Category Archives: Applying to study modern languages

But what’s it really like? English and Modern Languages

English and Modern Languages is the most popular of our ‘joint schools’ courses that combine a modern language with another subject, and the one for which places are most hotly contested. You can do English with French, or with any one of eight other languages: Spanish, Russian, German, Celtic, Czech, Greek, Italian or Portuguese. The last four of those you can also start from scratch on the course. Full details of what the course involves and how you can apply for it are here,  and below is a short film by those who study and teach on the course to tell you all about it:

Interview Questions

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posted by Simon Kemp

You might have seen online or in the news recently that Oxford has released some sample questions from our admissions interviews. We’re trying to make the process by which we select our students from the many excellent candidates who apply to us as clear and understandable as possible. We’re also trying to set straight anyone who thinks an Oxford interview typically involves being asked whether you’d prefer to be a satsuma or a grapefruit (with reasons), or being asked to throw a brick through a window, just to see if you open it first. Neither of these, I hasten to assure you, has any part in our selection process! Rather, our questions are straightforwardly based around what you’ve told us in your sample schoolwork and UCAS statement, and what we’ve told you are our selection criteria for the particular course you’ve applied for.

One newspaper  included a sample modern languages question:

Modern languages candidates: What is language?  

Helen Swift, of St Hilda’s College, said: ‘Although I would never launch this question at a candidate on its own, it might grow out of a discussion. 

‘Students sometimes say they like studying Spanish, for example, because they “love the language”. 

‘In order to get a student thinking critically and analytically, the question would get them to consider what constitutes the language they enjoy – is it defined by particular features or by function (what it does)? 

‘How does form relate to meaning? And so on.’

 

I’ve also talked about modern languages interview questions before here, and there’s lots of information about our whole admissions process, including UCAS forms and personal statements, under the ‘Applying to study modern languages’ category of this blog.

Here is the full press release and sample questions released by the university this week:

The questions have been released to mark the deadline day for students to apply to study at Oxford University next year (15 October). Students applying for PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) might be asked about the ethics and economics of bankers’ bonuses, while aspiring engineers might be asked to explain the physical forces that determine whether a ruler stays balanced or topples over when slid along their fingers.

‘We emphasise in all our outreach activity that the interview is primarily an academic conversation based on a passage of text, an object, a problem set or a series of questions relating to the course the applicant has applied for,’ says Dr Samina Khan, Director of Admissions and Outreach at Oxford. ‘But interviews will be an entirely new experience for most students, and we know many prospective applicants are already worried about being in an unfamiliar place and being questioned by people they have not met. We want to underscore that every question asked by our tutors has a purpose, and that purpose is to assess how students think about their subject and respond to new information or unfamiliar ideas. We hope that seeing some of the less obvious questions will reassure prospective applicants that tutors simply want to see how students think and respond to new ideas – we are not interested in catching students out.

‘Interviews are not about reciting what you already know – they are designed to give candidates a chance to show their real ability and potential, which means candidates will be encouraged to use their knowledge and apply their thinking to new problems in ways that will both challenge them and allow them to shine. They are an academic conversation in a subject area between tutors and candidate, similar to the undergraduate tutorials which current Oxford students attend every week.’

Dr Khan adds: ‘It’s important to remember that most interviews build on material students will have encountered in their studies or touch on areas candidates mention in their personal statements. They might include a logic problem to solve for a subject like mathematics, and we will often provide candidates with material to prompt discussion – for example a piece of text, an item to examine, or an image. It is often best to start responding by making very obvious observations and build up discussion from there, rather than assuming that there is a hidden meaning or a highly complicated answer you have to jump to immediately.

‘We know there are still lots of myths about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see the reality of the process. We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process, and lots of example questions to help students to familiarise themselves with what the process is – and isn’t – about.’

Here are some sample questions:

Subject: Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)
Interviewer: Brian Bell, Lady Margaret Hall

Q: Why is income per head between 50 and 100 times larger in the United States than in countries such as Burundi and Malawi?

