A 2-part series for Oxbridge language applicants
Wider reading is an integral part of the Oxbridge
application process. It demonstrates a genuine interest in the subject you are
applying to study, showing the interviewer that you have gone out of your way –
and out of the curriculum’s way – to explore your own academic interests.
Sometimes, however, “reading around your subject” can seem
like an overwhelming and daunting task. How do you know which books and topics
you will find interesting? How do you know which literary works an Oxbridge interviewer
is going to appreciate? Most importantly, what should you prioritise?
Literature - The Alpha and Omega of Wider Reading
Exploring the literature produced in your target language should generally be the first and last thing you do in terms of Oxbridge application preparation. It is the most important part of Oxford’s Modern & Medieval Languages course, so make sure you give yourself time to explore it.
Many students make the common mistake of resorting to first-year reading lists for inspiration, in a hurried bid to impress their academic interviewers. Yet, in reality this is far from impressive, and such students tend to forget that tutors are obliged to pore over these core texts year upon year, marking hundreds of essays on them each term. Why not refresh your tutor’s enthusiasm for their subject by introducing them to something new?
I would start with a simple Google search for the most renowned authors in that language, then have a look at their works and see if any appeal to you. Reading a little-known text by a well-known author will provide a nice balance for the interviewer between them being familiar with the author and yet still curious about the text. Having said that, you should certainly be aware of the major works and authors related to your target language, and you should understand the significance of their works in relation to the cultural and historical context in which they were writing.
If you want to really impress your interviewer, you could also peruse any texts that influenced the authors whom you enjoyed reading. This highlights that you enjoy academic wormholes, and at the end of the day, that’s all that Oxford is – one big, academic wormhole.
For example, if you’re applying to study Russian and you have read Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (which, as a side note, is a brilliant book), then you could consider reading Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? to gain a broader understanding of the political and philosophical context in which Dostoevsky was writing.
Lastly, if you mention a text in your personal statement, make sure you know it – bluffing will get you nowhere. I recommend memorizing where the author was born (and/or their heritage); when the text was written and published; the historical and political context of the work; and having a working knowledge of the author’s biography. It’s a good idea to make a timeline of all the books you’ve read, so that you know which ones were published before others – this could save you from any embarrassing anachronisms.
History - Better Safe Than Sorry
I myself am not a history buff, but to prepare for my Oxford interviews, I printed off about 20 pages of Russian and Spanish history from Wikipedia, read through it twice and highlighted any important events or people that I should bear in mind.
It is a good idea to know the major historical events relating to the countries in which your target language is spoken, but it’s not absolutely necessary to read multiple books on this unless it’s what you’re interested in. You can generally find a good summary of a country’s history on Wikipedia (just don’t tell your interviewer!) with useful links to topics you may find particularly interesting.
If you end up finding a niche part of the history that you enjoy reading about, then I would suggest finding a more reputable source to pursue that interest further, then try to find literary works which were published around that time by renowned authors and give them a read.
Film, Art & Media - Too Cool for School?
Considering the perceived academic snobbery and bookishness that Oxford is known for, many students feel hesitant to include media and art within their wider reading.
In my opinion, it depends on the film and on the individual. I wouldn’t recommend noting down anything too ‘mainstream,’ like Elite for Spanish, but if the film was significant to a cultural movement, or reflected an era’s social change, then adding it to your personal statement might be a good way to make yourself stand out. You need to be the judge of this, and question ‘is this film politically or socially significant, and if so, why?’
For example, for Spanish you could talk about the filmmaker Luis Buñuel and his role in the Surrealist movement, or Pedro Almodóvar’s films and their significance in an era of post-Franco liberation.
I ended up writing my final year coursework on avant-garde art in 20th-century Spain, commenting on the relationship between plastic arts, poetry and cinema, so it’s certainly not something the interviewers will look down on so long as it is relevant and well-researched.