Oxford Demystified - French and SpanishWatch
I study French and Spanish at Merton College, Oxford. I was home educated until I was 16, then I took A levels in French, Spanish and English Literature at a state sixth form college. I love reading and music. I also have mild dyspraxia, which I mention in order to reassure anyone with a specific learning difficulty who is looking at Oxford that it is definitely possible.
Why did you want to study your chosen subjects?
I have enjoyed reading for pretty much as long as I can remember, and once I found out about literature in other languages, the natural extension of my reading in English seemed to be trying to read in French and Spanish. As I worked towards this goal, I became more and more interested in the ways in which different translations could affect a text (a childhood example was the differences between the version of Heidi my mum read to me and the version I was given to read for myself). This made me more determined to study languages so that I could form my own opinions on literature from other countries, unfiltered by the influence of translators, and at the same time my fascination with translation meant that I wanted to study that skill for myself. During A level English Literature, I became very interested in views of colonisation and post-colonial literature, and I was excited to study this within the Francophone sphere as well as the Anglophone context. In addition, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I love talking, so the more people I can communicate with, the better!
I was initially very torn between Oxford and Cambridge. Cambridge (like many other universities) offers a more flexible course for Modern Languages, and at this stage I was still debating whether to keep both my languages from A level or whether to pick up a new one. I was also worried about support on the year abroad, which seems to be advertised much more prominently at universities such as Nottingham. However, the Oxford course was very focused on literature, rather than having (for example) film or the visual arts modules (at least in first year), and it was literature that really drew me to the subject. Moreover, I felt more at home in the city of Oxford when I visited with my school than I did in Cambridge.
Did any teacher (or other expert)inspire you?
My main French teacher until I was 16 (my parents don’t speak French so I had an hour’s lesson each week on top of home education to make sure I had a varied curriculum) taught me well beyond the GCSE syllabus, inspiring me to go further with my studies. She helped me to read my first novels in French (Le Cheval Sans Tête and No et Moi), encouraged me to pursue my interest in translation, and perhaps most importantly, repeatedly told me that my language abilities meant I should consider studying it at a higher level.
Which resources did you use/French and Spanish books did you read?
• some poems from Federico García Lorca’s Romancero Gitano
• Four or five short stories from the Penguin Short Stories in Spanish
• The first act, plot summary, and key scenes from Calderón’s La Vida es Sueño (this was the result of a pre-interview panic that I hadn’t read enough, and it was very useful)
• My A level text, Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua Para Chocolate, although by interviews we hadn’t started studying it properly in class, which I made sure to mention in the interview as this meant I had done all my independent reading without any formal teaching in Spanish literature.
• The film También la lluvia, which I watched on a school trip and followed up with independent research on the topic and era.
French: (as well as the texts mentioned above)
• Sébastien Japrisot’s La Passion des Femmes
• Molière’s Le Tartuffe
• The films Les Choristes, Entre Les Murs, and Être et Avoir, the first of which I studied for A level, and the others were to follow up my interest in the portrayal of the French education system
• A chapter on educational inequalities from a French book on popular sociology that I can no longer find (sorry!)
Which did you like best, and why? What did they teach you?
My favourites were the García Lorca and the Molière. The García Lorca was just extremely beautiful poetry; even though I didn’t understand all of it I loved reading it aloud for the rhythms of the Romance (ballad) form. Le Tartuffe is a comedic play, and from watching it on youtube and trying to act bits out with other students at a Villiers Park residential, I learnt that even texts that can appear bizarre and outdated with their strict verse and rhyme schemes can make observations on humanity that continue to be relevant, as well as being very funny.
Did you attend any lectures or take part in any competitions? If so, would you recommend them and why?
I didn’t attend any lectures. I did enter the Newnham Essay competition, as the question for that year was on whether or not the work of a translator could be replaced by artificial intelligence, which caught my interest. I would recommend doing an essay competition or two, especially if you don’t take any A level subjects requiring extended essay writing (like the coursework for English Literature), as it helped me to practice skills in research, organising my argument, writing, and referencing, all of which have since come in handy on my course. It was also useful for my personal statement, even though I didn’t win.
Did you have any work experience? If so, how did you find it?
I didn’t do any work experience as such, but I did participate in a French exchange in year 12. This was extremely valuable as it was my first time in France, and it allowed me to experience a bit of the French education system (one of my main interests at the time) for myself. I also went on a French residential with the Villiers Park trust, which gave me the chance to spend time with other people who wanted to study French at a higher level and the opportunity to explore various different areas of language study.
Did you have a specialist subject/EPQ? What was it? How did you go about your research?
I chose not to take an EPQ, as I wanted to work on a music qualification instead and decided I wouldn’t have time for both. However, I did have two particular areas of interest, one in translation and interpreting, and the other, as mentioned above, in the French education system. Within these areas I found books and articles online and in my college library (www.persee.fr was particularly useful for sociological articles) and I tried to keep up with recent developments by following the French and Spanish news in these areas. I kept a notebook specifically for noting reading, impressions, useful websites and things to do.