Brian: The question is focused on perhaps the most important economic question there is: why are some countries rich and some countries poor? As with most economics questions, there is no simple or unique answer. Candidates need to think about all the potential reasons why such income gaps exist. A good starting point is to think about whether the amount of capital and technology available to workers in different countries is the same and if not, why not? US workers are much more productive because they have access to the best technology – the US is at the technological frontier. But why do poor countries not just buy the same technology and be as productive? Possibly, the education levels are too low to allow for the use of such technology or perhaps there are insufficient savings to purchase the technology or the infrastructure might not exist. Good candidates should recognise that institutions matter a lot – respect for property rights and the rule of law appear to be pre-requisites for sustainable development. Other factors might include trade restrictions by the rich world on poor countries exports, civil wars, disease (e.g. AIDS, Malaria) etc. The trick is to think widely and not try and fit the answer to some lesson that has been learnt in school.

Subject: Economics and Management
Interviewer: Brian Bell, Lady Margaret Hall

Q: Do Bankers deserve the pay they receive? And should government do something to limit how much they get?

Brian: This is a very topical question in light of the recent financial crisis. A simple answer might be that since banks are generally private firms and workers are free to work where they wish, then the pay they receive is just the outcome of a competitive labour market. In this story, bankers earn a lot because they are very skilled and have rare talents. It is hard to see a reason for government intervention in this case – though on equity grounds one may want to have a progressive income tax system that redistributes some of this income. A good candidate would wonder why it is that seemingly equivalently talented people can get paid so much more in banking than in other occupations. Do we really believe that bankers are so much better than other workers in terms of skill? An alternative story is that the banking industry is not competitive and generates profits above what a competitive market would produce. This would then allow workers in that industry to share some of those profits and so earn much more. In this case, there is a role for government intervention – making the market more competitive. The key point about this question is trying to get candidates to think about the economics of pay rather than just whether they think it is fair or not.

Subject: Biomedical Sciences
Interviewer: Robert Wilkins, St Edmund Hall

Q: Why is sugar in your urine a good indicator that you might have diabetes?

Rob: This question builds on general knowledge and material studied at school in biology and chemistry to assess how students approach a clinically-relevant problem. It’s commonly known that diabetes is associated with sugar (glucose) in the urine; this question asks students to think about why this occurs. Students have usually have learnt that the kidneys filter blood to remove waste products, such as urea, that must be eliminated from the body but many other useful substances which must not be lost – including glucose – are also filtered. Given that glucose is not normally found in the urine, students are asked to speculate as to how it can all be recovered as the urine passes through the kidney’s tubules.
The process involves reabsorption by a carrier protein that binds the glucose molecules and moves them out of the renal tubule and back into the blood. Students should appreciate that, in binding glucose, the carrier will share properties with enzymes, about which they will have learned at school: the capacity to reabsorb glucose is finite because once all of the carriers are working maximally, no further glucose reabsorption can occur. A successful applicant will make the connection that an elevated level of glucose in the blood in diabetes leads to increased filtration of glucose by the kidneys and saturation of the carriers that perform the reabsorption, resulting in ‘overspill’ of glucose in the urine.

Subject: Experimental Psychology
Interviewer: Nick Yeung, University College

Q: Imagine that 100 people all put £1 into a pot for a prize that will go to the winner of a simple game. Each person has to choose a number between 0 and 100. The prize goes to the person whose number is closest to 2/3 of the average of all of the numbers chosen. What number will you choose, and why?

