Online outreach: working with schools during the pandemic
Our Schools Liaison Officer, Katie Mountford, reflects on how the admissions and outreach team have adapted to working with schools online over the last 12 months.
The move to virtual working and learning has forced us all to adapt and learn new skills quickly. This is especially true for outreach staff and Admissions Tutors, who work with potential Cambridge applicants to raise aspirations and demystify the University. The pandemic has only exacerbated the educational inequality we work to address.
We’ve all had to get creative to make sure we’re reaching pupils who need our support and encouragement the most. Here at Jesus, we’ve started a teachers’ newsletter! Sign up to our mailing list to receive monthly updates on outreach events from Jesus and other Colleges and departments across the University.
We host day visits and subject taster days in College for schools in our link areas throughout the year. These include higher education information and guidance sessions, sample lectures or supervisions, College tours and Q&A sessions with our student ambassadors about university life and applications. We cover schools’ travel costs for day visits where appropriate, and provide staff and pupils with a free lunch.
Alongside day visits from individual schools, we host two annual day visits for high-achieving Year 10 and 12 pupils from 6f partnership schools in Westminster. These pooled visits allow pupils to meet others with similar potential and ambition.
“I found it very engaging, especially during the interactive sessions in the course tasters.” - Harris Westminster Sixth Form student, on their virtual day visit to Jesus College.
As in-person visits haven’t been possible this year, we’ve reached out to all schools in our link areas with pre-recorded information and guidance sessions tailored to specific year groups, and given them the option to arrange virtual Q&A sessions with current students.
We’ve also arranged online events, including a virtual day visit from Harris Westminster Sixth Form, which included subject taster lectures and a Q&A session with current students.
Our annual schools tours are key events in the Jesus College outreach calendar. We visit schools in Tyne and Wear in early January, and schools in Brent, Ealing and Westminster at the end of March. Student ambassadors deliver higher education information and guidance sessions to 15-20 schools from each region.
Our virtual North East in January schools tour saw resource packs sent out to all schools in Tyne and Wear. We also gave schools access to pre-recorded information and guidance sessions tailored to specific year groups, as well as the option to arrange workshops based on the sessions or virtual Q&A sessions with current students.
Every June, we host overnight residential events for Year 10 pupils from Tyne and Wear, giving them the opportunity to learn more about life at Cambridge and consider their post-16 options. We also provide free accommodation and catering for Year 12 students from Tyne and Wear attending the University’s summer open days in early July.
In September, we host overnight residential events for Year 13 pupils from Tyne and Wear, and the London Boroughs of Ealing, Brent, and Westminster. These events include academic sessions, advice on the application process, and the opportunity to meet current undergraduates.
“Even after the pandemic, we could run in-person and virtual personal statement workshops in tandem.” - Cormac Parks, former Jesus College Student Union Access Officer.
This year, the University’s open days took place via Zoom. We ran an additional open afternoon in September, with advice on the applications process from our admissions tutors and a Q&A session with our student ambassadors.
We also ran a virtual personal statement workshop with over 100 prospective applicants. Year 13 pupils could send their personal statement in for review by one of our current students.
Interview skills workshops
This year’s Oxford and Cambridge admissions interviews happened via Zoom and Teams, and many potential applicants I spoke to were worried about this step of the admissions process. We collaborated with SLOs and outreach staff from King’s College Cambridge, and St Anne’s College, Trinity College and Christ Church College, Oxford to offer interview skills workshops to less-advantaged pupils from the North East.
The workshops were split into two half-hours sessions:
"In many cases, the familiarity of learning and talking on screen made the interview a less daunting experience than it might otherwise have been." - Dr Christopher Burlinson, Admissions Tutor.
- a general talk on Oxbridge interviews and the new virtual format
- breakout sessions with student ambassadors on the interview process for specific subjects
100% of participants said they felt confident in what to expect from an interview and their ability to do well in one after the session, compared to 42% and 31% before the session. Even better, data from the Higher Education Access Tracker shows that many attendees went on to receive Cambridge offers, often from Jesus College.
"The purpose of online interviews was the same as when they were in person: to assess our applicants' academic potential and their suitability for their chosen course," said Dr Christopher Burlinson, one of the three Admissions Tutors at Jesus College. "We made sure that all of our candidates had access to the necessary technology; in many cases, the familiarity of learning and talking on screen made the interview a less daunting experience than it might otherwise have been."
The Brilliant Club
“I found it so useful, especially the discussion with the student ambassadors – they were very informative and inspiring.” - Brilliant Club scholar.
We work in partnership with The Brilliant Club, an educational charity that aims to increase the number of underrepresented pupils progressing to highly selective universities. Pupils on the Brilliant Club Scholars Programme visit Jesus College for a launch event, which introduces them to university. They then take part in a course of university-style tutorials, delivered by a PhD student, before returning to the College for a graduation ceremony.
We’ve continued to host launch events in their new virtual format, which has allowed us to include Q&A sessions with current students alongside our usual information and guidance sessions. Pupils who attended a recent launch event found it “informative and inspiring”. Virtual graduations are planned for later this year.
The University’s HE+ initiative works with around 4,000 highly able students from less-advantaged backgrounds at UK state schools each year. It combines super-curricular activities, designed to challenge students, with information and guidance sessions about applying to highly competitive universities. Jesus College delivers the HE+ programme in the North East in partnership with Newcastle University.
HE+ 2021 has gone ahead despite the pandemic, organised by the University’s outreach team and delivered by outreach staff from across the Colleges. I’ve led information and guidance sessions, as well as working with pupils on their research projects.
We hope to return to in-person delivery of HE+ in the North East in 2022, and plan to double the programme’s capacity from 120 to 250 students.
Though it’s been sad not to see pupils and student ambassadors in person, online outreach has hugely increased capacity and eliminated travel time for all our events. It’s allowed me to collaborate with SLOs from other Colleges in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if we were working in person. We’re definitely going to keep some elements of our new virtual outreach programme, but I can’t wait to take some pupils on a tour of College again!