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


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

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