Category Archives: Applying to study modern languages

Personal Statements I: Theory

posted by Simon Kemp

It’s UCAS time. Applications to study at Oxford in 2015 need to be submitted through the UCAS service by 15 October this year. Most courses at universities other than Oxford and Cambridge have a January deadline, but our deadline is earlier so we can fit in our lengthy admissions process of schoolwork assessment, language tests, and interviews, which will keep us busy until late December. All the information you need is laid out in great detail on the UCAS website, the Oxford admissions page, and the various pages devoted to our modern languages courses. There’s one for people wanting to study two languages together or one on its own, one for people wanting to study English and Modern Languages, one for History and Modern Languages, one for Classics and Modern Languages, one for Philosophy and Modern Languages, one for European and Middle Eastern Languages, and, finally, one for Modern Languages and Linguistics.

UCAS’s own advice on writing your personal statement is here, and is very helpful. I thought it would be useful to add a little more specifically for those thinking of applying to Oxford for modern languages, so this week and next, we’ll be looking at the topic. This week offers a few pointers about how you might go about writing your personal statement. Next week we’ll look at three sample statements and see what they do well and what they could do better.

We’ve talked about personal statements before on the blog, notably in this post, and the ‘Applying to study modern languages’ category gathers together all the relevant posts on Oxford admissions. I’ll begin by reiterating the key point of that earlier post, which is that our decisions about who to offer places to are based on the published admissions criteria for the subject.

 

The admissions criteria for  modern languages at Oxford are these:

1. General Admissions Criteria

Successful candidates for admission will possess the following qualities. The admissions process as a whole is designed to identify which candidates possess them in the greatest measure:

  • Motivation and commitment along with capacity for sustained study of language and literature.
  • Communication: willingness and ability to express ideas clearly and effectively both in writing and orally; ability to listen and to give considered responses.
  • Proven competence in the language(s) as established by school work written in the language(s), by the language test and (in some cases) by oral competence at interview. In the case of beginners, clear evidence of aptitude and potential for language study.
  • While there is no requirement that candidates will have read any literature in the language(s), successful candidates will demonstrate an aptitude and commitment to the study of literature by evidence of their readiness to discuss their reading in English or in the relevant language(s) or by their response to a reading-passage at interview. Assessors will look for evidence of intellectual curiosity and critical engagement.

Selection is competitive and it may well be that a candidate is able to demonstrate these qualities and nonetheless is edged out of contention by a candidate with stronger all-round claims. In applying these criteria, the main concern is to identify proven competence in the language(s) along with future promise and aptitude in literary and cultural studies. Examination results, predicted examination results, school reports, school written work, performance at interview and in the language test(s) are all taken into account in the assessment of present achievement and of future potential. In the case of candidates whose first language is not English, competence in the English language is also a criterion.

(I’ve copied the list from the modern languages faculty website here.)

We’re simply looking to see how well you fulfill these criteria in each of the areas that form part of our admissions process. These areas are:

your qualifications achieved so far

predicted grades for Year 13

teacher references

submitted schoolwork

results in our language tests

performance during the interviews

and the personal statement itself.

(Plus, we’re also taking into account the UCAS contextual data and any bearing it may have on your achievements in any of the above areas, as I’ve talked about here.) As you can see, the personal statement is one among many factors here, and by no means among the most important of them, but it’s worth taking the time to get it right.

 

As we’re well aware when we read these things, you only get to write one personal statement for all your UK university applications, and it’s unlikely that modern languages at Oxford is your only choice. Even at Oxford, if you’re applying for one of the ‘joint schools’ with English, Philosophy, Linguistics, Middle-Eastern Languages, History or Classics, you’ll need to look up their selection criteria online and tailor your personal statement to meet those as well. At the other universities you’re applying to, you may well be applying for a different combination of subjects, or for a modern languages course with very different emphasis from the Oxford one, so the Oxford tutor understands that your personal statement needs to be broad enough to encompass all of your choices. Having said that, with around three applicants for every place available in modern languages, and with our most popular joint school, English and Modern Languages, able to take only 16% of applicants last year (these statistics are on the course pages listed above), it’s important that you fulfil the ‘motivation and commitment’ criterion at the very top of the list by showing in your personal statement that the Oxford course is one you really want. A while ago I received an application for French and Spanish with a personal statement almost entirely focused on the candidate’s commitment to studying Management with Business Spanish (a course we don’t offer). It didn’t put the applicant in a strong starting position against the other candidates.