Nick: I like this as a question for experimental psychology because answering it brings in a range of skills relevant to the subject. Partly it involves numerical and analytical skills: the question implies that the answer will be 2/3 of some other number, but which one? Some people’s first guess is 2/3 of 100, i.e., 66 or 67, in which case I’d ask them what numbers everyone else would have to pick for them to win. In this case, everyone else would have to choose 100, which is unlikely. More often people first guess 2/3 of 50 (33), which seems intuitively more likely. At this point, and usually without prompting, the recursive nature of the solution becomes clear: If there is good reason for me to choose 33, then maybe everyone else will choose 33 too, in which case I should choose 2/3 of 33… but then everyone will think this and choose 2/3 of 33 too, so I should choose 2/3 of that number.. and so on. Assuming everyone thinks like this, then everyone will eventually settle on 0 as their choice – this is the formal ‘game theory’ solution. At this point, I’d ask questions that bring out the candidate’s broader reasoning skills in terms of thinking how we could define what it is rational to do in this game. Game theory gives one definition of rationality, but does it give a plausible winning answer – that is, is it likely that everyone, all 100 of them, will go through exactly the thought process we’ve just described? If not, is 0 really a rational answer? The question also has a psychological angle in thinking about reasons for people’s behaviour and choices: Will everyone put in the same effort? Will everyone be motivated to win? When I’ve used this question in live audiences, sometimes people say they’d pick the number 100 just because it’d throw a spanner in the works for everyone playing the game rationally. How should this affect your choice of answer? What if the stakes were increased so that everyone put £1000 into the pot at the start?
What’s clear from all of this is that we’re not looking for a single answer. Rather, we’re interested in seeing how people think through a problem, figure out what are the relevant factors, respond when new information is provided, and so on.

Subject: Engineering

Interviewer: Steve Collins, University College

Q: Place a 30cm ruler on top of one finger from each hand. What happens when you bring your fingers together?

Steve: This would never be the opening question in an interview – we usually start with a first question that gives the candidate an opportunity to get comfortable by discussing something familiar. We then ask more technical questions based on material in the GCSE and A-level syllabi. This question would come later in the interview, when we present candidates with an unfamiliar scenario and ask them to use what they know about familiar concepts (such as friction) to explain something.
Almost everyone in this example will expect the ruler to topple off the side where the finger is closest to the centre to the ruler because they expect this finger to reach the centre of the ruler first. They then complete the ‘experiment’ and find both fingers reach the centre of the ruler at the same time and the ruler remains balanced on two fingers. We like to see how candidates react to what is usually an unexpected result, and then encourage them to repeat the experiment slowly. This helps them observe that the ruler slides over each finger in turn, starting with the finger that is furthest from the centre. With prompting to consider moments and friction, the candidate will come to the conclusion that moments mean that there is a larger force on the finger that is closest to the centre of the ruler. This means that there is more friction between the ruler and this finger and therefore the rule slides over the finger furthest from the centre first. This argument will apply until the fingers are the same distance from the centre. The candidate should then be able to explain why both fingers reach the centre of the rule at the same time as observed. In some cases, particularly if we have not done a quantitative question already, we might then proceed with a quantitative analysis of forces and moments. We might even discuss the fact that the coefficient of static friction is higher than the coefficient of dynamic friction and therefore the ‘moving’ finger gets closer to the centre than the static finger before the finger starts to move over the other finger.

Subject: Oriental Studies
Interviewer: Alison Salvesen, Mansfield College

Q: Can archaeology ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ the Bible?

Alison: Candidates in my subject come from a wide variety of backgrounds and qualifications, so we generally try to tailor the interview questions to the individual according to what they have on the UCAS form or wrote about in their submitted work, in order to find out whether they have a genuine interest in the subject area and an aptitude for the course.
For this particular question I would be looking for an answer that showed the candidate could appreciate that the Bible was a collection of documents written and transmitted over several centuries, and containing important traditions that have a bearing on history, but that academic study of the Bible means that it has to be examined carefully to see when and where these traditions had come from and for what purpose they had been written. Whereas they should recognise that archaeology relies on non-literary sources preserved from ancient periods such as the remains of buildings and tools. These can often be dated by scientific means (and so appear more objective than literature), but we still frequently need additional information such as inscriptions or evidence from other similar sites in order to make sense of the ancient remains. In the end I would hope the candidate would work towards a realisation of the very different nature of these types of evidence, which sometimes gives a complementary picture, while in others it may be contradictory. Both require very careful interpretation, and just arguing that ‘The Bible says’ or that ‘Archaeology proves’ is much too simplistic. (The same kind of thing applies to archaeology, the Quran, and non-Islamic historical sources for a study of the early Arab conquests.)

