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:
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.
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.
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?
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.