Oxford Interviews for Modern Languages

It’s that time of year again and questions are flooding in about preparing for Oxbridge interviews to read Modern and Mediaeval Languages. Below is a slightly edited account of my own interviews for German and Spanish at Magdalen which I had originally posted about a year ago on The Student Room. My experience is of course not representative of anyone else’s or Oxford as a whole, given that every interview is a highly personal process that varies from applicant to applicant, subject to subject, year to year, tutor to tutor, and college to college. That said, I feel Modern Languages is misunderstood as a discipline and under-represented in interview guides, so I thought I would share my experience and advice in case it helps anyone.

Please comment or message me if you have any further questions, or want to share your experiences – I know every person has a different story! Mine, though, is as follows:

Well, I had both my interviews on the same day, the day I arrived. My German interview was first, an hour after I arrived and I got rather lost on the way. I was shown into a room and given twenty minutes to read an article about the university drop-out rates among immigrant children in Germany, and a poem. I didn’t find either particularly difficult.

My interview room had a million books and squishy sofas. I had the dilemma of either looking really awkward and perching on the edge of the sofa or sinking into the back with my legs dangling off the edge like a three-year-old. I went for the latter option. Sitting opposite me was my future tutor and next to her was the Lektor, kind of like a German assistant here.

I was surprised when the Lektor opened by asking me to summarise the article in German. (The style of article and summary is EXACTLY what we did with him in our speaking classes in first year. ) Normally my spoken German is very strong, but I was so terrified that my German was just shocking. I had to say what the article said about x problem and offer my own opinion on why this could be (it had helped that we were just doing immigration to Germany at A2 at the time), and somehow I managed it.

The second part switched back to English, and this was the poetry analysis. The first question was “Tell me about the poem”, which again is EXACTLY the same as I get in my tutes. I was quite confident about the poem so started off, basically saying what it was about, going through and analysing. It wasn’t really question and answer at first, more me talking and her nodding. I did manage to create a very awkward moment when I was talking about something symbolising the cyclical and universal nature of young love, compared it to the “Circle of Life” and jokily referenced Elton John, to which my tutor stared at me and I awkwardly went “Anyway….”. If it’s any consolation, she doesn’t remember this now.  After my analysis, she started asking some questions like when I thought it was written (I thought Romantic period, it was actually a Brecht poem from the early 20th century) and whether I would interpret it differently if I knew about its alternative title, and so on. I enjoyed thinking on my feet and just making it up as I went along. (The poem is usually picked from the first-year anthology so as to mimic an actual tute as closely as possible.)

The third part was general personal statement questions. What my favourite period of literature was, who my favourite author was, which authors/periods I’d most like to study, which deviated into me swooning over how much I wanted to meet Goethe, have him fall in love with me and write me a love poem. Ahem.

I was asked if I had any questions, asked something arbitrary about the course and then where the Lektor was from. Left feeling satisfied but a little shaken, not helped by me forgetting where I was staying. For a while after I was known as “the girl who lost her room”.

I had the Spanish interview the same day, at about 5pm. Was shown to the building where I now have my tutes, had 20 minutes to analyse either a short story or a poem, and me being me, I didn’t read it properly and did both. Was therefore quite surprised when I was asked which one I wanted to pick. A woman was sitting on the other side of me making notes. First of all, though, it was general conversation about my personal statement in which I had mentioned Lorca, and we had a bit of a chat about his poetry (I think?!) and I was feeling lovely and positive until he said, “But everyone reads Lorca! What else have you read?”. I actually hadn’t read ANYTHING else so had to fudge, and somehow got the conversation onto him recommending me books and telling me to be an academic because you get paid for reading books.

Analysis of the poem went fine, apart from the bit where he said something that basically changed my entire interpretation of the poem and I was like “….OH….” and had to quickly rework my interpretation. (Just like a normal tute, then.) Bit in Spanish was easy because it was something I’d put in my personal statement, about Franco’s enforcement of Castilian. This interview was really enjoyable, and on being asked if I had any questions, I decided to be cheeky and ask if he found it really boring doing so many interviews – he replied that it was a privilege to be able to handpick your own students, and that my interview had certainly not bored him!  I left that interview feeling very positive, as you can imagine.