What did you mention in your personal statement and why?
I organised my (extremely cringy!) personal statement around my interest in translation, linking in a lot of the books and activities I’ve already mentioned to create a thread of common interest. The majority of my personal statement was focused on my supercurricular activities (reading, essay writing, translating news articles and so on). Towards the end I briefly mentioned my volunteer work with children and my musical activities, taking care to make them relevant by emphasising their impact on my listening and communication skills
What techniques did you use for the entrance test?
The MLAT is a test of grammar and translation, so I did a lot of work to consolidate my learning after year 12, and I got a grammar textbook out of the library to teach myself year 13 topics such as the subjunctive. I also remember learning a lot about French prepositions for some reason. The past papers are available online, so I practiced a few and asked my teachers to mark them. One thing I would have improved in my preparation was to have revised everyday vocabulary as well as the literary words – I came unstuck on sentences about sweeping the floor and opening the garden gate!
How did you choose your college? Did you go to an open day, and if so, did it help you to decide?
Before I went to the open day, I made a list of features I wanted my chosen college to have. These included kitchens suitable for self-catering, a pay-as-you-go meal system in Hall, some green space (not hard to find at Oxford!), and an easily understandable system for choosing rooms. Most colleges offer languages, but I had to check this too. I even made a list of colleges to visit. Funnily enough, Merton was not on the list, but when I saw they were offering free ice cream on a very hot open day, I wandered in to have a look. The ice cream was questionable, but the student helpers were extremely friendly and seemed genuinely excited to be able to match me to a guide studying languages, who answered lots of questions. The college itself, I quickly realised, was beautiful: fragrant lavender beds and 700-year-old quads, what more could I want? The food provision (obviously very important to me!) fitted the requirements, and I came out determined that not only was I applying to Oxford, I was applying to Merton, and no amount of teasing that it was “where fun went to die” was going to convince me otherwise.
How did you find the interview process? (no actual interview questions, please!)
To be quite honest, I was terrified beforehand. However, I think in retrospect the most difficult part of the whole process was finding my way back to the train station once I had been released (not easy at all for a stressed-out dyspraxic brain in a new city!). The college provides accommodation and food for the interview period, so I took the train down the night before, and I had two interviews, one on each day. The third day was spent anxiously waiting around to see if I had been pooled to any other colleges, until I was released early which obviously convinced me I hadn’t got in. I quite enjoyed the French interview, the interviewer was really friendly and engaging, as if he cared about my point of view. I found the Spanish interview harder and more intimidating, but in reality, both tutors are great now I’ve got them full time.
Can you give us any tips?
Make sure you know what’s on your personal statement and that you can talk in detail about all the books you’ve mentioned, as well as reading some more related books so that you can develop the discussion. Take a copy of your personal statement and your notes on your reading with you so you can look over it the night before. Practice reading different sorts of texts (prose, poetry, news articles), in both your target language(s) and English, as they are quite likely to ask you to show your literary analysis, either by giving you pre-reading in a preparation window, or on the spot during the interview itself. I practised discussing poems with a friend applying for English. In the interview itself, stay calm and take your time to answer. If you really don’t understand the question, say so, don’t just guess! Remember that they want to see how you learn and how you think and engage with the discussion, not just what you know already.
Did you join in with the socialising during the interview period? How did you find it?
I didn’t take part in any of the organised evening activities (the student helpers put on events like film nights or quizzes) because I preferred looking over my reading and my personal statement and having an early night. I did spend a lot of time in the JCR (junior common room), to make sure I was checking the noticeboard regularly for any changes to interview times, and while most of the people I chatted to didn’t get in, one turned up in my Spanish class and another became one of my best friends when we recognised each other in Fresher’s week, so it’s definitely worth being friendly if you feel up to it.
How did you feel after the interview?
After my French interview, I was initially quite pleased and relieved as I thought it had gone okay. After the Spanish interview I was completely convinced that I’d failed, and that if they let me in at all it would be for French sole. By the time I got home (four delayed and confusing trains later) I thought I’d had no chance, but there was still a tiny spark of hope that miraculously I could get an offer. I tried to forget about it over Christmas.
Where were you when you got your offer? What was your reaction?
I was in the library at sixth form college with a friend, refreshing UCAS Track over and over again until the sentence “you have received a decision from 5 out of 5 choices” came up. I was really scared because on my way out of class I’d met one of the other applicants for languages, who’d been rejected. I refused to scroll down to see whether I had an offer or not, my friend had to do it for me while I closed my eyes! When I finally looked, I couldn’t believe it and I almost started crying. Then I rang my mum and my sister, who promptly told everyone else. Despite all the subsequent emails and letters from the college, and even the reading list, it didn’t seem real until I got my A level results in the summer, and even then it was bizarre to think that I was truly going to study at this incredible university.