But what’s it really like? Modern Languages and Linguistics

As well as studying a modern language on its own or with another language offered by the faculty here, you have the option to take a degree in one of the six ‘joint schools’ combining modern languages with another humanities subject. If you’re interested in how languages work, how they evolve over time, how we acquire them as children and what happens in our brains as we speak and listen, then you ought to seriously consider a degree combining modern languages and linguistics. Here’s the short film made by Oxford University to introduce the subject:

But what’s it really like? The Modern Languages Course

posted by Simon Kemp

Recently, Oxford University decided to make short films about every single one of its undergraduate courses, featuring students and tutors talking about what the course is about, and what it’s like to study it. They give a much better sense of what the courses are really like than you can get from a prospectus. There’s one video on modern languages, and six more about the ‘joint schools’ combining modern languages with English, history, linguistics, philosophy, Classics, or a Middle-Eastern language. I’ll post each of them over the course of the next few months, but for starters, here’s the modern languages film:

 

The full playlist of videos for all our courses is here.

Open Days in 2015

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The Taylor Institute Library, where you get to study when you’re a student here.

 posted by Simon Kemp

If you’re considering applying to study at Oxford, then the best way to check us out is to come to one of our open days. The Modern Languages Faculty holds four open days in the course of the year, in which you can see some of our facilities, hear about all the courses we have available and ask questions of the tutors and current undergraduates.

Due to pressure of numbers, all the open days need to be booked for, which you can do online. The May 2nd day is our largest event, and usually gets fully booked, so it’s worth getting tickets early. The other three days, on July 1st and 2nd and September 18th, are smaller scale, but have the advantage of coinciding with the general university open day, for which all the colleges of the university open their doors for you to wander around the grounds and meet the tutors. (You don’t need to book in for college visits.)

Here’s our schedule for this year:

 

Open Days schedule and bookings

Open Day Date Programme Bookings Contact
Main Faculty Undergraduate Open Day 2nd May 2015 Programme Book a place | Amend a booking | Cancel a booking Nicola Gard
*Faculty Undergraduate Open Day 1st & 2nd July 2015 Registration will open in the next few months Nicola Gard
*Faculty Undergraduate Open Day 18th September 2015 Registration will open in the next few months Nicola Gard

After booking, you will receive a ticket via email. If you do not receive your ticket within 24 hours, please check the spam folder in your email system and, if it is not there, contact it-support@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

Due to restricted places on our Open Days and the sheer volume of students wishing to attend, if after booking a place you are then unable to attend, please do cancel your place using the ‘cancel’ option(s) above, or email the relevant contact above to cancel your place for you.

Further Information

The Modern Languages prospectus for undergraduates is available by clicking here

A general prospectus for undergraduates is available by clicking here

Further information from Undergraduate Admissions is available by clicking here

Further details on our Open Days can be found by clicking here.

We hope to see you there.

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University: Reason 95

A planetary disk of white cloud formations, brown and green land masses, and dark blue oceans against a black background. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disk, while Antarctica is at the bottom.

There are seven billion people on the planet. Fewer than four hundred million of them speak English as their first language. Five billion of them don’t speak English at all. If you want to talk to them, you’re going to have to learn a foreign language.  Even with the ones that do speak English, you’re not going to get very far if you know nothing of their culture, and can’t understand anything they say to each other.