TIPS

– have a basic knowledge of literary movements in the last four centuries or so (Romanticism, Enlightenment, Expressionism etc) especially as this will really help you if you get asked when the poem was written.
– definitely prepare for above question and EXPLAIN WHY. I got away with my Romanticism answer because I mentioned the natural imagery was similar to that in Goethe’s ‘Werther’ and she actually said the poet had been imitating that.
– wear comfortable clothes that won’t make you look and feel silly on a sofa or in a huge armchair.
– take pens and highlighters and make heaps and heaps of notes on the sheets. I actually held mine up to my Spanish tutor to show how I’d analysed it, and it shows you’re engaging with the text. It also serves as a good prompt if you walk in and forget all your prep.
– be ready for alternative interpretations and don’t panic if they suddenly reveal a fact that disproves your entire analysis. Go with it.
– if you can make any comparisons from your own reading, do it. Read lots in the run up to the interview and really think about it.
– go over the stuff in your personal statement.
– separate your analysis into content, form, structure, themes etc – content will give you a nice sentence to start off with in answer to “What’s the text about?” or “Tell me about the poem”. Make sure you conclude with what you think the writer is trying to say or express.
– don’t be intimidated by your setting! Feel free to show your wonder at the books They don’t want a genius but someone who genuinely LOVES literature and analysis. Much later, my Spanish tutor told me he’d decided to accept me as soon as I’d walked through the door, simply because I expressed my admiration for his huge book collection.
– learn or revise how to talk about statistics in the languages, especially German (e.g. the percentage of Gymnasium students in the last two years has dropped dramatically) as you may need it.
– don’t bother attempting to do heaps of last minute prep while you’re there. Have fun instead; you might be studying with these people next year!
– equally, don’t get too caught up in comparisons of the interviews or by people behaving unpleasantly or oddly – it’s a really high pressure environment and people are incredibly nervous, and nerves make people do and say funny things.
– Tutors are human too! Be relaxed because they want to know if they would enjoy teaching you and if you suit the tutorial style, so don’t freeze up after a tricky question or collapse with fright upon seeing the professor opposite you. Relax!

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12 thoughts on “Oxford Interviews for Modern Languages

  1. littlelady says:

    Found this really helpful thanks! Just out of interest was the bit where you discussed the cyclical natural of something in the poem in German or English? I am applying for French and Arabic (ab initio) and am fretting about the bit where they speak to me in French, worried I will just blank on the spot, and keep wondering if all the other applicants are spoken french geniuses!

    Liked by 1 person

    • carambalache says:

      In english! Btw you are totally allowed to decline speaking in french : one of my friends said she didn’t want to when asked to speak in her foreign language and she still got in 🙂 yeah there are geniuses but mostly everyone’s just human, i promise! 🙂

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  2. littlelady says:

    This sounds so weird, but the thing I’m panicking most about is answering the question “Why French and Arabic?” because I really really do badly want to learn these languages, and I am so passionate about doing this degree, but just feels like whatever I say will just sound like it’s not enough. What were your reasons if I may ask?

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  3. 4321 says:

    Thanks for this, it was definitely helpful! Could I just ask how difficult you found the vocabulary in the passages/ poems you had to analyse before you went in? Do they try to pick texts with vocab you’ll have come across in A-levels? I’m worried that if I don’t understand much of the poetry vocabulary in particular (which can be quite random) I won’t be able to show my analysis skills very well.

    Like

    • carambalache says:

      Yep, but they know it’s hard, and before you start explaining your analysis, you’re allowed to ask about any words you didn’t know. Some colleges, like Merton, only use texts in English 🙂

      Like

  4. Lio says:

    Hi I just got an offer to do Spanish and Portuguese!
    How many hours of oral lessons/practice do you get every week for your Spanish? I’ve heard on the forums that French and German students get more oral lessons compared to other languages…. how do your language classes change over the years? Thanks!

    Like

    • carambalache says:

      Hey, congratulations! I have friends who do that combo so can help you there if needs be.

      In first year we had one hour a week of grammar/translation, taught in Spanish, and that was it, but I know they’ve since introduced weekly or biweekly oral classes which are supposed to be really good.

      In second year we had two hours a week: one grammar/translation and one oral class, both taught in Spanish. My regret is that I was lazy/busy/unwell and rarely made it to the classes in either year as they were quite far away. They’re good and super worth it though, especially if you’re in a tiny class.

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