Oxbridge Modern Languages Interviews – A Practical Guide
Applying to read languages at Oxbridge may seem a daunting process, but this article will provide you with a few important tips that should stand you in good stead.
First of all, it’s worth remembering that Oxbridge language degrees (especially at Oxford) are heavily literature based. In most cases, literature modules will end up comprising 50% or more of your course, and it is this aspect of the degree that your interviewer is most likely to concentrate on. It is therefore essential that you do some reading in your relevant language prior to interview. Remember, the emphasis here is on quality not quantity, and you will have to be able to talk intelligently about the books you have read.
As a rough guide, I recommend reading around 4 substantial works in both of the subjects you have applied for. If you are doing single honours, then you may want to read a little more extensively in your sole subject. Try to vary between genres, and read a couple of plays or some poetry alongside a few well-known (or less well-known) novels in your language’s literary canon. Remember to do/plan at least some of your reading in advance, so that you can include your interests in your personal statement.
Personally, I advise reading in translation at this level, although you will, of course, be expected to start reading in the original once you begin your degree. In my experience, even the best A-level or IB student is not going to have what it takes to wade through Crime and Punishment in the original Russian. If your interviewer asks whether you have read anything in your target language, be realistic. You can always say that you have read one or two books in the original with the help of an English translation. You should be able to find many dual-language editions of famous, foreign literary works which will help you actually do this.
Another tip is to try and dip into a small amount of literary criticism on the works that you have read. This will help orientate your own opinions, and will give you something sensible to fall back on if you get stuck at interview. Don’t get too bogged down though, and make sure what you are reading is of good quality. You might try searching for secondary reading lists online, or ask your English teacher for help.
On the day, you will almost certainly be given an unseen literary text to analyse. I was given an extract from Sartre’s autobiography Les Mots, and a piece of modernist Russian poetry. There is not much you can do to prepare for this part of the interview, although in general the key is not to panic; your interviewer will likely guide you through any parts of the passage you don’t understand. Any skills that you have picked up from studying English Literature will be useful here, and the usual Oxbridge rules apply: your interviewer is looking for someone who is engaged with their subject and who they would enjoy teaching. Don’t be afraid to express your opinions and demonstrate your sensitivity towards the text.
Finally, you will also be given a written test in your subject(s) before interview. Specimen papers are available online for both Oxford and Cambridge. The exact test will depend on whether you have studied the language in question to A-level/IB, or whether you are beginning ab initio, as well as on the university. Post A-level/IB Oxford Language tests tend to be largely grammar-based and are more predictable than their Cambridge counterparts, so are definitely worth practicing. Remember, candidates applying from a public or private school background will generally be expected to achieve higher scores.