That should be reason enough to be considering a degree in modern languages. At Oxford, we offer courses in the two most widely spoken first languages on the planet, Chinese and Spanish,  the other major languages of Europe (German, French, Italian, Czech, Slovak, Greek, Polish, Portuguese), and of the increasingly important BRIC economies (Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Bengali), and of East Asia and the Middle East (Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Turkish), as well as minority languages like Catalan, Galician, Yiddish, Gaelic and Welsh. Most of these are available to learn from scratch, on their own or in tandem with another language or another subject. You can explore all the possibilities and combinations on our admissions pages.

How does French measure up against these other choices? Well, according to the French government, there are more than 220  million French speakers in the world, spread across five continents and 77 countries with French as an official language. It is the second most widely learned foreign language after English, and the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. French is also the only language, alongside English, that is taught in every country in the world. France operates the biggest international network of cultural institutes, which run French-language courses for close on a million learners.

The majority of French-speakers live outside Europe (which has approximately 87.5 million French speakers).

There are:

16.8 million French speakers in the Americas and the Caribbean (notably in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Quebec and French Guyana),

2.6 million speakers in Asia and Oceania (particularly in the former colonies of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia),

33.6 million in North Africa and the Middle East (especially the ‘Maghreb’ countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and Lebanon and Syria in the Middle East),

and 79.1 million speakers in sub-Saharan Africa (including Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mozambique, Niger, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Togo, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, and several others.)

French is very much a global language of the twenty-first century, and studying it at university opens doors that lead far beyond our nearest European neighbour.

Tricky Questions

Student and tutor talking

posted by Simon Kemp

The Oxford admissions process is in the newspapers again, following a university press release listing some of the questions Oxford tutors ask candidates at interview.

‘The questions published by Oxford confirm the stereotype of the contrary and offbeat’ concludes The Guardian.

‘Are Welsh worse than English at remembering phone numbers? How to win a place at Oxford,’ offers The Mirror headline, wildly mangling a question from experimental psychology.

The Telegraph bills them as the ‘unanswerable questions’ in Oxford’s ‘notoriously difficult interview process’.

Commenters below the line in all the newspapers seem unimpressed with our questions and with our method of recruiting students through interviews.

I have a small confession to make. I was supposed to be in the line-up of admissions interviewers for the press release. I even submitted a typical question from a modern languages admissions interview when they asked me for one. It didn’t make the cut. My question was this one:

I see from your Personal Statement on the UCAS form that you’ve been reading L’Etranger by Albert Camus. Would it be fair to use the term “hero” to describe the main character of the novel, do you think?

Admittedly, not the snappiest. But, as I tried to suggest, if we’re hoping to demystify the Oxford admissions interview, then the biggest myth we need to tackle is the one that says that Oxford interviews consist of a series of bizarre and/or impossible questions barked at the hapless candidate out of the blue and without any context to help answer them.

In fact, if you read carefully what the interviewers go on to say about their questions in the press release, you’ll realize that they’re not asking impossible questions at all. Experimental psychology candidates are not asked why Welsh people are worse at remembering phone numbers, no matter what The Mirror might think. They’re given a set of data from an experiment which suggests that people whose first language is English can, on average, hold more numbers in their short-term memory than people whose first language is Welsh. They’re also told that the corresponding words for the numbers are (apparently) shorter and less complex in pronunciation in English than they are in Welsh. After having time to read and think about the data, the candidates are then asked how they might interpret it. Not the easiest thing to do in a short time and a stressful situation, of course, but not an impossible question by any means.

Unanswerable questions are not on the menu in interviews for places on the modern languages course, either. If you’re invited for interview (and 88% of our applicants were last year), then you’ll have at least two interviews, with at least two interviewers  present in each, so we get a good, balanced view of you. The interview itself is broadly similar for all languages and all colleges of the university. A short time before the interview, you’ll usually be given a short piece of literary writing to read — a poem or prose extract from a novel — usually in the foreign language if you’re not starting from scratch. The interview will last around twenty minutes to half an hour.  We’ll begin by asking you about the text you’ve been reading, starting with simple questions about what it says, and working towards more complicated issues about its themes or structure. The point is to create a dialogue and exchange ideas, not for us to trip you up with trick questions or for you to perform a fully formed explication of the text without our help.  If you head off track, or miss something important, we’ll guide you back in the right direction. We’re hoping to find candidates able to listen, take on board new ideas, and change their minds when faced with new evidence.  After all, we’re looking for students who are responsive to teaching, not students who know it all before they even arrive.

