When it comes to academics, we all know that the journey is rough. From struggling to keep up attendances, to failing class tests, to eventually working up the courage to ace those exams, and so on.
However, there is one principle that I believe to be a fact of life. I believe that setbacks are accompanied by comebacks. No matter how far we may have fallen, or how the light may have seemingly faded; there is always a way out.
When you walk in to collect your result; you see yourself encompassed in an air of jubilation as the surrounding students scream out with uncontrollable joy upon seeing their result card, and it makes you confident of what destiny has in store for you when you open your own result card.
But it’s all to no avail once you’re struck with that feeling of regret at the sight of your GCSE result.
Our guest for this interview was all too familiar with this feeling.
Ibrahim Mohammed, commonly referred to by his online persona “Ibz Mo” is a graduate from the University of Cambridge, an award-winning educational influencer, and someone who “strives to make university more accessible to young students” through his online platform. His passion for the education system has amassed him with a following of over 250,000 people across multiple platforms, and he went to great depths to outline his story of redemption, from having no A’s in his GCSE O-Levels, to ending up at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Ibz kicked off this conversation by introducing himself as being a “half Pakistani, half-Bangladeshi” who was born in London. Specifically, within Pakistan, he is from Larkana.
However, stating that he was born in London doesn’t do him any justice with regard to his privileges. As he remarked: “I grew up in a single-parent family household in Hackney, which is a very deprived borough in London. There was just my mum, along with 6 other siblings, among whom I was the youngest.
My parents met in London, but didn’t really get along and wound up divorcing the same year that I was born. In the UK, a lot of our income comes from the benefit system, so my mum would collect from the welfare system and go to Pakistan every year for 6 months in order to give it to her family rather than care for us in the UK. So, we were kind of neglected and she would leave us (the children) with my dad and he was very abusive as well, so you can already see why that’s quite dysfunctional.
Moreover, the thing about us was that no one really went to university. No one did A Levels, or GCSEs properly. I was the first one from my family to really come out through the system and get a good enough A Level result to eventually apply to Cambridge.”
“In Hackney, a lot of primary schools are deprived – so we didn’t have a lot of opportunities to do big things, since all of it is state run.
With my family, there’s generally a lack of educational awareness with regard to the importance of education. My parents didn’t realise that you had to have a good attendance in order to get good grades from which you can go to a good school, a good university and then acquire a good job. That never really happened, so even in primary school, my mum wouldn’t let me go sometimes, and I would have a really bad attendance.
But I did okay in primary school. There were days where I saw that I was really smart – I would be in the top class. And then when I went to secondary school, it just went straight downhill.”
“In secondary school, the problems really began because I would get bullied at school for being quite flamboyant, and my dad was really abusive as at well home.
In Hackney, no one cares about the abuse. In some cases, the teachers are actually doing it as well.
The thing is, I never really knew that this was negative. I didn’t know it was bad. You grow up and you internalise that: ‘this is my life’. You don’t even question it. It’s like Karl Marx’s false consciousness. I never imagined anything different because that was it, just like the poor people in Pakistan don’t realise that they can be something else.
From Year 7-11, the 5 really important years of any one’s upbringing were really messed up for me. So, I did a lot of bad things, I kind of went into smoking, I started drinking quite young as well and then it effected by GCSEs a lot.”
What motivated you to apply to Cambridge after your bad GCSEs?
“There was a YouTuber who used to give really motivational talks. He really motivated me and also made me aware of how there were other people like me.
The second thing was factor was during the holidays between IGCSEs and A-Levels when I followed my friends to a UCL open day. I wasn’t invited, but I just went along with them and saw UCL for the first time in my life. I saw how beautiful that building was, and I wanted to be there. I didn’t know what they studied or anything – I just saw a massive building, I saw a university campus, I saw a lot of East-Asian culture that I’m fascinated by and I just said to myself that I want to be in this university.
Then I looked at the entry requirements and saw AAA. I was predicted 3 Ds.
At that time, I was like ‘okay – this is it. This is the time to step up.’
The Road to Redemption After GCSEs
“After leaving the school where I was getting bullied at, I then went to a school that was really run down and statistically worse than where I was before. 90% of the people there relied on free school meals, and moreover there were fights and drugs going on there every single day.
But – there was a small community over there of around 20 students out of 400 who were there because they’ve had a bad life and they just want to do well. I became involved in that group. The first thing that I said to my teacher was that I’ve had a very bad experience in terms of bullying and I’m here to get 3As, and she agreed to help me.
