Personal statement advice: modern languages

Applying for French, Spanish, German, or another modern or combined languages degree? Read on for some expert pointers from admissions tutors.

Focus on the courses you're applying for

The advice from Dr Helen Swift at University of Oxford is to think carefully about what kind of language courses you’re applying for, and focus your personal statement accordingly:
‘What you give as evidence of your engagement with the subject will depend significantly on the nature of the course for which you've applied. Is there, for instance, a large portion of linguistics? Is it applied languages? Does the course offer a broad, interdisciplinary approach to cultural study? Or is there a strong literature component? The more relevant the evidence and how you discuss it, the stronger the statement.’ Dr Helen Swift, Admissions Tutor – University of Oxford

Your cultural engagement

If you’re applying for modern languages courses that involve studying cultural as well as linguistic elements, then every uni we heard from stressed the importance of reflecting on your own cultural engagement with countries where the language is spoken:

  • ‘We like to see evidence of your enthusiasm for, and immersion in, the language(s) outside of your A level studies. This might include time spent in the country, exchange activities, reading the press or books in the target language, watching films, etc.’ (Dr Lucy Bell, University of Surrey)
  • ‘We would like to know how you have been able to engage with different cultures and communities, and your thoughts on the cultures, histories, or politics of the societies where the languages of study are spoken.’ (Irina Nelson, University of Southampton)

Dr Swift at Oxford explains how your ‘cultural engagement’ can be demonstrated in various ways. 'Doing simple things that are readily available to you via the internet, like reading short stories, following a blog, watching a documentary, or listening to French radio can be extremely valuable if you show what you got out of them. Take advantage of any opportunities available to you. But what's crucial is what you got out of the experience.'

And what you gained from it

What matters isn't so much what or how much you've done, but what you learned from it and how you present this evidence in your statement.

Simply saying you’ve travelled or worked abroad won’t do – it's only when you explain what you gained from it that it starts to support your application. What tutors don’t want is a list of facts about the country, things you've done, or books you’ve read, without explaining how this has expanded your personal experience.

‘Try to string together your evidence of cultural engagement to show some development of interest. For example, if you watched a certain film, did you then watch another by the same director, and how would you compare them? Or, if the film was based on a book, did it prompt you to read it, and think about issues of cinematic adaptation? Or, if you're applying for two languages, did you watch something in the other language on a similar theme?’ Dr Helen Swift, Admissions Tutor – University of Oxford

What else to include

  • An honest opinion: Dr Swift advises to 'always be honest in your response to whatever you've read, watched or listened to. If you didn't particularly enjoy Camu's L'Etranger, for instance, don't say that you did.'
  • Your voice: 'Nelson Mandela and Wittgenstein both said interesting things about language, but I think it's really not worth giving over some of the precious 4000 characters to someone else's words.' If you do refer to a quotation, it must be more substantial than 'I think X was quite right in that view.'
  • Talk about extra-curricular activities: include mentions of voluntary work, how you help younger pupils, or what you're learning from the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) if you’re doing one.

Starting a language from scratch?

If your chosen courses include a language you haven’t previously studied at an advanced level, then Dr Davies at Aberystwyth University advises that you should indicate what makes you feel that you’re likely to be successful. For example, describe your experience of studying it at GCSE, evening class, or any other way you’ve engaged with it.

We had further advice from Oxford on how to demonstrate motivation and commitment to a culture and language you haven’t studied before: 'get to know some of that culture’s literature in English translation, or watching films with subtitles. For beginners' courses, we are particularly interested in the connection to the particular language area and what has motivated you to think about that culture above other beginners’ options available.'

So a good way to focus this would be to not only answer the question ‘why do I want to study a new language at university?’ but rather 'why this new language and particular culture?'