Film and Literature: A New Approach To The Personal Statement

Thinking outside the box for the personal statement

‘Standing out’ is often a phrase used when referring to writing a personal statement for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge – but how do you stand out from the sea of Modern Languages applicants? One option that you might not have considered before is watching films. With tutors reading thousands of applications each year commenting on the same texts and authors, writing about films could be an interesting way of standing out in your application. Whilst literature is undoubtedly a very important aspect of Modern Languages degrees at Oxbridge, and therefore it is advisable to cover a good range of texts for the personal statement, you do not have to limit your preparation to literature alone.

Accessing the culture of a country through films 

personal statement: film and literature

Films offer interesting visual perspectives on a country and often vividly depict the country’s social problems. For example, Cidade de Deus, a Brazilian film about gang life in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, portrays the violence in Brazilian society and its effect on young children. Therefore, as film is a more modern art form than literature, you might come across an aspect of society that you haven’t encountered before, broadening your understanding of the countries where your target language is spoken. You can also discuss various aspects of cinematography in your personal statement, demonstrating an ability to explore art forms beyond literature.

How to choose which films to watch

This might seem quite daunting at first as we tend to only watch films in our native language. However, here are a few ways to get started: 

1) The first places to look are the websites of Oxford and Cambridge Universities where you can find information about optional cinema papers studied in Modern Languages degrees. 

2) You could also decide to watch other films by the directors you study for A-Level or you could ask your language teachers at school for any recommendations they have.

3) Another option is to see if there are film adaptations of novels you have already read; this is a good starting point as you could focus more on aspects of the film such as themes and cinematography rather than getting to grips with the plot. Doing this also allows you to make comparisons between how the novel and the film tell the story. 

personal statement - films and books

How to link films with literature in your personal statement

After watching a few films, consider whether you can incorporate them into your personal statement. Here are some possible questions to ask yourself:

1. What are the main themes of the novel and film? Can you link the themes between them? Do they approach one theme (for example, poverty or family relations) in the same way? Why/why not?

2. How effectively does the film depict the characters compared to the novel?

3. If you watch a film adaptation of a novel, does the director change important aspects of the plot? What effect does this have on the reader/viewer?

4. How does the director use sound in the film and how does it add to our perception of the characters?

In my personal statement, I wrote about the film La Nana by Sebastián Silva and the novel Chanson Douce by Leila Slimani.

La Nana tells the story of a Chilean family who mistreat their maid, who repeatedly tries to exert some power and establish her position in the household. Also examining the treatment of nannies in modern day society, Chanson Douce tells the story of the nanny of a parisian couple. Although the novel and the film focus on different aspects of Chilean and French society (as Chanson Douce examines issues of race and motherhood more in depth than La Nana), I was able to draw connections between the portrayals of the position of nannies in society and comment on their treatment by employers.

Studying film during your Modern Languages degree

Both Oxford and Cambridge Modern Languages degrees offer the opportunity to take film/cinema papers; therefore, expressing an interest in both film and in studying these cinema papers can highlight your suitability for – and genuine interest in – the course’s curriculum. Oxford offers courses such as the ‘European Cinema course’, if you study French, and the ‘Brazilian Cinema’ paper for those studying Portuguese. Similarly, Cambridge offers the ‘FR1: Introduction to French literature, film and thought paper’ for students reading French. In addition to the film opportunities offered by the courses in Oxford, the ‘Maison Française’ (a French research centre) puts on several film screenings throughout the year.


Whilst Oxford and Cambridge Modern Languages degrees certainly focus on literature, the opportunities to explore other aspects of language studies, such as film, do exist. Therefore, expressing your interest in films in your personal statement is a great way of demonstrating your enthusiasm for languages and broadening your cultural knowledge of the country where your target language is spoken. 

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