Before you can fret about not being fluent, there are steps to go through!
Before you can worry about not knowing what the declension of the third person plural polite of such and such a verb in the subjective, you’ll first have to sit the MLAT and go through the interview process.
The MLAT looks like a frightening monster of an exam
Really it’s not so bad, it’s just a look to see roughly where you fall in terms of comprehension. You have to realise that a good mark for a university student is 60%. This is enough. If you open the MLAT paper (we’ve put together some free past papers for you here) and, God forbid, don’t understand a word, just take a step back – they’re not expecting perfection. It’s much more likely that when you look closely, you recognise most of the words and can muster a fairly well thought out translation or solution. The best thing to remember is precision – if you can do most of the paper carefully, without panicking, you’re doing better than most people.
It is unlike any paper you will have done in public exams because it is meant to be tough and fiddly, but you have to remember – they’re not trying to trick you! They just want to find the people who can look at something and think: “Yes, this is how I can work around this problem”.
For example, if you have a sentence in the foreign language and there are a few words you’ve never even heard of floating about, pause and check what you think you know, you do know. Then, go to the verb and try and figure out what tense it is and what it belongs with. Draw lines all over the paper if it will help you to decode and deconstruct the sentence. Equally, for English into the modern language, you have all the power, you can rephrase the sentence. Just remember – it is the sense of the translation that they are asking for – nothing impossible.
The interview is where it’s more exciting.
Nerves are basically expected from all of the professors – they know, they’ve generally seen it all. Think of all the students they’ve ever taught, you’re just part of that group. I think my best piece of advice for the interview is enthusiasm for the subject, and above all else, for reading.
They’ll usually give you a text in the language with a translation before the interview. They don’t expect that you’ll be able to guess who wrote it or what it ultimately means. However, it is very savvy to attempt to situate it; roughly when it was written, what its main idea is, its form, who wrote it. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed if it’s wrong – they’ll be impressed if it’s in the vague ballpark.
Then they’ll probably go on to general literature, maybe what you’ve written in your personal statement. Here’s where you can shine as you can prepare yourself for these questions. You are meant to steer the conversation – you’re the one in control. Finally, they might have a short conversation with you in the language – less than two minutes – just to check you’re not an imposter. Stay calm and know that you’re almost out of there. Just remember to express your love for reading in general, not confined to the foreign language, or the syllabus.
Just stay calm and communicate your enthusiasm – they don’t expect you to have read all the books or know all of the words.