Then, for all candidates applying for a language they’ve been studying in the sixth form, there’ll be a brief part of the interview conducted in the foreign language. Bear in mind that we already have your GCSE results, teacher references, schoolwork submission and Oxford language test, so this plays a relatively minor role in telling us what level you’ve reached in the language you’re studying. We know, too, that the interview is hardly the most relaxing environment for you to chat away in a foreign language, and we take account of the effect your nerves have on your fluency.

Lastly, we need to know how well suited you are to a course that includes literary and cultural studies, and the last part of the interview will focus on this. There may be some general questions about how (or why) literature can be a subject for study, but there will probably be some more specific discussion too. Your personal statement should include some mention of your cultural interests, and if not, we’ll invite you to tell us about them. If we find out that you’ve been exploring the literature of your chosen language a little, then we’ll take some time to ask about the things you’ve been reading, and see what ideas you’ve had about them. If, for instance, I see L’Etranger mentioned on a UCAS form, I might ask the question on it that I gave earlier.

What if I did ask that question, by the way?

I see from your Personal Statement on the UCAS form that you’ve been reading L’Etranger by Albert Camus. Would it be fair to use the term “hero” to describe the main character of the novel, do you think?

What should you answer? Well, there is no correct answer I’m waiting for you to come up with. I’d be hoping that you’d think – maybe think out loud – about the meaning of the word ‘hero’. It’s sometimes used to mean more or less the same thing as ‘main character’, so in that sense Meursault is uncontroversially the hero of L’Etranger. But, you might go on to say, the word can also imply ‘heroic’ actions or personality traits, which don’t chime well with Meursault’s thoughtlessness, indifference, and his later status as a killer without remorse. Some candidates might go further and talk about how, in spite of all that, the novel seems to be encouraging us to side with Meursault anyway, perhaps even admire him, due to the courage with which he sticks to his convictions in the face of persecution and impending death in the latter parts of the novel. Whether you finally reckon he counts as a hero or not is less important than whether you’re able to consider the implications of the question and pull together some reasons for and against. At every stage I’d be ready to offer some pointers, perhaps starting you off by asking you to consider what kinds of people are considered ‘heroic’, and how Meursault compares to them, and then seeing where you go from there.

It’s far from a perfect way of choosing our students. But with candidates coming from such a wide variety of countries, backgrounds and schooling, and with many sixth-form qualifications in languages giving us only a very limited idea of how well-suited you are to the cultural side of our courses, it’s the best method I know to seek out an academic potential that might not quite fit onto your UCAS form.

And it’s not an ordeal. It’s an experience.

Oxford under snow - and 2012's falls were more than usual Image: Toby Ord

Personal Statements II: Practice

posted by Simon Kemp

OK, then, as promised, it’s time for you to take on the role of an Oxford admissions tutor. Here are three personal statements from people applying for a place on the French and Spanish undergraduate degree at Oxford. Have a look at all three first of all and decide what you think of them, and then we can compare opinions below:

 

Clara

I am very interested in studying languages at your university. I am a very accomplished student at my school, gaining seven A or A* grades in my GCSE exams, and have done very well in all of my AS-levels. I am predicted to achieve three As at A-level. I am a respected member of my school, representing my year group on the school council. This demonstrates my maturity and leadership qualities. I also have broad extra-curricular achievements: I play on the school hockey team, I have achieved Grade 6 on the oboe, and I successfully spent a year as Marketing Manager for our T-shirt producing company under the Young Enterprise scheme, for which we were given a regional award. I would like to become a lawyer in later life, and I believe the skills acquired during a language degree would be invaluable to me in the international field.

