Some of the advice here will be mirrored in the general PS writing guidance as well, particularly in the extra curricular section and the style advice.
Start writing your personal statement early as many people will get through a huge number of drafts before they are happy with their PS. This is the general format for a PS and some good advice (you don't have to use this format, just make sure you include all the sections).
Languages statements can be tricky to write, for several reasons. It can be easy to get lost trying to include two or even three languages, while demonstrating your enthusiasm for their corresponding cultures - without lapsing into clichés about your passion for French baguettes or German efficiency. It can also be difficult to express exactly what it is you love about studying languages: it might be that you have a genuine burning desire to unite the world by crossing the boundaries of communication, but it’s very difficult to write that down without sounding ridiculous. The following guide is written to help you find a way through the confusion and avoid some common pitfalls.
As for all personal statements, structure is extremely important – especially for languages statements where you may feel like you’ve got too many elements to juggle. This makes it all the more important that your structure is clear, and that you know what you are aiming to achieve with each paragraph. If you want, you can stick to the general advice given on the PS Help wiki article, but an example of a structure tailored to a languages PS might be as follows:
Here you need to sum up concisely why you want to study your language(s). It’s here you might be tempted to start talking about how you want to study languages to break down all the barriers in the world, or to say extremely general things about how without language none of us would be able to communicate. Avoid this! It sounds really cheesy and everyone will say it. Instead, use a specific example of something that sums up your interest which will make you stand out - a book, a film, a festival which got you hooked. Make it recent and serious, though - don’t tell a cute story about how you got interested in languages when you were six and saw the word ‘bonjour’ on a sign in Calais. If you’re doing two languages, make sure you mention them both from the beginning and keep this up.
Paragraph 2: Reading/Culture
You want to get straight into showing your interest in your languages and the culture of their countries. Use this paragraph to show off what you’ve read, seen and listened to. Look at the syllabuses of the places you want to apply to: if lots of the modules include literature – which will be the case for Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities - you’ll need to show evidence of ‘serious’ reading in the foreign language (novels, plays or poetry beyond your A-level or IB syllabus). If you haven’t applied to courses with a big literature component, you can put more of an emphasis on films, music or even festivals here. Whatever you discuss, you’ll need to show that you can understand and respond to it, and show the reader what you got from it. Be analytical: don’t just give plot details. And remember it’s much better to mention a few authors/works and discuss them well than name-drop hundreds without analysing them.
Paragraph 3: Language Skills
You should demonstrate what you do to keep up your proficiency in speaking, reading, writing and listening. Do you listen to the French/German/Spanish/Italian news online? (If not, you should!). Do you have a pen-pal or read foreign language magazines? Here would also be a good place to mention any time you spent in the country, such as school exchanges – make sure you’re specific about what you got from the experience. Showing the effort you go to to polish your language skills is important for all languages, but particularly if you’re applying for languages like Japanese or Mandarin which aren’t commonly taught in schools and which have particular challenges (like foreign character systems).
Paragraph 4: Relevant Extracurriculars/Other A-Level or IB Subjects
If you help out at your school French club/run the Italian society/helped organise a trip to Tokyo, here is the place to put it. You can also put here how your other A-level or IB subjects relate to your degree choice, if they do. Good ones here would be English language or literature, history, or other essay subjects (maybe you have an interest in German history or Spanish politics which you could mention?). Don’t bother trying to link things like maths – lots of people try and make a link from maths via analytical thinking to grammar, but this comes across as very tenuous.
Paragraph 5: Other Extracurriculars + Conclusion
Here you can include any extracurricular activities not related to languages, and then round off with a snappy conclusion which tells the reader why you’d make an excellent languages candidate. Again – make sure you avoid cheese related to transcending boundaries of communication.
Note: This structure can be amended depending on your particular interests, and depending on the type of languages courses you’re applying to. If you’re applying to literature-heavy courses, you may want to talk more about literature at the expense of extracurriculars. If you’re applying to courses where the focus is more on practical communication methods, you can talk more about your experiences with language. If you’re applying to a mix of both, or courses which seem to be in the middle of those two, this structure will provide a good balance.
The following are important to take into consideration:
- Proofread carefully and be sure to spell all foreign-language terms, such as book titles, correctly. BUT bear in mind that UCAS will not support foreign characters (even fairly common ones such as é). For German terms, you can use alternative spellings to avoid them (so replace ö, ü, and ä with oe, ue and ae respectively).
- Don’t make sweeping generalisations about whole cultures. You can say that the German film Goodbye Lenin is an example of German film attempting to tackle Germany’s difficult political past with humour, but you shouldn’t say that all German films do this, or try and infer anything about the whole of the German psyche.