Did Oxford live up to your expectations? What do you think to your subject/social life at Oxford?
Oxford has certainly lived up to my expectations so far, as well as giving me experiences that I definitely didn’t expect. I like having a variety of tutors - studying two languages means that I have two sets of tutors for literature, translation, grammar, and oral classes, as well as lecturers, so I actually have more teachers and a more varied input than in sixth form. The workload for dual language is heavy, with an essay a week in first year as well as work in prose translation and grammar, and preparation for oral classes, but it is doable. I’ve been able to develop existing interests and discover new ones.
Socially, the college community helps a lot with making friends, as you’re living together with lots of other people, and it’s easier to meet people within a small group class or tutorial. I have close friends studying a variety of subjects, and we like to cook together or hang out with some crisps and a good film. I know that if I ever need help in an emergency (or even if I’ve just locked myself out….again!) I can knock on a friend’s door or give them a ring at any time of night and they’ll be there for me. BOPs (college parties like school discos but better, with fancy dress) are good fun too, and much cheaper than a night out. Or so I’m told – unlike the stereotypical uni student, I’ve only been to a club once and hated it! Whether you’re into clubbing and drinking, or you’re more of a cup of tea and a natter kind of person, you’ll find a group of people like you. The college family system is also worth noting: you will be allocated college “parents”, one of which will be studying your subject in the year above, and a college “sibling”. My college parents were very welcoming and helped me with things like prioritising the reading list before I arrived, and I still ask them for help even now. I also have a kind of adopted “college grandma”, a lovely friend in her third year who I met through a society, and who has helped me a lot.
Unfortunately the tag didn't work and I wasn't expecting it yet, so it was a lovely surprise!
It's amazing how often luck seems to play its part in many of the chapters submitted. Who would have guessed that indifferent ice cream could lead you to one of the most beautiful colleges in Oxford!
I am so pleased that you love Moliere (sorry I still haven't mastered where the French accents are). I am a French graduate and studied Moliere for my thesis. Hand on heart, I have never seen anything more hilarious than Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme enacted by the Comedie Francaise (available on film)
An important point you make is grammar, grammar, grammar for the MLAT. And a good call for that vocabulary is (in my opinion) Osborne first 1,000 in (German, French, Spanish - take your pick). I bet it's got "broom" in there, and "gate". My son had a similar problem with "saucepan" in German - that would have been on the Kitchen page.
Also I have heard of Villiers Park. Is that near Cambridge, and for state school students?
Worth checking out if you want to take part in a worthwhile scheme.
I know you are a very busy person, so thanks for taking the time out to write this chapter, and to tell us about how wonderful Oxford university is.
No problem Oxford Mum, outreach/ access stuff has become my favourite form of procrastination recently! Yes Villiers Park is a scheme for state school students with its residential courses at a centre near Cambridge. It has longer programmes for VP scholars for people from disadvantaged areas I think, I just did a one off course that my school referred me to. Definitely worth looking into for all subjects
Applicants, please see below a link to my chapter about schemes for state schools
French interview youtube
A youtube video by the legend that is Helen Swift:
Hey, I really appreciate this chapter, very insightful. I know I’m late to the party but if you don’t mind, I’d just like to ask what were your predicted grades at a level?
Np, glad you found it useful! My predicted grades were three A*s, although my Spanish teacher originally gave me an A as she didn't usually predict A*s, and when she changed it I had to argue with my form tutor bc he thought she only did it to please me lol. I got what I was predicted, so I proved him wrong 😂
Honestly I don’t understand how people get A*s in languages. It’s just so subjective. I’m sitting here with 3As predicted just hoping I can get an interview and talk about my passion for my subjects more. But then I’m scrolling through the 2021 admission thread and some other oxford modern language admissions forums from the previous years, and everyone’s getting straight 9s at GCSE and straight A* predictions and in truth I just have no chance up against all these intellects.
Well obviously people do get A* s bc otherwise they wouldn't exist! But I was exactly in the grade boundary for my Spanish, so it's not a guarantee, which is why Cambridge is more of a gamble post-offer. Don't worry about it, as you say it's subjective, which is why they only ask for 3 As. Your best bet is to prepare well for the MLAT bc everyone except the bottom 20% of people who take it gets an interview. You might get in, you might not - either way all the work will be really good for your language development in general. Re your passion for the subject, make sure you show not tell: it's taken as read that you love the subject, so you have to demonstrate that by being able to talk about your own reading and research and the tasks they give you. Good luck!
Jack. My son got in for Oxford German with only 3 a* (9s). He also didn’t get an a* for German either. He got it for English. I saw someone on tsr stalking page going for French and German with a clean sweep of a*s and five a* predicted but she failed to get in. My son is a perfect example of why you shouldn’t despair. Plus you only need aaa to get in. What is most important is that you are great at literature and not bad at the language side