I also moved out of my house, realising that it was my family who caused me a lot of stress. I lived in a kind of government house, from where I got a job in the call centre and made my own money. I paid for my own food, my own bills, and my own accommodation while doing A Levels.
The reason behind why I felt that I was starting to do well was because I removed myself from 2 situations: my school and my family. I became financially independent. I had a role model – even if that was online.
I was 17 at the time, and one of my teachers sat me down and said: “we are going to make a sociologist out of you. We are going to get you a good grade.” I think it was the first time in my whole life that someone had said to me “you can get a good grade”. Despite the fact that I had to work crazy hours at the call centre and study all night, the combination of that initial belief with removing myself from that situation that led me to get the good grades that I got, and then apply to Cambridge and get to where I am now.”
Why Cambridge and not Oxford?
“Cambridge, I feel, is known to be more diverse than Oxford, and it’s actually a lot more liberal. The course at Cambridge, HSPS (Human Social and Political Sciences) looked a lot more appealing and a bit more fun.
Another reason why I applied to Cambridge is because they have a personal extenuating circumstance form, so if anything’s happened that’s affected your GCSEs, then you can put that in the form.”
Applying to Cambridge in your experience
“It was a hard and tedious process. My school didn’t know anyone who went to Cambridge, so it was really hard for them to get me help.
The interview was really horrible because you get grilled. The first question that I was asked was: ‘In 3 years’ time, what will your dissertation be on, and why?’. I gave good answers to everything, and I got lucky because they gave me this piece of text that didn’t have the name of the author written down, and they asked who wrote it. Before my interview, I did a lot of wider reading and I knew exactly who wrote it, so I think that put me on a good point as well.
Then again, there were other times where I flopped – where I stuttered, I was silent or I was speaking too fast. So, you don’t really know. I think it all came down to how they saw that I was passionate about my subject.”
How did you get into YouTube?
“I started YouTube because I wanted to put all the advice that I gave to students (when I was on my gap year) online.
I started it in my first year of university, and it was well received. In the beginning, my college told me that I needed to focus more on my studies more, but the central university absolutely loved it and they mentored me, and it grew to be this crazy thing.
Two months later, people were watching me in their classrooms, they were spreading it around other universities and 3 or 4months later, people were messaging me saying that they got good results and good grades because of my tips.
There were people who I met in my final year who said “Oh we’re here because of you” and that’s the best feeling ever. Praying Jummah with people who are like “we’re here because of you” and I remember, every message that they sent from initially applying, to getting accepted to being there, to becoming my friend, to working with me on the conferences. That’s the beauty of the internet.”
How to become an all rounded student?
“There’s no such thing as an all rounded student, but the important thing is to be an active learner. Learn how to learn. So, for example, if you’re studying for an exam, realise that every exam is different, and there is a different way to prepare for each exam.
Learn the different ways of revising. Go over mark schemes, know what an A* answer is, know what a D answer is. Make sure you wake up early. Make sure you have a dedicated timetable. Make sure that you’re not wasting time and you’re constantly learning. Make sure you give yourself breaks. People think that it’ll be easy, but it requires hard work and determination on a completely different level.”
Important things about the Personal Statement
“The one keyword is ‘personal’ – it needs to be about you, about what you study, about why you want to do the course. That’s the biggest thing.
In the first paragraph, I spoke about myself very briefly and about where I’m from. In the rest of the statement, I just spoke about all the work that I’ve done within my A Levels that made me good candidate for the course.
For a Cambridge or Oxford personal statement, it all has to relate to the course. If you’ve worked in a law firm? Great! What does that mean for the course?
For my IGCSEs, my tutor (who writes a reference) covered that, and Cambridge saw that, and then selected me.
Every university loves an upward trajectory. They love to see you do better. No one wants to see you go down, or stay the same. So, I went upwards from IGCSEs to AS to A Levels, and that came out perfect”
What to do before result day? – “Have a plan”
“Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.
Hope that you can get the best grades possible and go to your university of choice, but prepare for even as far as if you could fail. What I did was write down every possible grade that I could have gotten on a piece of paper – be it UUU, EEE, CCC, BCC etc and then make a route for every single possible combination of grades.
So, when the results come out, you know exactly what you’re doing. The key is to have a plan. It might not be what you want, but you should still have a plan. And once you’ve done that, you can wait for your results.
