Tag Archives: Applying to study modern languages

Interview Questions: What makes a novel or play ‘political’?

Oxford University has released another batch of typical questions from admissions interviews, to give people a better idea of how our admissions process works. Here is the French sample question (and answer!), preceded by an introduction from the university’s Director of Admissions and Outreach. You can find the full set of questions from various subjects here.

‘We emphasise in all our outreach activity that the interview is primarily an academic conversation based on a passage of text, a problem set or a series of technical discussions related to the content of the course students have 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 – so to help students to become familiar with the type of questions they might get asked we release these real examples. 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.

‘No matter what kind of educational background or opportunities you have had, the interview should be an opportunity to show off your interest and ability in your chosen subject, since they are not about reciting what you already know. Tutors want 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 – with tutors guiding the discussion to ensure students feel comfortable and confident. 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.’

No matter what kind of educational background or opportunities you have had, the interview should be an opportunity to show off your interest and ability in your chosen subject.

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. Most commonly tutors will provide candidates with material to prompt discussion – for example a piece of text, an image, or a sample experiment whose results they are asked to consider. It is often best to start responding by making very obvious observations and build up discussion from there – solving the problem quickly is less important than showing how you use information and analysis to get there.

‘We know there are still misunderstandings 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 is a sample question:

Subject: Modern Languages (French)
Interviewer: Helen Swift, St Hilda’s College

Q: What makes a novel or play ‘political’?

Helen: This is the sort of question that could emerge from a student’s personal statement, where, in speaking about their engagement with literature and culture of the language they want to study, they state a keen interest in works (of whatever type they mention, such as a novel, play or film) that are ‘political’. We might start off by discussing the specific work that they cite (something that isn’t included in their A-level syllabus), so they have chance to start off on something concrete and familiar, asking, for instance, ‘in what ways?’, ‘why?’, ‘why might someone not enjoy it for the same reason?’. We’d then look to test the extent of their intellectual curiosity and capacities for critical engagement by broadening the questioning out to be more conceptually orientated and invite them to make comparisons between things that they’ve read/seen (in whatever language).

So, in posing the overall question ‘what makes this political?’ we’d want the candidate to start thinking about what one means in applying the label: what aspects of a work does it evoke? Is it a judgment about content or style? Could it be seen in and of itself a value judgment? How useful is it as a label? What if we said that all art is, in fact, political? What about cases where an author denies that their work is political, but critics assert that it is – is it purely a question of subjective interpretation? And so on. The interviewers would provide prompt questions to help guide the discussion. A strong candidate would show ready willingness and very good ability to engage and develop their ideas in conversation. It would be perfectly fine for someone to change their mind in the course of the discussion or come up with a thought that contradicted something they’d said before – we want people to think flexibly and be willing to consider different perspectives; ideally, they would recognise themselves that they were changing their viewpoint, and such awareness could indicate aptitude for sustained, careful reflection rather than a ‘scattergun’ effect of lots of different points that aren’t developed or considered in a probing way. Undoubtedly, the candidate would need to take a moment to think in the middle of all that – we expect that ‘ermmm’, ‘ah’, ‘oh’, ‘well’, etc. will feature in someone’s responses!

More Interview Questions

posted by Simon Kemp

It’s university admissions time again, and Oxford has been trying to take some of the mystery out of our interview process. As well as releasing the video above, the university has been asking its tutors to reveal the questions they ask interview candidates. The story has been widely reported in newspapers, as well as on the BBC website here.

One of the questions was from an interview for a place on a degree involving French:

What makes a novel or play “political”?

This was a question for a French course. Interviewer Helen Swift, from St Hilda’s College, said:

“This is the sort of question that could emerge from a student’s personal statement, where, in speaking about their engagement with literature and culture of the language they want to study, they state a keen interest in works (such as a novel, play or film) that are “political”.

“We might start off by discussing the specific work that they cite (something that isn’t included in their A-level syllabus), so they have chance to start off on something concrete and familiar, asking, for instance, “in what ways?”, “why?”, “why might someone not enjoy it for the same reason?”.

“We’d then look to test the extent of their intellectual curiosity and capacities for critical engagement by broadening the questioning out to be more conceptually orientated and invite them to make comparisons between things that they’ve read/seen (in whatever language).

“So, in posing the overall question, ‘What makes this political?’ we’d want the candidate to start thinking about what one means in applying the label: what aspects of a work does it evoke? Is it a judgement about content or style? Could it be seen in and of itself a value judgement? How useful is it as a label?

“What if we said that all art is, in fact, political? What about cases where an author denies that their work is political, but critics assert that it is – is it purely a question of subjective interpretation?

“A strong candidate would show ready willingness and very good ability to engage and develop their ideas in conversation. It would be perfectly fine for someone to change their mind in the course of the discussion or come up with a thought that contradicted something they’d said before – we want people to think flexibly and be willing to consider different perspectives…

“Undoubtedly, the candidate would need to take a moment to think in the middle of all that – we expect that “ermmm”, “ah”, “oh”, “well” will feature in someone’s responses!”

There are further details about the Oxford interview on the university website here.

And you can explore lots more on the subject in the blog archives in the ‘Applying to Study Modern Languages’ category.

 

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

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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