Do You Need To “Read To Succeed” At Oxbridge Language Interviews?

The Oxbridge interview process inspires awe–and fear–in many applicants, but there are a number of accessible and fun ways to prepare for interviews which will help to alleviate your worries and elevate your application from good to excellent.

Sometimes the literary focus of an Oxbridge Medieval and Modern Languages (MML) degree leads applicants to believe that they must read scores of lengthy classics to prepare for their interview. Indeed, reading widely in your subject is helpful to determine whether you would enjoy the structure of an MML degree at Oxford or Cambridge, but it is by no means the only—or most original—way to get interview-ready.

If not books, then what should your preparation revolve around? The answer to this is surprisingly simple and depends largely on the individual: start with what you are curious about. Consider what gets you excited about languages, rather than what will impress your interviewers. The application process is an opportunity to delve deeper into your chosen field and discover where your particular interests lie.

Best language competitions for Oxbridge applicants

One thing that the interview is designed to assess is your ability to communicate competently in your chosen language. The only way to improve this skill is, of course, through practice. As such, it could be worthwhile to participate in an established language-related competition. The Stephen Spender Prize, for example, is a poetry translation initiative linked to Oxford by the Queen’s translation exchange. Simply choose a poem in a language you are learning and translate it as creatively as possible into English. You should also accompany your translation with a commentary of no more than 300 words, where you reflect on the translation process, including pointing out any bits you found particularly difficult and explaining how you came up with the final product.

Entering competitions like these, even if you do not win a prize, shows a desire to engage with your target language outside the school curriculum and to get creative, which is essential for excelling in a humanities degree.

Thinking outside the box: tips and tricks

While externally organised events can provide learning materials, inspiration and incentive, an excellent way to stand out in an interview is to create your own event or project. This shows initiative and can help you to develop other crucial skills along the way, such as organisation, communication, and self-confidence. Language is designed to be used, so try incorporating it into a hobby you already have. For example, if you enjoy theatre, why not start a foreign-language improvisation group at your school? If you like creative writing, why not compose a short story in your native language and self-translate it into a language you are learning, reflecting on the translation process?

You could even start a language learning club among your friends or classmates and a different activity to do each week, whether it be listening to Portuguese pop music, playing a German board game, or trying your hand at writing in the Cyrillic alphabet or in Hangul, the modern Korean writing system. Creating a challenge for yourself, and completing it, will constitute an impressive display of your enthusiasm and self-motivation for language-learning, and will provide plenty of talking points during your interview.

Using the language to learn: some suggestions

Continuing on from the idea of using language authentically, why not combine it with another learning journey? For example, if you are studying particle physics in school, look up some videos in German explaining it, or explore the French version of the CERN website. If you are curious about a certain period of Mexican history, why not find some articles or a podcast in Spanish on the subject? If you are an aspiring polyglot, you could even start learning a new language using a language you have been learning for longer. There is no need to spend hours every day on these activities: completing small chunks consistently will be far more sustainable, and you will find that your natural curiosity will grow as you feed it more engaging material.

Furthermore, to keep up with current affairs both at home and abroad, all while improving your vocabulary and listening skills, try listening to a short news podcast, such as Was Jetzt?. Most music streaming services will have podcasts—and sometimes even free audiobooks—in a number of languages, and it is possible to download apps, such as Radio France, which allow you to listen to other countries’ radio. You could also sign up to the Oxford Polyglot newsletter to explore a range of language-related topics.

A word on literature

Reading literature can, of course, be a valuable habit to incorporate into your interview preparation. If you are keen to read foreign literature for your interview, however, be mindful of what you choose to read. While the most famous novels written in a language are usually well worth a read at some point, they are often overused in applications. L’étranger by Camus is a typical case of this: it is an excellent and relatively easy-to-read classic, but is unlikely to lead to a productive topic of conversation in your interview and will not demonstrate to your interviewers that you have developed your own academic interests. 

Instead, try to dedicate some time to finding more niche texts to read which are related to your interests. This could be a lesser-known novella by a famous author, or a debut novel by a modern writer. Remember that the internet is at your disposal and can help you to narrow down your reading options.

In short, don’t be put off picking up a book, but do make sure that it is something that truly interests you and won’t have already been mentioned thousands of times to your interviewers. In my own interview for French at Oxford, I brought up an author whom neither of the tutors interviewing me had ever heard of, and although I panicked at first, they turned out to be as interested in how I described the author’s work as they were in exactly what I had read. The most important thing, then, is to be original–and be yourself. The tutors are interested in who you are, what you are curious about, and how motivated you are to keep learning. Taking part in a competition or taking part in your own initiative are excellent ways to demonstrate that you have what it takes to succeed at Oxford or Cambridge.

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