Category Archives: Applying to study modern languages

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.’


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