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 Stephanie, who will be going into her third year of reading English.
Your personal statement is a chance to showcase what your academic record doesn’t reflect: what you love to read, the authors and works you’ve repeatedly engaged with. Through example and analytical discussion, your personal statement should show (rather than tell) the answer to the question ‘Why do you want to do an English Literature degree?’
One of the most common myths I’ve heard about personal statements and the Oxford Admissions process is that before applying, you need to have read and be well versed on ‘classic’ works of literature—but I don’t think this is the case at all.
Talk about what interests you! There are no “correct” texts. I mentioned a lot of modern stuff even though there aren’t many tutors at Oxford researching David Foster Wallace or Zadie Smith. I also know people who talked about science fiction in their interview. (Do not pretend to have read something you haven’t. It will either show or come back to bite you.) If you do want to read something new before submitting your personal statement, you might take a look at one or two of these, which often come up in various papers and exams for the course:
- Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, The Tempest
- Other novels/plays: Emma, Great Expectations, Middlemarch, The Portrait of a Lady, The Renaissance (by Walter Pater,) The Picture of Dorian Gray, Waiting for Godot, 100 Years of Solitude, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, anything by Jorge Luis Borges, Invisible Cities, The Remains of the Day
- Poetry: the Preface of Lyrical Ballads and “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey” by Wordsworth, “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” “At the Fishhouses” and “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop.
Of course, that tiny list is just a small selection and leaves out a lot. Regardless of what it is you’re mentioning, though, the most important thing to do is analyze it: provide insights given your reading, clearly pinpointing what characters/themes/motifs/plot aspects interest you and why. This’ll both show a level of critical engagement tutors are looking for, as well as providing potential material for questioning at interview. I treated the personal statement a bit like a statement of a vocation, hoping the enthusiasm and dedication would shine through—it seems to have worked!
THE English Literature Admissions TEST (ELAT)
The entrance exam is the ELAT (English Literature Admissions Test). It doesn’t consist of a series of questions; instead, it’s a test of close reading skills. You’re given six passages that are excerpts of prose, drama, and/or poems, and your task is to “Select two or three of the passages and compare and contrast them in any ways that seem interesting to you, paying particular attention to distinctive features of structure, language and style. In your introduction, indicate briefly what you intend to explore or illustrate through close reading of your chosen passages.”
From the instructions, you can see they give you a lot of latitude in deciding what to write about. The excerpts are tied together by some kind of theme – for example, the year I took it, the unifying theme of the texts was ‘murder’ – which is made explicit in a sentence before the passages. It’s up to you to read the texts and make an argument, paying attention to “language, imagery, allusion, syntax, form, and structure.” I think the thesis I came up with for my ELAT had something to do with language expressing power relations between murderer and victim – how two of the passages’ style, form, and diction illuminated certain truths about psychological experiences of violence, autonomy, and the psyches of violent people.
If you’ve ever written essays for an English class or been given an unseen piece of poetry or prose to analyze, the ELAT is similar. Personally, I overthought it entirely, spending hours making notecards for complicated literary analysis terms I’d never heard of or used before. Do not do this! While it’s good to review terms such as ‘anaphora’ and ‘parallelism’, it’s more useful to hone old tricks rather than trying to deftly deploy new ones on a very nerve-wracking exam. Good, thorough literary analysis can be written in 60 minutes with only a keen attention to language and the texts in front of you—don’t overthink it!
The test is 90 minutes, and it flies by. You’re advised to spend 30 minutes reading and 60 minutes writing; however, the best piece of advice I have for preparing is to figure out what works best for you. For example, I spent 20 minutes reading and 70 minutes writing—through completing a practice examination I figured out that I digest information much faster than I can articulate and craft my thoughts into sentences. The second-most important piece of general advice for the ELAT is heeding the rubric—it’s the mechanism by which your work will be graded, and the same is true for your coursework should you come to Oxford. If you have an idea of what qualities an essay in each score band exhibits, you’ll feel a lot calmer going into the exam, knowing fully what’s being asked of you.
I had two interviews at a college I didn’t originally apply to. Being an international student, I had the option of a Skype interview, but chose to attend in person (though doing a Skype interview puts you at no disadvantage.)
For my first interview, I was put in the library alone for 30 minutes and given an unseen P.B. Shelley and Ted Hughes poem, with the task of putting together a 5-minute oral presentation comparing and contrasting the two poems. I was incredibly lucky—though I hadn’t read Ted Hughes, I was very familiar with Sylvia Plath, and was able to guess a lot of accurate detail by the date of the poem, which was composed after Plath’s suicide. The presentation went well and segued into a series of probing questions based on what I had said—many, if not all, of the questions in this type of interview don’t necessarily require outside knowledge (no tutor will ask, “What are the primary themes of Ted Hughes’s poetry?” apropos of nothing; they’ll ask you to take an assertion you made about, say, the effect of a phrase on a line or the poem’s structure on the theme, and explore this further.) The key when answering these questions is to be both argumentative—think out loud, clearly stake a position or else explore the text in front of you through observation—and flexible.
Tutors may challenge what you say, but rather than panicking and thinking you’re getting it all wrong, take this as a sign of good faith: they see the seed of an idea you’re putting forth and are testing to see how you can manipulate and transform it, given the right stimulus, and how it grows. No one expects you to have read all of literature, or even ‘classic’ literature; I entered the interviews having read one Shakespeare play in all my life, preferring instead to read 20th century and contemporary fiction and poetry. It was a huge shock, then, when after the unseen poetry segment of my first interview, the tutors without warning pulled out a completely random passage of Old English, read it aloud, and asked me to guess what certain words meant. I’d had little exposure to 17th century language and none to Chaucer—talk about a curveball! I got nearly everything wrong (translating a word that meant “Jesus” as “werewolf” by accident, which got a chuckle) and left convinced I’d mucked it all up. However, afterwards it became apparent that no one had any exposure to Old English before. What seemed like a sadistic tactic doomed to make me fail was actually a test of how I handled pressure and the prospect of the unknown. The tutors wanted to know: would I panic and shut down, or welcome the challenge? Make educated guesses, or give up entirely, falling back on ‘I don’t know’?
My second interview took on the dialogue format more informally. I was quizzed about certain elements of my personal statement (I’d written about Macbeth, Sylvia Plath, and David Foster Wallace—a motley crew). Did I think Macbeth was a tragic hero? If not, why? What attracted me to Sylvia Plath’s poetry? How do we determine what to test? What’s ‘the canon’ and why do we set store by it? Should we? These seem like impossible questions, but I wasn’t meant to arrive at an answer. Instead I had a chance to offer up my thoughts: how American literature and literature by women and people of colour are often unfairly excluded from the canon, which was something invented by men like Harold Bloom—whose poetical favorites are pale, male, and stale. I said I thought Lady Macbeth isn’t actually all that evil, and that Sylvia Plath has been unfairly disparaged by critics, her poetry ignored in favor of glamorizing suicide. While many of the questions were incredibly challenging, it was all carefully drawn out of threads I’d woven myself in the personal statement, so definitely craft that carefully.
Overall, the best skills you can show in an interview for English aren’t necessarily textbook knowledge of language and literature—that’s what the degree is all about!—but a willingness to engage in dialogue, to critically engage.
I hope this helped, and please comment below if you have any questions! Don’t forget to share this post if you found it useful (the Facebook and Twitter share buttons are below) and subscribe to the blog for more application tips!