Given the proviso that it has to do other things as well, how might you draft your personal statement to engage with our selection criteria? Take a look at the four bullet-point criteria above (in green) again, and then at the seven kinds of information we have on you as part of your application (in red), and you’ll be able work out which criteria are relevant to the personal statement, and which are to do with other parts of the admissions process.

Your proven competence in the language, for instance, will be shown by actual and predicted grades, teacher reference, language test and schoolwork, not by the personal statement. Your ability to express yourself orally, and to listen and give considered responses, are for the interview to demonstrate. What’s left for the personal statement once you take out these other criteria are the following:

  • Motivation and commitment for sustained study of language and literature.
  • Communication: willingness and ability to express ideas clearly and effectively in writing.
  • An aptitude and commitment to the study of literature by evidence of their readiness to discuss their reading in English or in the relevant language(s). 

All of these will also come through in other parts of the application process, such as your teacher references for the first one, your schoolwork for the second, and the interview for the third. But you can definitely make a good first impression by writing a personal statement that has something to say about each of them:

Motivation and commitment for sustained study of language and literature. Anyone can say they’re motivated and committed. But can you show it? We’re not looking for people to lay it on thick with declarations of enthusiasm and passion. We’re looking for something that counts as real evidence. Have you been on an exchange? Do you correspond in the foreign language with someone on social media? Do you try to read foreign newspapers online? Or watch foreign films on DVD? Any of these things would be good support to an assertion that you’re committed to studying the foreign language and its culture.

Willingness and ability to express ideas clearly and effectively in writing. Clear and effective doesn’t mean wordy and pretentious. There’s no point in using unnecessarily obscure words and phrasing to try to sound more sophisticated. There is a point, though, in being accurate. You only have forty-seven lines to write, and it’s reasonable to hope you should be able to manage that without spelling or grammar mistakes. Read it through several times, and give it to other people to read to make sure. Pay particular attention to any names of people, books or films you’ve included, or any quotes in the foreign language. Every year I get at least a couple of applicants telling me how keen they are to discover the works of Jean-Paul Satre (it’s Sartre), or how interested they are in the adventures of Mersault in Albert Camus’s L’Étranger (it’s Meursault).

An aptitude and commitment to the study of literature by evidence of their readiness to discuss their reading in English or in the relevant language(s). Some A-level courses or equivalent in modern languages include a literature component, but most don’t. Some applicants are also studying English literature alongside the modern language in the sixth form, but many aren’t. So what we’re absolutely NOT expecting of a candidate is any experience of studying literature formally at school. What we are looking for, though, is that you’re the kind of person who has an interest in literature and culture, and will thrive on a university course that involves quite a lot of it.  We’ll spend a good part of the interview on this subject, but you can make a start in demonstrating it in the personal statement. Have you read any serious English literature? Have you ever read a novel or play from the modern language in English translation? Have you tried, or do you plan to try reading something in the original language? If you’re doing any of these things, are you doing them on your own initiative, above and beyond what your school is requiring you to do? If you’ve read something in translation or the original language, do you have any thoughts on it? Was anything about it particularly striking? What questions did it raise, or what was particular about the characters, the style of the writing or the way the plot was structured? Be as detailed and specific as you can within the limits of the word count. We’re always pleased to see what you’ve read and what you thought of it, and you can be sure that if you do say something along these lines, then you’ll be invited to discuss it further during the interview.

