University applicant A was 12 when her parents first took her to Oxford; as they wandered round the streets, they half-jokingly asked her 'Would you like to study here?'
At 15, she spent a day in Durham, visiting her Mum's godson, who showed her around a few colleges and told her all about student life.
At 18, University applicant A had applied to Cambridge, Durham and a variety of others. Her Mum and Dad had read through her draft UCAS application and made helpful suggestions. She knuckled down to swot for her A-levels, but everyone few weeks she paniced at the thought of what she would do if she didn't get in to Uni. Even worse, she worried what she would do if she did.... But her parents reassured her that she would be fine, and after all, she knew loads of people who had studied at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Southampton... Why couldn't she?
University applicant B was 17 when a teacher remarked to his tutor that 'he's the most gifted historian I've ever taught, is he applying to Oxbridge?' His tutor, and the history teacher, and the school G&T co-ordinator then began the slow process of encouraging him to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. No-one had ever suggested it to him before.
At 17 and a quarter, he went to Oxford on an Open Day. Everyone he met appeared to him to be upper class, completely intimidating and to have nothing in common with him. He decided not to apply there and then; it was only after a long process of persuasion by his teachers that he changed his mind (and then only because he thought he probably wouldn't get in.)
At 17 and a half, applicant B finally explained to his tutor that the reason he hadn't filled in his University application was that he couldn't understand the Oxford web site. Somewhat annoyed, his tutor spluttered that as a straight A student, he should be able to figure it out. Sheepishly he asked "What's the difference between an undergraduate and a post graduate?" Equally sheepishly, she explained it to him.
At 18, B had applied to Oxford, and been given an offer, but he really thought he wouldn't fit in, and was seriously considering turning it down. Especially as his Mum, who was already worried about the cost of sending him to Oxford, was reassuring him that it would be OK if he stayed at home to go to Uni. If he wasn't going to be happy there, what was the point? After all, there was a university in the town where he lived.
It's not enough to say (especially from our comfortable perspective as successful graduates) that the cleverest students, irrespective of their background, will overcome their own self-doubt and inner demons, and gain places at our best Universities. It's hard enough with a fair wind, parental enthusiasm, and a cohort of peers behind you. Those students from what we euphemistically call 'non-traditional' backgrounds have far bigger obstacles to overcome and I welcome anything that helps them.
Whether this will help I don't know, but it's an idea.