My entire life could have worked out very differently if I had demonstrated greater ability in modern languages. When I applied to University in 1987, my first choice University had something called matriculation requirements (which was another way of saying that in addition to studying English and History at A-level to do a joint degree in English and History, I also had to demonstrate ability in other areas).
Whilst the English and Mathematics GCSE grade C or better didn't prove too much of an obstacle, the need to show some (any!) ability in a modern language proved to be more challenging, not least because I attended school long before the advent of a national curriculum, so at GCSE (or O-level as it was then) I had taken mainly science subjects (because at fourteen I wanted to be a forensic scientist), and only in the Sixth Form had opted to pursue arts and humanities subjects (English, History and Geography) because I decided that journalism was my chosen career path.
Also, because I was rather ignorant of the process (first generation in my family to apply to University, and also a bit too intimidated to actually ask sensible questions of people who might have been in a position to offer good advice) I only learned about the matriculation requirements after I had submitted my UCAS application. Several months and one crash course in German later (on a Wednesday afternoon: at least it got me out of playing sport!) I achieved a D grade, and ended up at my insurance choice University instead (which frankly I loved, and if had my time over again wouldn't change a thing about).
All of which is a very long pre-amble to saying that I was looking forward to today's interviews like I relish a visit to the dentists. I had been invited to sit in on a whole morning (eight interviews) for the joint school of English and Modern Languages. Joint schools admissions interviews are handled a little differently than the single honours subjects, in that the candidate will receive two interviews, one in each subject, at their College. The interviews I observed were for the modern languages bit, and the subject tutors represented both French and German languages.
Prior to the interview the candidates have to submit examples of their coursework which are re-marked by appropriate language specialists at Oxford. This is considered alongside the information on the application form to decide who gets summoned to Oxford. Those who are then invited to interview are asked to report to the College about thirty minutes before the actual interview takes place, and are provided with two pieces of text - one passage in English, and another text from a different source in the appropriate modern language. They are then allowed twenty minutes in supervised conditions to look over the texts and make notes before they go to the interview room. Helpfully the modern language text has some of the more unfamiliar vocabulary and phrases translated.
The format of the interviews was slightly different to that for English. The interviews were scheduled for approximately twenty minutes, with the interviewers spelling out exactly what would happen at the start of each interview. The initial questions were designed to examine that interviewee's motivation and interest in the modern language, and frequent reference was made to their personal statement, particularly any evidence of wider reading in the modern language beyond the requirements of their course. Candidates' approaches to this varied - some had read other works by authors they were studying as part of their A-levels, others used their free time to broaden their knowledge and appreciation of the literature by reading different authors. The interviewers encouraged applicants to compare and contrast styles and genres, and discuss whether this additional reading assisted them in their coursework.
The interview then moved on to the study of the texts. In every case the piece written in English was the first to be discussed (in some cases to the visible relief of the candidate). The selected texts used by the interviewers varied between candidates (and the sheets were collected up at the end of the interview so that the candidates wouldn't be tempted to pass them on to a third party) and covered a wide historical period, from early nineteenth century members of the literary establishment through to Booker-prize shortlisted novelists. Candidates were encouraged initially to discuss the content ("What is this piece about?") with the questions moving onto discussion of language, grammar, syntax and narrative viewpoint. A similar approach was taken with the text in the modern language, although candidates were clearly not penalised if they asked for clarification of words or phrases that they had problems in translating. Stronger candidates were particularly identifiable at this stage - questions and answers were all in English (so even with my less than ideal ability I was able to get the gist of what was going on). The interviewers also asked for the candidates to translate particular parts of the modern language text into English, which identified a candidate's knowledge of both grammar and vocabulary, as well as identifying their aptitude to sight-read the language.
The final part of the interview consisted of a number of questions from the interviewer based on information in the personal statement which were asked in the appropriate modern language, and which the candidate was expected to answer likewise. Again this provided an opportunity to assess a candidate's language fluency and confidence in the spoken language.
The candidates were then given the opportunity to ask questions - most didn't, but as one of the interviewers commented, "You get no Brownie points for this part of the activity."
After the interview the two interviewers consulted and agreed an overall mark out of ten, having recorded their views on a standardised report form. This would then be considered alongside the results of the grammar test (taken tomorrow) and the results of the English Literature subject interview.
After eight interviews I left with a much greater appreciation of both the skills and ability required to study modern languages, and a healthy respect for the interviewers' stamina - before I arrived they had seen a couple of applicants for Classics and Modern Languages, and had an afternoon interviewing History and Modern Languages joint school applicants. Because of the nature of the joint school programmes, all the candidates were asked if they would be interested in only studying a single honours course should that be an option - of those that I observed almost half said "Yes", although others were adamant that it was all or nothing. In all cases they had strong reasons for their preference.
For anyone who wants to find out more about Modern Languages at Oxford, you can visit the very helpful website www.mod-lang.ox.ac.uk (or for those who want to really broaden their horizons with a bit of Arabic, Turkish or Japanese (amongst others) the Oriental Studies site at www.orinst.ox.ac.uk).
Tomorrow, to add a bit of variety to the unrestricted diet of helpful interview advice, I turn my attention to the vexed issue of interior design.