was one and I wasn’t formally encouraged. The other was the kid who got the best grades in the class and even he wasn’t formally encouraged.
Simply put: State school educated applicants have less competition and more chance to show brilliance.
Those who go to top public schools have the hard task. How on earth do they make themselves stand out from all of the other straight-A students? This is where luck plays a huge factor.
We were told on our first day at Oxford that for every person accepted there were four others who could have been equally admissible.
My Underdog Story
I went to one of the worst schools in the country. It was more like a prison than a place of education. It was the type of place where kids would make shivs in class and trade stabs at each other. It was a place where some kid threw a chair at an 80-year-old teacher. It was a place where if you walked into assembly a hand would reach through the crowd and strangle you with your tie.
One time, during winter, it was snowing and one kid opened his mouth to collect the snowflakes. An older kid walking by saw his opportunity, sniffed back a big globule of snot, and spat in the kid’s mouth.
I hated that school. I was depressed the whole time that I was there. I had a fight every other week and saw many every day. I used to jump over the back fence and leave because we never learned anything in class. It was just a place for kids to treat each other like shit. Teachers left the job in droves and many had nervous breakdowns.
On the days I went to school, I set my own education. I buried my head in books. I checked out all the classics from the library, which had gathered dust since before I was born.
One day I was sitting in Religious Studies, the class where kids committed the most sins (pretty much every Bible had a graphic penis drawn inside it), and the class was in chaos. Chairs were flying, kids were punching each other, the teacher was screaming but no one was listening.
I was reading a selection of work by Schopenhauer. I was the only kid behaving himself. But the teacher chose me to punish.
The teacher came over and screamed.
‘Why are you not doing your work? Do you think you’re too good for it? You’re too smart?’
I looked up from my book and replied.
‘You’re not teaching. The class is a mess.’
She came back filled with fury.
‘Well maybe they need you to set an example!’
She ordered me out of the class. I was pretty angry by this and started to leave the school. But then the teacher’s plan became clear. She came out of the class and began to talk to me.
‘Ben,’ she said. ‘What do you plan to do after school?’
I thought this was part of the punishment speech.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Work in a warehouse.’
Her mouth dropped open. I could see now that she just wanted to talk to me away from the rest of the class.
‘You’re sitting there reading Schopenhauer instead of killing your classmates,’ she said. ‘And you’re going to work in a warehouse?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘You’re going to Oxford’.
I was shocked. It was the first time in my life that anyone had ever said that to me. I was 15 and I knew I was smart. I wouldn’t grow out of my arrogance until I actually arrived at Oxford. But no one had ever said that to me before. Immediately, the idea was pleasurable but my mind instinctively rejected it.
‘I’m serious,’ she said. ‘Don’t work in a warehouse and waste your intelligence. You don’t read Schopenhauer and then go work in a warehouse.’
I shrugged again.
‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I went to Oxford. I went to Oriel College. We will drive up there together one day and I will show you around. I will introduce you to a few people. I will show you that there is a place where you can read and discuss Schopenhauer like it’s the most normal thing in the world.’
I was still speechless.
She then gave me a piece of advice that is still crystal clear in my mind today. It gives me a shiver just to think about it. She put her hand on my shoulder and said:
‘You have to do two things with your life.
1. Go to Oxford University.
2. Help those less fortunate than you.’
She said it wasn’t up for debate. That’s what I was going to do. I had to get into Oxford and then I had to help people in Africa or somewhere less fortunate.
Just a few years later, I ended up doing both.
She was right.
We never did go and take a trip to Oxford. But the college she mentioned stuck in my mind. Oriel. I never even looked at other colleges. I turned up to interviews not even knowing how many colleges there were and what the college system even meant. I was completely clueless. I just knew ‘Oriel’. I made it my mission.
I told my dad I wanted to apply to study at Oriel College, Oxford. He was immediately behind me. Many parents would knock their kids down or come up with a million reasons why their ambition was not achievable. Not my dad. He helped me set my work schedule, made sure I stuck to it, took me to plays, bought me books, prepared me for interview, drove me back and forth to Oxford, and even took a picture of a sports car and slapped it on my wall next to my calendar and work schedule. He did it to motivate me and said that I would get that car if I got in. I didn’t get the model of car he used to motivate me because I ended up getting points on my license and it would have been too expensive to insure me but that didn’t matter. It was never the car that motivated me. It was my father’s unbreakable belief in my ability and his consistent actions demonstrating that belief.
What I’m trying to say by telling you my story is that…..
The underdog is not an underdog. The underdog is the top dog.
On paper, I wasn’t going anywhere. On paper, I was average.
In reality, I was set. I had people that believed in me. I had people that pushed me. I had people in my corner, backing me every step of the way. I was no underdog. I was incredibly fortunate and I am forever grateful.
If you take anything away from this, just realise that you can fight no matter your circumstances. Don’t let people poison your mind by telling you that you can’t do something because you went to a certain school, or you were born a certain way. I was fortunate because I had people who believed in me. If they hadn’t shown their belief, perhaps I wouldn’t even have applied (in fact, I know that I definitely would not have applied).
But if you don’t have anyone like that in your life, I’m here to tell you that you can do it. You believe in yourself. And I believe in you too.
Go get it.