Applying to Oxford: English and Modern Languages

Hello, and welcome to our new guest series on the blog: applying to Oxford for various subjects. There will be a guest contributor every day writing about their personal experience of applying to Oxford for their own subject.

Today’s post is written by Becca who studies English and French.

Like most Joint Honours courses, studying English and a Modern Language is a great way to get the best of both worlds. In terms of language, you get exactly the same excellent training in translation, speaking, composition, and comprehension as someone studying single honours. And of course there’s the Year Abroad bonus, for travelling/eating/working, which really does improve your speaking, and it can give you some experience of the working world other English students might not have (plus it’s awesome change which prepares you for Official Adult-ing after university).

That said, there’s an almost overriding focus on literature: half of your language course is literature (meaning altogether 75% of your time will be spent reading and writing essays). So here’s the crux of the matter:

  • Are you thinking of taking this course because you want to study literary criticism, theory, carry out textual analysis, and study all the ‘-isms’? You can get all this from studying Modern Languages!
  • Are you obsessed with studying a particular English period (like the Anglo-Saxons or Victorians) or particular English authors (like Chaucer, Austen, Shakespeare)? You’re probably well suited to this course.
  • Do you want a broad chronological overview of literature from the Middle Ages to the Modern Day? Check out the English course.

Personal Statement

Writing a personal statement for Joint Honours can see tremendously daunting: you’ll hear terrible things about people just applying for one subject! Firstly, make sure you’ve checked out the course outline for all the courses you’re applying for, including the courses which aren’t at Oxford. When you’re sure you’ve found the courses you want, and you’re ready to start writing, the best way to approach it is to make sure you’re answering a few simple questions:

  1. Why do you want to study your language?
  2. Why do you want to study English literature?
  3. Why do you want to study these both together?

Back up your reasons with a few examples demonstrating your enthusiasm. With a quick mention of books you’ve read in the target language, and how they affected you, you can nail this one! For me, I talked about how I was struck by the challenges of translating children’s literature: I’d read Harry Potter in both languages, and was fascinated by how the French version created made-up equivalents (‘Hogwarts’ becomes ‘Poudlard’ i.e. ‘bacon lice’, if you’re interested). Absolutely do not lie about anything you’ve read! I was asked about almost everything I mentioned on my personal statement – it’s not worth the risk of being caught out.

If you’ve been to a country where your language is spoken, then fantastic, and do mention it if it’s made a difference as to why you want to study your language (though perhaps don’t go excessively anecdotal); if you haven’t been – don’t worry! You don’t need to say you haven’t been in the personal statement (I certainly didn’t!). For me, I’d never been to a Francophone country and it simply never came up as an issue at any point during my application.

Leave some space to write about your extracurricular activities (at most a few lines). There’s nothing wrong with pointing out your leadership skills, love of working in a group or time management skills: just connect them to how they’ll help on your course (have you got experience juggling multiple deadlines, for example? Or have you often had to draw up an individual training programme, preparing you well for timetabling independent learning?). The Oxford tutors know you’re applying elsewhere and that other universities like to see ‘well-rounded’ individuals.

The Aptitude Tests (MLAT and ELAT)

Register for the test on the Admissions Testing Service website well before the October deadline, and make sure your school (or a suitable test centre close to you) also registers well before then, so that a copy of the test is sent to you. If you’re an international student, you’re still expected to do the tests: the admissions service can help you find a suitable center and advise you if you’re worried.

The Oxford ELAT website will tell you all need to know about timings. You’ll be given six poems or passages from drama and/or prose (fiction or non-fiction), with some kind of link, usually thematic, between them; and you’ll have to compare and contrast them according to “any ways which seem interesting to you.” That seems pretty vague – but really you’re free to pick an argument, and back it up from the texts. Check out a few past papers and if you can, write a practice essay and get some teacher feedback on your argument, use of evidence etc.

It’s a little easier to prepare for the MLAT: the most important part of the paper is grammar so revise, revise, revise! Brush up on your use of tenses, adjectival agreement, verb groups and pronouns. Do as many past papers as possible to get a sense of what comes up often, and to target your revision.

The main advice I’d give is keep perspective. Don’t let your A-level work slip because you’re working so hard for these tests (after all, those are the exams which matter the most!), and remember they’re only one part of an application.

Interviews

Most interviews take place in Oxford, where you will probably have multiple interviews at one or two colleges. For international students who can’t come to Oxford at the time, colleges should be willing to interview over Skype or phone. You don’t need to do heaps and heaps of practice for the interview: you don’t want to sound over-rehearsed, or answer a question they didn’t ask! Before the interview, I read over my personal statement a few times, and I read a plot summary of each the texts online just to jog my memory about what I thought of them.

The English interview will ask you to read a short text (you’ll have about fifteen minutes to do this, usually in a quiet side room so you can concentrate). Then you’ll go in, and the first bit of the interview will be on the text. You don’t need to have come to a brilliant conclusion – and it’s OK to disagree with the interviewers, change your mind, or ask for a definition of a word you don’t know (thanks to my interview, I’ll never forget what a “sepulcher” is). You’ll then talk a bit about things you’ve read, usually from the personal statement, and then there’ll be a shift to get you to engage with more general issues on literature. You won’t be chucked in at the deep end: no matter what various sensational newspapers promise, you’ll be challenged but there’ll be nothing impossible (and no one will throw a banana at you, or judge you on whether you wear trainers or heels).

For a Modern Language interview, it’s almost the same process, except that there’s a chance the text you are asked to read beforehand may be in your language, and there’ll definitely be a five-minute conversation if you already speak your language – although you can politely ask not to do this. The tutors know that speaking can be really terrifying, and they’ll not ask you anything that your A-Levels or independent research won’t have made you ready for. My main advice would be to take a ‘sticking plaster approach’: plough right in there, and if you know you make a mistake, correct it, and continue. You’re not expected to be fluent and give an eloquent profound speech. And it’ll be over before you know it!

The tutors know how nervous you can get, and they’ll do their best to keep you at ease. They want to challenge you, but equally they’re not going to try and trick you. They’re people too! Towards the end I had the chance to ask questions of my own. It’s not necessary to have questions prepared (I didn’t!), but it can be a way to show enthusiasm and interest.
I hope that you consider applying and find this information useful! Please feel free to comment if you have any questions.

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