Cambridge’s virtual interviews: Yet another burden to low-income applicants?

Virtual interviews could disadvantage low-income applicants, but they don’t have to

Cambridge’s rigorous application process has long since been heralded as a means of providing applicants from all backgrounds an equal opportunity to demonstrate their raw talent, stripped of its socio-economic backdrop. It has been considered a process that enables interviewers to gain a deeper and more representative understanding of an individual’s genuine potential. 

But with the recent announcement that interview season will never again see Cambridge hopefuls flood the city, what are the hidden implications? Do virtual interviews risk undermining the impartiality of Cambridge admissions? Are low-income students being forced to shoulder additional burdens that may impact their prospects of an offer? And, perhaps greatest of all, can virtual interviews forge a path towards greater accessibility, if Cambridge implements certain necessary provisions?

Interviewee-less streets of Cambridge (Image credits: Matilda Head)

“It all tended to be where I could find space.”

The environmental transformation of interviews, from a grand room in a college to an applicant’s own living space, may seem an uncomplicated transition. But, in actuality, it manufactures a new found fear for low-income applicants. One far removed from the traditional worries of academia that taunt all students, and, instead, one bound to an applicants home situation.

The shift in location accompanies a shift in duty. Colleges no longer have to allocate dozens of interviewing rooms. Instead, the burden falls on applicants to find their own space – a burden that many low-income applicants may struggle to take on.

One student spoke of their living room turned interview room, specifically regarding the struggle to balance theirs and their parent’s need for the space. Low-income applicants must often complete their interviews in communal household areas such as these. These interviewees must work around busy household schedules, which can negatively affect a candidate’s performance. 

In other words, setting provides a new and unnecessary pressure for low-income students, who must now stress over where, rather than how, they are best able to demonstrate their academic flair.

(Image credits: Rosie Smart-Knight)

“My laptop had broken so I did it [the interview] on my phone”

Technological complications also prove to disproportionately disadvantage low-income applicants. Here I am not talking of the dreaded connection issues that terrorise most interviewees, but rather those that act as a direct reflection of one’s socio-economic background. This includes camera quality and the requirement of certain subjects to hold multiple devices. 

This reality is exacerbated in the interviews of applied subjects, where interviewees may be asked to present their work. Indeed, one current architecture student spoke of the need for “a good camera and good lighting” in order to do so. That same student was unsure if their “school had the facilities” and was thus forced to use their phone as the only viable option. 

This is all to say, low-income applicants are forced to deal with adverse situations and anxieties that would not be a mere consideration of other applicants, all of which prove to be quite unjust in an already stressful season.

“The whole process was very much me”

Now you may be saying that the answer to these issues would be for an applicant to approach their school. Many schools, of course, would be more than willing to help improve the prospects of their Oxbridge hopefuls. But, this is not a universal privilege. Some schools are indifferent, or even actively averse, to those wishing to apply. 

One student recalls being told by their careers advisor “you won’t get in, it’s not worth the hassle,” whilst another was advised simply to “figure it out.”

Can Cambridge really trust schools that give such advice to pick up the slack? Is it not the duty of Cambridge, as opposed to an individual or their school, to ensure equal conditions and opportunities for all candidates?

Previously, Cambridge could support low-income applicants, for example by reimbursing costs of travel.  The move online has transferred that responsibility to the individual. This is a responsibility that risks punishing low-income applicants for their home difficulties and negligent schools.

Online interviews thus risk undermining the fundamental advantages of holding interviews; that all candidates stand on a level playing field, with greater centralised control. Perhaps they even indicate a neglect of the rhetoric of “fairness” in favour of procedural efficiency and ease.

“Everyone speaks really posh and I felt like an outsider”

I am not, however, saying that online interviews are in no way preferable for low-income applicants, nor that online interviews inherently lead to reduced accessibility. Indeed, students who sat in person interviews often reported a sense of cultural alienation in what was a wholly “overwhelming experience,” as one interviewee put it – one that would certainly disproportionately impact on the performance of low-income applicants.

The Old Library of St John’s College (Image credits: Daisy Holbrook)

Even seemingly insignificant social norms can cause great anxiety for many interviewees, with one student fretting over “whether I shook my Oxbridge interviewer’s hand.” Given the move online, these forms of cultural intimidations or isolations felt by many low-income applicants were significantly eased, perhaps even encouraging greater diversity in those applying to Cambridge.

In the words of an online interviewee, applicants were in “an environment [they] could control,” providing greater comfort and a more relaxed overall interviewing experience – surely one that would facilitate an improved performance.

Where does this leave us?

Online interviews can thereby mitigate cultural and social forms of anxiety experienced disproportionately by low-income applicants. They can prove a means to forge greater equality for applicants of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and a means to ensure the image of Cambridge is an inclusive one.

But, it also must be recognised that there are still additional burdens faced by low-income applicants that Cambridge has a duty to address. Issues of accessibility have not disappeared merely by the press of a virtual button, but rather they have evolved.

Thus, the approach taken by Cambridge towards improving accessibility must too evolve in order to better address new issues as and when they arise.

The University of Cambridge was contacted for comment.

Feature image credits: Lottie Cotterell

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