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
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…