- In general, and especially for universities which interview, don’t mention books that you haven’t read, or say that you ‘intend’ to read them. If you absolutely have to do this, make sure you actually read the book you say you’ve read before the interview!
- If you’ve spent time abroad in the relevant countries, brilliant – but make sure you discuss it intelligently, the admissions tutors don’t want to hear about how great your holiday was. Talk about how your linguistic competency improved and what you learnt specifically from your experience about the country (i.e. the French school system or how a German company operates) – you didn’t go to Italy and come back knowing everythingabout Italian culture.
- If you haven’t spent much (or any) time in the relevant countries, don’t panic. Admissions tutors will understand that not everyone has the finances or the opportunity to go abroad, particularly to more far-flung countries. If there are specific reasons why you haven’t been abroad and you want your admissions tutors to know about these (e.g. family circumstances, illness or finances), you could ask your referee to put them in your reference, but this isn’t necessary. Whatever you do, don’t dwell on it on your PS, or start sentences with ‘Although I haven’t been to Spain…’. Just focus on what you have done and be positive!
- The year abroad is a really important part of a languages degree, and for many people it’s the highlight. However, you shouldn’t go on too much about your enthusiasm for it or mention plans for it in your statement. Firstly, it’s way too early for that, and you’ll probably change your mind a hundred times, and secondly you don’t want to look as if you’re just in it for the holiday. Similarly, you might want to live abroad after your degree, but don’t make it sound as if your only reason for learning French is so that you can go and set up a bakery on the banks of the Seine.
- Don’t go on about how rubbish British culture is compared to another country’s, and how you want to study other countries because you’re bored of your own. You may think this makes you sound exceptionally passionate, but it’s actually a really common thing to do and won’t make you stand out. Admissions tutors aren't looking for you to prove to them how good French culture is – they already know. You need to prove to them how good you are.
- Many people get told by their schools to include quotes to be ‘eye-catching’. The truth is that so many people now use quotes that it’s not eye-catching at all, so there’s no need for it. Following on from this, especially don’t quote in the language you’re applying for. If you made a grammatical mistake it’d look really bad, and our PS help reviewers (and anyone else checking your statement) won’t necessarily speak that language to be able to check it properly.
- Finally, most of all, do not use the quote ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’ by Wittgenstein. If I had a euro for every time I’ve seen this quote in a personal statement I’d be able to solve the Eurozone debt crisis. Don’t do it. Not only is it used by absolutely everyone, it’s also really not a very useful quote to discuss. Can you actually prove that the limits of language are the limits of the world? Are you an expert in theories of linguistic determinism? No, me neither, so it’s best just to avoid that quote.
- In general, be careful with all grandiose statements about what language ‘is’. Sure, language is extremely important and we’d be pretty stuffed without it, but this is a pretty obvious observation. Instead, concentrate on selling yourself as a candidate!
Keep your sentences varied - don't start all your paragraphs/sentences with the same format (e.g. 'I did X/I did Y' or 'My A Level in...'/'My studies of...'), as it doesn't flow very well and sounds very boring. Also, one sentence (or even two) do not make a paragraph!
Don't have any sentences that put yourself down. Even if you try to turn it round, it's better not to say anything negative to start with.
You are writing formally. “Can’t” should be “cannot”, “Doesn’t” should be “does not”, etc. Do not include digit numbers, write them out unless they're three digits or more. "I did two weeks..." not "I did 2 weeks". Do not include brackets- (...), they are too informal. Be careful not to miss out words like "have", "I", and "that", like most people do in spoken language. It is safer not to use exclamation marks at all. Look up 'how to use commas and semi-colons'. Spelling and grammar can make or break a PS.
Some words and phrases are extremely cliché: Passion, fascination, love, aspiration, intrigued by, broadened my knowledge, enhanced my skill, affirmed/confirmed my decision. Use these words with caution. If you're using alternatives, be careful not to sound like a thesaurus.
Using phrases such as "quenched my thirst for" or "sparked up my interest" also don't read anywhere near as well as you think they do.
There's a tendency to use "also" all the time, when it's not needed. Be concise! Unnecessary linking words like "Futhermore" and "As a result" get used too often. A few of them are OK, but only a few. Remember to use commas after these linking words and phrases.
Don't use complex words in extremely long and convoluted sentences. People lose interest (and it makes you look somewhat pompous). Keep it short and make it flow.
Capital letters: NOT needed for subject names, economist, secondary school, etc. Be careful where you use them.
Good luck/Bonne chance/Viel Glück!
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