Students often start by quoting someone famous, says Mike Nicholson, director of admissions at the University of Bath, who thinks it’s a “waste of space” and “just demonstrates that you can copy and paste”. Hilary Potter, a teaching fellow at the University of Leeds, adds that quotes “don’t tell us anything about the student”.
Whether you’re interested in French, Spanish, Arabic or Japanese, your first step will be to impress admissions tutors and convince them you deserve a place on their course. A strong, cliche-free personal statement is a must, but what else should you include? And what mistakes should you avoid?
What to do
Start with you: “Tell a story about yourself,” says Darren Paffey, from the modern languages department at the University of Southampton. “With a clear beginning, normally about why you’re interested in languages.” Also think about the course you’re applying to; some are very practical, while others are more literature-based, so know what skills you want to emphasise.
Be authentic and enthusiastic: It’s more important to be yourself and show your enthusiasm than it is to be polished. “I’d always prefer something that was clearly a personal response but maybe has a few imperfections,” says Matthew Jefferies, from the University of Manchester’s language school. While Ilse Renaudie, head of French at the University of East Anglia, says authenticity is the first thing she looks for: “Clear and genuine statements stand out.”
Let your personality shine through: Admissions tutors want to know who you are. “Put your personality into your statement,” says Antonia Kamara, who works in the admissions department of the University of Bristol. To study languages, you need show you are motivated, communicative, and can cope in difficult situations. “Open-mindedness is very important for languages,” Renaudie adds.
Show you’re well-rounded: “We’re not just looking for brilliantly academic people,” says Paffey, “we want to know what else you’ll contribute.” If you’ve been involved in non-academic activities like competitions, a student newspaper, or teaching younger students, say so. And don’t forget to show how it helped develop your skills. Tutors also advise you show your research skills, so include your extended project qualification (EPQ), if you have one.
Go beyond school texts: Listing the books on your school syllabus isn’t going to impress. “We can spot that a mile off,” says Kamara. Instead, show you can think critically by talking about how you’ve engaged with the language beyond the classroom. You can do this by offering some views on recent news stories or political events in foreign-language countries. Or talk about what interests you. “If you’ve got an interest in Latin American magical realism literature, or you write a blog on issues to do with the Spanish speaking world, tell us,” says Paffey.
What not to do
Don’t make spelling mistakes: You’re applying to study languages, so your statement has to be well-written. “Nothing leaves a worse impression than quoting in the original language, but quoting incorrectly because of spelling mistakes or grammatical errors,” says Jefferies. Have your finished statement proofread to pick up on missed errors.
Don’t write in an overly academic way: Applicants are often guilty of writing in an overly complicated, pseudo-academic style with too many clauses, says Jefferies. “Students think it will impress us,” he says, “but often it doesn’t make sense.” It’s better to write in your own voice.
Don’t miss out a subject: Lots of people study languages as a joint honours degree. But, if you want to do so, you must include both subjects in your personal statement. “It’s a common fault,” says Jefferies, “and it causes problems with the subject that’s been ignored”. Potter advises you divide your statement equally between the two subjects.
Don’t blag: Some universities interview for language courses. They’ll use the information in your personal statement as a prompt, so don’t get caught out. “If you say you recently enjoyed Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain’ in German, it won’t look good if it becomes clear in the interview that you haven’t actually read it,” says Jefferies.
Don’t worry if you haven’t been abroad: If you’ve been to a country where the language you want to study is spoken, and can show how the trip developed your skills and passion, then great. But don’t worry if not. “We don’t hold it against students who haven’t been,” says Jefferies. “Not everyone has had the opportunity – but what you can say is what you would like to see in that country, or do on your year abroad, if you were offered a place.”
Don’t panic: Finally, go easy on yourself. “It’s not all on the personal statement,” says Potter, “so don’t feel that it’s going to make or break your application, because it won’t. We’re all on the same page: we want students, so we’re not looking for mistakes.”