Part 1: Suggested Wider Reading for Oxbridge German Applicants

Your personal statement is crucial for your university application, allowing you to showcase your passion for Modern Languages and stand out from other applicants. Engaging in wider reading and extracurricular activities related to Modern Languages can help make you a competitive candidate.

Literature holds particular importance in Oxbridge universities, so demonstrating an interest in it highlights your ability for independent study and your suitability for the course. During the interview stage, the works mentioned in your personal statement may be used as a starting point for the interviewer to engage you in a critical discussion of literature, so it’s vital not only to have read them but also to possess a critical understanding of these texts. For Oxbridge applicants in German Studies that are wanting to engage with works outside the A-level specification, it may prove to be difficult to mention texts which have substantial literary value and are rarely selected to differentiate yourself. To help set yourself apart, here are some recommended works of prose and poetry along with critical questions to aid your analysis.

If prose and poetry do not particularly interest you, do check out the list of recommended German plays and films for Oxbridge applicants of German studies here.


Der Heizer by Franz Kafka

This short story tells the story of Karl Rossmann – a teenager who arrives in New York to avoid a scandal involving a maid. Whilst getting lost as he looks for his umbrella, he meets the ship’s stoker and later stands up for him as he is facing injustice. Nevertheless, his influential senator uncle overshadows him, and Karl is aware of his own limited influence despite his best attempts. The story explores themes of maturity, otherness, personal identity, and justice.

Including this work in your personal statement would be a fantastic addition as the short story provides a great introduction to Kafka’s distinct use of narrative perspective which operates as the filter between the events unravelling and the reader who is taking in the information. Kafka himself is known as one of the most famous modernist writers, whose works – which explore the human condition accompanied by a distinct sense of unease and existential anxiety – still resonate with readers today; his impact on the world literary canon in both literary and philosophical terms makes him an exciting author too significant to miss.

Critical questions:

  • What role does Karl’s family play in Der Heizer?
      • Consider the role of Senator Edward Jakob in Karl’s predicament
      • Consider the relationship between Karl and his parents; his parents are never physically present in the short story, yet they seem to influence parts of Karl’s behaviour
  • How does the narrative perspective operate in Der Heizer?
      • How helpful is the narrative perspective in Der Heizer in understanding the events in the story e.g. the scandal regarding Karl and the maid?
      • How does the narrator present the characters’ own personal views? It may be helpful to analyse the scenes onwards from when Karl climbs into the boat at the end.

Schachnovelle by Stefan Zweig

In this novella, passengers (including the anonymous narrator) challenge chess champion Mirko Czentovic to a game of chess. Dr B., who has a past chess addiction that still haunts him, rescues the group from losing a second game. However, he runs the risk of relapsing into his former obsession by playing against Czentovic. Ultimately, Dr B. resigns with the narrator’s intervention, acknowledging the danger. The novella explores themes of obsession, conflict, status, and power.

This work would be an excellent addition to your personal statement as it really challenges you to consider the role of the narrator. A unique feature of this novella is how involved the narrator is in the story; to present the events that unfold is one matter, but to have an active role in determining what events unfold is another. Moreover, the novella may lead you to research a little bit about the Anschluss – the event that would later drastically impact Dr B’s life.

Critical questions:

  • What is the significance of chess in Schachnovelle?
      • The chess games are not described in detail
      • Consider chess in terms of the psychological aspects of its gameplay. It may be helpful to analyse the chess game between Dr B. and Czentovic
      • Consider chess in relation to the theme of status and power regarding Czentovic and Dr B. How has chess contributed towards their lives?
  • What is the role of the narrator in Schachnovelle?
      • The narrator is not only a character in the novella, but they play an active role in the story. How does this impact your reading of the novella?
      • Consider the relationship between Dr B. and the narrator. There is a distinct level of trust and reliability between the two characters that is unique to any of the relationships in the novella.


Duineser Elegien by Rainer Maria Rilke

This poetry collection consists of 10 elegies; these deeply mystical and religious poems examine the relationship between humanity and the divine as well as the poet’s inner conflict. Despite the melancholic undertones, it could be argued that these elegies have a positivity about them. Rilke’s words regarding the themes of love, divinity, and the human condition that are presented here still have an impact on pop culture and numerous artistic mediums today.

Aside from the massive cultural and artistic impact that this poetry collection has had in the past up to the present day, this collection would make an exceptional contribution to your personal statement as it introduces you to one of the most significant poets known in the German literary canon. Whilst the collection showcases Rilke’s gift for densely lyrical and evocative language, the philosophical depth and the rich, vivid symbols in the collection explore the collection’s religious and mystical themes with a dazzling flair.

Critical questions:

  • What role does the symbolism of angels play in the collection?
      • It is debatable whether the symbolism of angels used in the collection is conventional when compared to Christian interpretations. How do these Christian interpretations inform your reading of the collection?
  • What is the significance of love in the collection?
      • Consider the gender roles that are presented. How do the similarities and/or differences between these roles interact with each other?
      • Are the depictions of love observations or idealisations?

Die Sonette an Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke

This cycle of 55 sonnets showcases the lyrical and metaphorical intensity that is characteristic of Rilke’s works. Written in just three weeks, Rilke’s poetic tribute to the late Wera Ouckama Knoop, his daughter’s friend, reveals a profound connection to the power of memory and loss.

This piece is highly recommended for inclusion in your personal statement as it serves to be another fantastic introduction to the great poet, Rilke. He spent his poetic career in search of a unity that he believed was lost by the modern man– one capable of embracing both life and death; the earthly and the ethereal. In many ways, this lyrically beautiful collection is reflective of his search, delving into the realm of mythology and exploring philosophical concepts in search of an answer.

Critical questions:

  • How strongly is Wera’s presence felt within the collection and how is she presented in the collection?
      • She appears as a character in only one of the sonnets
      • She is both directly mentioned by name as well as indirectly referenced as a dancer or the mythical figure, Eurydice
  • What role do the mythological and religious references play in the collection?
      • Consider the biblical allusion to Esau
      • Consider the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice
      • Reading a little about Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Georgics may prove to be useful in relation to these references
  • What is the significance of the sonnet form in the collection and what tensions between form and content/literary devices can you identify?


The process of choosing what to read as part of your wider reading can be vast and difficult, but the most crucial thing is that you read broadly and diversely, engaging with different authors, genres, and literary forms. Additionally, it is essential that you have a fundamental understanding of the works that you have read since this understanding will serve as a foundation for your critical analysis, which is in many ways of greater value in your interviews.  Oxbridge tutors and interviewers will be interested in what works you have read as well as what you already know, but they will also want to know what and how you think when presented with new information or literary works. Whilst they are interested in you reading the works independently as a sign of your commitment and tenacity, they are also keen to see how you engage with these works critically.

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