Applying to Oxford: Oriental Studies

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 Tara, who is writing about her experience of applying for Oriental Studies (Sanskrit).
The Oriental Studies degree is a bit of a tricky one to configure, partially because the department functions very differently to others within the Oxford University system. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating and rewarding degree which often combines many rigorous disciplines together, including language, linguistics, philosophy, theology, history, politics, and literature, to name a few! Despite it not being vocational in the same way as Medicine or Law, the skills required to learn complex language systems such as the ones in the Oriental Department paves the way for a multiplicity of careers, including (most obviously) translation work, teaching, and diplomacy, as well as more surprising vocations, such as fundraising, banking, and publishing.


The key to a good personal statement, in my opinion, is to show interest and enthusiasm without making every other line seem like a carefully loaded sentence peppered with erudite quotes and mind-blowing philosophical truisms. In Oriental Studies (though I did Sanskrit, this will apply to any of the courses, such as Arabic or Chinese, for example, which you can choose). Before writing anything formally, sit down and ask yourself – why do I want to apply for this? What has drawn me to this culture? What makes this more interesting to me than other languages and subjects, so much so that I want to immerse myself so much in it for 3/4 years, its literature, language, politics, history, etc? Once you have bullet points with a loose list of whys and wherefores, you can start substantiating these points. For example, if an applicant says that they like languages, what have they done to show this? Gone to lectures in a nearby university or college? Gone on an intensive language course? Started a linguists’ society at school? Did a project on a major author or director who works in that language, and presented it? You do not have to have done all (or any) of the activities I have described above, but I think that these kinds of initiatives demonstrate both to your teachers and the tutors at Oxford that you have explored your interests beyond the syllabus which has restricted you up to this point, and therefore have familiarised yourself with aspects of the culture which you will be studying intensely for the next three to four years.

It’s good to demonstrate familiarity with the subject, especially as most people start the Oriental Studies degrees ab initio and the tutors want to be certain that you know what you’re getting yourself in for! The courses are neither a Berlitz language school nor an Ancient History/Politics degree (both of which are great, of course!) – they are highly intensive and rigorous courses whose foundations are solidly based in the linguistics/languages aspect, intended to get the student up to scratch very quickly in the modern and classical registers of the language you’ve picked, and so it’s vital you’re aware of this, and that you can show you’re happy with that in both the PS and the interview.

THE Oriental Languages Aptitude TEST (OLAT)

Disclaimer: Please please please check with the department if you are unsure if you need to take the test! The test is created to be a fun and intellectually-stimulating way of assessing how you, the applicant, react and interact with a totally new challenge thrown at you randomly by the tutors! Only applicants of Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and Persian courses need to take it (so I didn’t), but please check and see if this changes in the future.

Register for the OLAT way before the deadline (the test will be at some point in early November), and make sure your school helps you register at the right test centre if any additional complications arise. The Oriental Institute website has resources and links to help you should you wish to look at past papers, and the set-up is very similar to the questions set in linguistic Olympiads etc, so if you wish to stretch your mind and practise even more, trawling the internet for them is not a bad idea! However, I would encourage any applicant to relax and enjoy the ride that is the OLAT! It’s not based on any knowledge you’ve accumulated in your sixth-form experience, so don’t overthink it, and don’t try to pick up another obscure language randomly in the hope that something good will come of it! The main point of the test (which is a short and sweet half an hour) is, like I said, to see how you engage with hitherto unknown language systems, and gauge your reaction – so, to sound super trite, treat it like the adventure it is, for deciphering and picking part obscure languages and grammatical structures would definitely become a significant part of your life should you start studying Oriental Languages at Oxford!


The interviews vary so much between department, sub-department, subject, and even tutor, that I will tell you right now there is absolutely no point trying to analyse the situation and do second-guess what the interviews mean. You will definitely get two interviews – one at your college, and one at your department. Over the course of the three days of the interview period, you may get interviews at other colleges – you may even get interviewed at the department again – but I have to emphasise that the situation varies so much that you shouldn’t get stressed out by seeing other people having interviews while you’re not, or vice versa.

The interviews are meant to function like a mini tutorial, and the tutors interviewing you are very likely to be those who’ll teach you in future, so the tutorial merely serves as a way for them to understand how your mind works, what makes it tick, and what interests you about the subject you’ve chosen. Some sub-departments within the institute (I think Egyptology and Chinese Studies are included, but please do check!) also have a reading exercise prepared for the interview: for this, you would be given material half an hour before the interview time to look at and analyse. Then, you’d be asked questions about it (your thoughts and opinions etc) during the interview, as well as questions on your reading, your interests, your personal statement, anything which they consider interesting and worth asking you about! It’s important, if you’re debating a point on which you and your interviewer disagree, to be receptive to their points without changing your stance the minute there is some opposition. Extreme mulishness in a debate is not desirable, but neither is conceding the argument instantaneously without a murmur or question! Oriental Institute tutors (and all tutors, I suspect!) love to see intellectual breadth and flexibility, as well as a willingness to interact intelligently and adapt as your views change, so (as I’ve said with everything) don’t overthink and don’t try to second-guess what they want or what they intend.

For my part, my own department interview took twenty minutes, and as an overly sensitive and jumpy 18 year old, it was a very harrowing experience at the time! However, it doesn’t have to be like that, and it was my own extreme anxiety and slight tendency to melodrama that warped the whole interview experience so much that I was absolutely convinced my tutors were laughing at me and that I was so stupid I would never get in. Obviously this was wrong, and this illustrates my point perfectly – relax, don’t overthink the chat you’re having with your tutors, and use the interviews as an opportunity to get a good impression of what Oxford is like, and whether you’re comfortable with interacting with such a system for three/four years of your life…


I hope that helps, and that I haven’t scared you off too much! Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you need any more help or advice (particularly for Sanskrit), as I understand how it important it is to be reassured at the point of application to Oxford. As a non-white female applicant myself, I was very daunted by all the Oxford myths and the wild stories I’d heard before coming up, so I’d be happy to chat to anyone who has concerns on that score as well 🙂



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