That just leaves the things that aren’t in the selection criteria. Here in Oxford, we’re entirely focused on your academic potential. While it’s nice to see other details about you on the personal statement to get to know you a little better as a person, they won’t ultimately have a bearing on whether we’re able to offer you a place on our courses. I’m always very pleased to see that you play the oboe to Grade 8 standard, or that you represent your county in ice-hockey junior championships, and you should rightly be proud of achievements like this and include them on the statement. But if you’ve never picked up a musical instrument or ventured onto a sports field without catastrophe immediately following, or if your sole out-of-school activity is curling up in an armchair with a book, then I’m very happy to see that too, and it won’t count against your chances of a place at Oxford in any way.

That’s the theory, then. Next week, we’ll take a look at some statements, and see how all this might work in practice…

 

 

 

From Sixth Form to Second Year

posted by Jessica Allen, second-year student of French and German at Jesus College

The Oxford modern languages degree places considerable emphasis on the study of literature. With most schools teaching very little or even no literature as part of their modern languages curriculum, it can be very difficult to know where to start. Here I’m going to share my own literary journey thus far to hopefully inspire those who are still at school to develop their interests and to not be intimidated by the really quite challenging task of tackling their first foreign novel.

This story actually begins with my discovery of German literature. I was fifteen years old and inspired by the fleeting reference to Kafka in Bridget Jones’ Diary to read some of his work in the original German. My German teacher told me that this would be impossible for someone who hadn’t even done her GCSEs, so, determined to prove her wrong, I spent three months teaching myself advanced German grammar and reading children’s books. Then suddenly I was reading Kafka’s works and understanding them in German. I felt a great sense of achievement and knew then that what I wanted to study was German literature.

I was also curious about French, the other language I was studying. I wanted to do the same thing, although I had no natural starting point to lead me into the literature. So one lunchtime I went into the school library and headed over to the solitary shelf of French literature. I picked up Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, mainly because it was the shortest. It was also the best introduction to French literature I could have had at the age of sixteen. From next year, this will be a prescribed text for first years at Oxford, therefore it’s an ideal book for those who are just starting their literary studies. It’s written in dialogue form and when I read it for the first time I had never seen anything like it, which instantly made it more interesting. It also means that it’s easier to understand it, for the two opposing points of view are always clearly represented by the dialogue participants, and it’s certainly easier to get through than a six hundred page novel. When I first read it I was ignorant of the context in which it was written and applied the book’s lesson about universal values and a return to nature to my own teenage existence. It all began to truly make sense as I found out about the original context of the text: it was written in the eighteenth century in order to criticise the social and political structures in France prior to the Revolution by comparing them to the basic moral codes based upon nature which governed Tahiti. I began to actively consider the concept of universal values and luckily my google searches led me to more eighteenth century texts which explore similar themes in the same context: Voltaire’s Candide, Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes and Rousseau’s Le Contrat social. I devoured them and eventually made them the subject of my EPQ (Extended Project Qualification). I had fallen in love and I knew that wherever I went to university, there had to be lots of eighteenth century French literature. So if you’re in sixth form, I would definitely recommend these texts as a way into French literature. Eighteenth century French is often easier to understand than that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, plus the idea of challenging a long-established regime and system of values as expressed in these texts certainly appeals to frustrated teenagers.

 

So where did I go from there? Well I spent the rest of sixth form reading any French and German literature I could find. This was helpful not just in terms of my Oxford application, because it gave me plenty of ways to show that I was interested in taking languages further, but also because when I arrived here for first year I wasn’t daunted by the reading list or by the task of tackling foreign texts because I’d already been doing it for a couple of years. Okay, as a second year I now look back and laugh at the naïve and simplistic views of these texts that I often expressed whilst still at school, but even as you progress through Oxford your thought process is always changing and it’s often fun to contrast your current interpretation with your previous. Above all, I genuinely enjoyed discovering the wonders of French literature and it is certainly the best way to practice your language skills outside of the classroom, as teachers always encourage you to do. So my advice to sixth formers is to read any French texts which take your fancy and hopefully find some that really interest you. Don’t worry if you don’t understand certain phrases or references and try to work on grammar and vocabulary before you do it, however tedious it might seem, because it all really helps in the long run!