 

Rory

I have a passion for languages. All my life I have been extremely interested in learning foreign languages. One of my earliest memories is looking at a Spanish picture-book that my mother had bought on holiday, and being fascinated by the foreign words that were written in it, and determined that one day I would be able to understand what they meant. On childhood holidays in France, I would always be the one to step forward and chat to the locals. While my parents hung back, too embarrassed to ask for milk instead of lemon in their tea, I would be chatting away, making friends with the waitresses. French and Spanish culture are wonderful, and it would be the most amazing opportunity for me to spend four years studying them at your prestigious institution. I adore Spanish cinema and read lots of French books, and I would relish the opportunity to be able to do this full-time for the duration of the course. Spanish is so much more elegant than English, and French culture is so much more sophisticated than British culture.

 

Martha

I have a real interest in language learning and literary study, and I would love to have the opportunity to study French and Spanish at your institution. While I’ve had little chance to visit French- or Spanish-speaking countries as yet, I do what I can to acquaint myself with their language and culture. I’ve been watching some Spanish and Latin American films on DVD. My favourite director is Pedro Almodovar. While my A-level syllabus doesn’t include any literature, I have always been interested in the subject, and I believe I would be well-motivated to follow a course with a strong literary component. In English literature, I have recently been reading Saturday by Ian McEwan, where I was interested in the detail with which the author goes into a minute-by-minute account of an ordinary day. I have also recently read an English translation of the French novel, Madame Bovary, to give me a taste of some of the literature offered on the course. I found it both funny and sad, and it was fascinating to see how Flaubert combines these two emotions, often in a single scene. I have not previously had the opportunity to read any foreign literature in the original language, but I have just bought a copy of Antéchrista by Amélie Nothomb, which I am starting to read. I also have an interest in linguistics, after reading popular science books by Steven Pinker, and I would be keen to take a course in linguistics as part of my degree. It’s surprising to see the various ways languages develop and change over time.

Modern languages at Oxford last year accepted 35% of applicants to the course, so it’s quite likely that only one of these three will end up as an undergraduate. Which should it be?

 

image

 

In fact, the boring answer is that all three of these candidates are very much in the running for a place at Oxford, since we don’t decide our admissions on the strength of personal statements alone. Provided that their GCSE grades, language tests and predicted A-levels are of a good standard, they can all expect to be invited for an interview. (We invited 88% of modern languages applicants for an interview last year.)

But in terms of our admissions criteria, I think you can probably see that Martha, the third candidate, has gone a good deal further than the other two in showing us how she fulfils them. The statement already shows us that she has an interest in language and literature, that she has ideas about what she’s been reading, and that she’s capable of discussing them clearly and articulately. She has already engaged with an impressive range of literature, including serious English novels, Classic French literature in translation, and an accessible text in the target language, plus a mention of cinema in the other language.  (This is, incidentally, rather more than most applicants tell us about their reading in their personal statement, and certainly more than we’d be expecting.)

Clara and Rory may be equally as interested in foreign cultures and as keen to study them as Martha, but they don’t do as good a job of telling us about it. Clara tells us practically nothing that connects to our admissions criteria — in fact, she tells us almost nothing of relevance that isn’t already covered by other parts of her application. Rory is big on enthusiasm but low on substance. He claims to be interested in French and Spanish literature and film, but gives no details, and spends most of the personal statement on anecdotes without much relevance and over-the-top declarations of love for the subject.

When the three of them come for interview, we’ll make sure that Rory and Clara have the chance to fill in the gaps and let us know if they really are interested in literature and well-suited to a course that includes literary analysis. But Martha is already well on the way to demonstrating this before we even meet her, and has the further advantage that she’s made some specific suggestions for discussion topics at the interview, which she can prepare for in advance. The personal statement is only a small part of the admissions process, but if the other parts of her application match up, then Martha is off to a strong start.

 

 

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!