In my case, I said if I get A*A*A, I’ll take a gap year and apply to Cambridge. If I get ABB, I’ll apply to the University of York.”
Having your results rechecked
“The number one question that you need to ask yourself is – did you try your hardest? For my A Levels, I tried my hardest, so if I got an ABB and I tried my hardest, then that’s the best I can achieve.
Having said that, I still knew that I’d get all A’s because I studied so hard that if I gave the exam in February, I knew that I’d get all A’s. In sociology, I wasn’t aiming for an A* – I was aiming for full marks. I made sure that there were no routes for which I was failing. Whereas in GCSEs, I revised for 1 hour – that was it!
In Cambridge, I tried my hardest, and if I got a 2:1 or a 1st, and that’s the best I can do. It’s about the limit that you set for yourself in that context.”
How to deal with a gap year?
“Do things on your gap year that you wouldn’t be able to do in your 3 years of university. So, learn a language, learn to drive, save some money even if it’s $1000, do a lot of reading list, and try to get as much experience as you can.
With a gap year, I actually feel like you’re in a better position than people who are going straight into university because I can tell you now – the gap year was the best decision of my life.
It’s rough going straight in, and university will change your whole life – so be prepared for that. If you take some time out to go over everything and plan what you’re going to do, then that’s perfect. However, the worst thing that you can do on a gap year is just do nothing – because some people just lie about and watch TV. You have to improve yourself. There’s so much that you can do.”
Encounters with negative people – “Change the label”
“At first, what I used to do was just simply accept the abuse.
But then, I started to challenge these things, for example when someone would abuse me, I would monitor the way in which I would react to them. Rather than accepting it, I would slowly learn to reject what everyone is saying. I just started to realise that I didn’t care anymore.
All I knew in the past 5 years was that my life was going downhill, and I was becoming sad, but when it took a turn for the better, I realised that ignoring the negativity was the best solution. Be it my family, or my school, I ignored it, and then I began to change the labels that they gave me.
For example, once I started getting good grades in class, all the students would be like “oh he’s the smart student”, and hence I learned to ignore those labels, reject those labels and then change them altogether.
Another outlet I sought was the internet. The best thing about the world is globalisation. We think we’re living in one isolated area, but in reality, we’re living in the whole world. Subsequently, I might have had everyone around me being physically negative but online, I have some positivity. I think the internet is the best invention ever made, and if you’re respectful on it, then it allows you to do so much.
When online, I could watch people who may have faced similar consequences or had a similar upbringing, or had similar dreams. And that I think saved me. So physically around me, it was hell, but the internet was like a different dimension.
I’ve done a psychology degree, and what I’ve learnt is that therapy is good. Talking to people, venting to people, and maybe professionals, is so good, even though some people look down on it. I even have a fake Instagram where I rant to my friends! It’s like a ‘finsta’.”
Source of solace when everything seems to fail
“I’m really independent, and I rely on myself a lot but I’ve always had faith. I’ve always been a Muslim, and when I went to Cambridge, I joined the Islamic society and that helped reinvigorate my faith.
Being in Muslim countries like Malaysia helped me a lot – I absolutely loved it! There was Halal food everywhere! And in Pakistan, and there’s halal food everywhere!
It’s different for everyone, but I believe that surrounding myself with people from my religion and my Imaan kept me connected with Islam and God.”
“There are a couple of plans. Number one, I’m going to study law at BBP Law School in Cambridge; and they’ve accepted me to do a conversion course in law.
Additionally, I have a charity called BTYS Ltd which stands for Building Today’s Young Students, wherein we work with different corporations in the UK and host access conferences whilst targeting minorities.
In October, we’re working with a tax company in hosting the first ever “Bangladesh Access Open Day”, and in December we’re doing a “Pakistan Access” one in Cambridge. Then we’re doing an all BAME one in Cambridge during the month of April.
One more big thing and the reason behind why I actually came to Pakistan is because I want to open a school in Larkana. The whole idea is that I have investors in Cambridge and as a starting base, they gave me 50 grand, and from that we’ll start building for projects. So, I think it’s going to be really good!”
Message to fans
“It is my community and my followers who motivate me. I always say: ‘I am my followers’, and I would like to thank them for it.
My advice for them would be to be careful with who you let in your life. If you spend a lot of your childhood being independent, then don’t remain independent when you go into your university life. Also don’t get distracted in university because remember that you’re here to get your degree; and that’s what matters most.
Remember that your past experiences don’t define you, and you set your own limits.”