In Context

posted by Simon Kemp

You may have seen in the news recently that state-school students are said to be likely to do better in their university degree than independent-school students who start university with identical qualifications. The news is reported here, and you can find the original study, carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, here.

The BBC gives the findings as follows:

The Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) tracked 130,000 students beginning degrees in 2007, looking at schooling, background and ethnicity.

It found on some measures state pupils were significantly more likely to get a 2:1 than their private school peers.

Of those students who achieved ABB at A-level, some 69% of students from independent schools went on to gain 2:1 or a above compared with about 77% of students educated at state schools.

And at three Bs, 61% of independent students pupils got a 2:1 or above compared with 70% of state school students.

It’s not the first such study, but it is the biggest, and its findings confirm the results of earlier studies, including a 2009 study of Oxford admissions.

The first question, if you are currently a student at a UK state or independent school and worried about your chances of getting to university, is: what does this finding mean for you as an individual?

The answer to that question is: nothing. It has no significant bearing on the likelihood of you personally getting into the university of your choice, and no impact on the likelihood of you doing well in your degree once you get there. It’s a large-scale study, looking at over a hundred thousand students, and extrapolating from that data that the performance of the average state-school student at university may exceed that of the average private-school student with the same grades.

You are not an average student.

In fact, nobody is: it’s a mathematical construct, obviously. And there’s nothing very useful you can infer from it about your own particular case, no matter what kind of school you may be attending.

What the study will do, though, is reopen the debate about whether universities should use ‘contextual data’ about applicants’ backgrounds in their admissions process, along with qualifications acquired and predicted grades, to decide whether to offer a place. As we’ve already talked about here, Oxford already takes into account a great deal of information beyond your qualifications in deciding who to offer places to, including (in modern languages) personal statements, schoolwork, language tests, and interview performance. Among this extra information is precisely this contextual data, and has been for some years now. Here’s the university’s official statement on the topic.

With every UCAS form that comes in for a UK student, I’m told what kind of school you attended (state or private, comprehensive, grammar or sixth-form college), and I’m also told whether that school performs better or worse than the UK average at GCSEs and at A-level or equivalent. The forms ‘flag up’ below-average schools in either category, to show if your grades are outperforming those of your peer group. I also know, provided you’ve opted to disclose this information, if you have a disability of any kind (about which you can give details on the form), and whether you’ve spent time in care. The form will also tell me if the postcode of your home address indicates that you may come from an area designated ‘moderate means’ or ‘hard pressed’ economically, or if people from your area generally have low participation in higher education.

The university’s policy states that, if your predicted grades and your performance on pre-interview tests suggest there’s a possibility you may be able to get a place, then candidates flagged for postcode and school performance, or candidates flagged as having been in care, are strongly recommended to be invited to interview, and admissions tutors must explain to their departments if there are any exceptional reasons why they might not do so.

It’s not, however, the university’s policy to make lower offers to some candidates on grounds of school type or contextual data. In modern languages, all candidates who successfully pass the admissions process are given an offer of AAA at A-level or equivalent for other sixth-form qualifications. Should you happen to miss your offer by a small margin, though, we do at that stage reopen your application file and re-examine all the data we have on you, including the contextual data, to see whether at that stage there might be grounds for relaxing the requirements. In my personal experience as an admissions tutor, on several occasions in the recent past, there have been.

There’s obviously much to be debated on the rights and wrongs of Oxford’s policy on admissions, and on how well it works, and I’m sure some of that will be spread across the media in the wake of this report. But I thought it would be useful to lay out the basic facts of our approach, so you can at least see how we go about looking for academic potential, wherever it might be found.

An Admissions Interviewer Speaks Out

In mid-December, the week after term ends, hundreds of Year 13 students descend on Oxford for the admissions interviews. By this stage, we’ve already reviewed the applicants’ UCAS forms, schoolwork samples and language tests. Everyone who comes out of that process looking as if they might be able to take up a place on the course is invited to spend a few days in the college they applied to. While they’re here, they’ll attend two interviews, perhaps more, with the college’s experts in their subject. During one admissions week, my colleague in French, Helen Swift of St Hilda’s College, kept a video diary of how the process looks from our side.

