This is Henry’s experience of a Merton College Oxford languages interview in 2012 – if you’re applying for Languages at Oxford then this will be a great indicator to what you need to think about when it comes to your languages interview.
I had two Merton College Oxford languages interviews – one for Classics and one for French, both in Merton College, Oxford, on consecutive days in the first week of December.
Both interviews were casual, lasted 25 minutes and were between me and two tutors. My French interview was with the French tutor and the Spanish tutor/head of modern languages at the college, and the Classics interview was with the Latin tutor and an Ancient History tutor.
For the French interview, I was given a poem in English 20 minutes beforehand and told to read, annotate, and think about it.
The French interview started with a detailed 10-15 min discussion of the poem – they were keen to see what i made of some of the more ambiguous metaphors, and gave me hints when i hadn’t been able to form conclusions by myself, to see how i was able to work with new ideas. They asked me about any messages the poem might convey, then the conversation drifted briefly to what I had read in French, and if there were any links between that and the poem in front of me.
After this, there was a short conversation in French – simple stuff about where I had been in France and what I thought about the culture. I think the process as a whole was designed to level the playing field, and assess our potential rather than evaluate how much knowledge we already had.
The Classics interview was much more focused on my personal statement, and discussion often revolved around the implications of a given text for its contemporary audience/readers. They asked me to draw comparisons between quite different plays and texts of different genres to see what connections I was able to make. Then, if i remember correctly, the discussion moved on to the nature of different genres in general, what are the aims of tragedy etc.
Both sets of tutors were very friendly and put me at my ease, but I found myself more out of my depth in the Classics interview, partly because a lot of that depended on recall which I found difficult under the pressure. Make sure you know your texts inside out!
I hoped I might get a poem to translate and analyse for the Classics interview too, as that’s where my strengths lay (and I knew that some colleges did this), but instead it was very much focused on things I had already read.
No real curve ball questions, but a friend of mine did get asked to describe the Colosseum as his first question!
I tried to cover all bases – reading poems, literature in the original language, going over the texts in my personal statement, listening to French radio, even relevant newspaper articles and general current affairs.
In retrospect, I’d probably say that most of this was unnecessary/overloading my brain – the important thing is to have thorough knowledge and original thoughts on the texts you mention in the PS, and be well slept, as relaxed as possible and ready to approach any new pieces of poetry/prose with fresh eyes.
I was glad I had practised some responses to simple questions in French though, as these turned out to be precisely the questions that came up!
It was challenging, enjoyable and a valuable experience in and of itself. I’d advise that you be kind to yourself throughout your stay at your college, and listen to your instincts – if you need to relax after your interviews, this is important and you shouldn’t feel guilty for ‘wasting time’, and likewise if you don’t feel like socialising then don’t force yourself!
Read through the primary texts you mention in your personal statement as much as you can, using the language as practice for literary analysis, considering general themes and messages (within the cultural context too), and being confident in forming your own opinions on the material – that’s what the tutors will want to hear!