First, before the interviews get underway:

Then five days later, just after finishing her last interview with a candidate:

And then a couple of days after that, once the final decisions had been taken:

Oxford has been making an effort in recent years to demystify its admissions, and this blog will be visiting different aspects of the process in the coming months. This seems like a good place to start.

posted by Simon Kemp

‘…and then the cinema manager called the police and had us all arrested.’

Image

It’s that time of year again when the UCAS forms arrive in my pigeon-hole from Year 13 students applying to study modern languages at Oxford, starting off the admissions process that will include schoolwork, language tests, and finally, interviews in December. One of the most interesting parts of the process is reading the personal statements on the UCAS form, six hundred words or so of the applicant’s own account of why they want to come and study modern languages, what their particular interests are, and why they deserve a place on the course. Coming right at the start of the admissions round, these statements give me my first glimpse of who my future undergraduates will be, and I’m always impressed by the levels of enthusiasm, talent and commitment on display.

I’ve been reading personal statements for a while now, and one thing I’ve noticed on the increase in recent years is a tendency to try to GET MY ATTENTION with a punchy opening. Sometimes it’s an inspiring quotation on the need for the human race to understand one another better, or the gateway into a culture afforded by a new language. Sometimes it’s a personal anecdote, recounting how the importance of speaking a foreign language was brought home by an embarrassing linguistic mix-up in a French cinema between The Big Sleep (‘Le Grand Sommeil’) and le grand slip (‘the big pair of underpants’). Or something along those lines. These kinds of things liven up my evening, but their increasing prevalence, and the increasing space they’re taking up in the statement itself, makes me wonder if they’re turning from personal quirks to compulsory extras. Are prospective students being urged to leaf through dictionaries of quotations for a suitably uplifting opening line? Are they being ordered to delve, Proust-like, into their earliest memories in search of a heart-warming vignette? Or, failing that, to… invent one? (Surely, no!)

Can I now take the opportunity to assure anyone who might find themselves in this position that YOU ALREADY HAVE MY FULL ATTENTION. We take personal statements very seriously and read them very carefully. While you’re very welcome to entertain me while I’m reading it, I promise you I will read it just as carefully if it’s straightforward, businesslike, or just a little bit dull. And so will all of my colleagues. We’re also reading for very specific things. Like all courses in Oxford, modern languages publish our Selection Criteria online, which are a list of the qualities we’re looking for in a potential student. The main criteria for modern languages are these:

  • Motivation and commitment along with capacity for sustained study of language and literature.
  • Communication: willingness and ability to express ideas clearly and effectively both in writing and orally; ability to listen and to give considered responses.
  • Proven competence in the language(s) as established by school work written in the language(s), by the language test and (in some cases) by oral competence at interview. In the case of beginners, clear evidence of aptitude and potential for language study.
  • While there is no requirement that candidates will have read any literature in the language(s), successful candidates will demonstrate an aptitude and commitment to the study of literature by evidence of their readiness to discuss their reading in English or in the relevant language(s) or by their response to a reading-passage at interview. Assessors will look for evidence of intellectual curiosity and critical engagement.

You can find them, plus some more specific details regarding language tests, interviews, etc., on the university website here. Some of these criteria are relevant to the personal statement. For instance, you have the opportunity to show your motivation for the literary and cultural side of the course by telling us about your reading, in French or in English, outside of school, or about foreign-language films you’ve seen. It’s a topic I’ll return to in a later post. For now, though, I’d just like to point out the absence of any criterion declaring that successful candidates must open their personal statements like a movie pitch. We want to know about your interests and achievements in detail, and you can trust us to pay very close attention, even if you don’t reel us in with a hilarious anecdote about that time with Uncle Gerald, the grumpy waiter and the big bucket of snails.

posted by Simon Kemp