‘You want to study Japanese?’ - My interview experiences and general, practical advice for Oriental


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Coming from a state school background, it was one thing when I announced to my teachers that I’d decided to apply to Oxford. It was another thing entirely, when I said that I wanted to read Japanese Studies. Responses were varied. Many were impressed by my unusual and ambitious choice, while some thought I was crazy to apply for such a niche course at what they considered to be such competitive uni. Thankfully, no-one tried to deter me (an impossibility - if I was crazy at all, it was crazy determined to achieve my dream) and my teachers were all incredibly supportive, albeit understandably clueless as to how to prepare me for interview. (e.g. ‘Is it conducted in English?’ Yes… It is conducted in English…)

Thanks to outreach programmes and ingenious student led platforms like 'That Oxford Girl', there is a growing abundance of information available online surrounding applying for more traditional courses like English, Law, Engineering etc. But when it comes to the Oriental subjects, like Egyptology, Persian and Sanskrit, there’s comparatively very little out there. This void desperately needs addressing to make these fascinating, diverse and challenging courses more accessible to state school applicants and to dispel the myth that you have to be some kind of master polyglot who’s eaten an encyclopedia of Oriental history to get in! (Trust me, it’s really not the case!) Whilst I can only offer my account of applying for Japanese, I hope to offer some more general advice for those applying to any of the other subjects in the Oriental Studies faculty in the run up to interview. So, here goes…

The interview process for Japanese has two parts. In my experience, one focuses around your ability to think about languages and the other one uses your personal statement as a springboard for discussion. It’s great because they’re completely different experiences and it means that interviews take place over a few days, so you get time to explore the city, prepare yourself and talk to people in between times.

Before my first interview (language), I had no idea at all how it would go or what would happen, so I was a little shocked when I found out that there would be a short pre-interview test (as if it wasn’t nerve wracking enough, eh?!). Unlike other Oriental subjects, applying for Japanese doesn’t require you to take the OLAT (Oriental Languages Aptitude Test) beforehand and this seems to be how they make up for that! I’m not going to disclose the contents of the test - it doesn’t seem fair because you need to think for yourself and it probably changes yearly (although I would advise a cursory glance at the OLAT…) - all I’ll say is that it’s not a case of pass or fail. The process doesn’t take long and it’s just an opportunity for the tutors to see how you think as it forms the basis of the interview discussion. I actually really enjoyed this interview - I made the tutors laugh and came away feeling much more relaxed than when I went in. Not everyone on my course right now agrees with me on that, which goes to show that even if you think it’s gone badly, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has.

My second interview I came away feeling less certain of. It started with the tutor asking me to just talk about the things I’d referenced in my statement. If I remember correctly (it’s been almost a year, so it’s a little hazy), he didn’t ask me anything specific. I’m certain he began with something like ‘so, women writers of the Heian era?’, which is as broad as it gets. My advice here would be to know your personal statement inside out - what you’re saying you’re interested in, what you think about these areas, your justifications for your opinions etc - and to read around these areas if possible. You’re not expected to reel off facts and dates off by heart, but you do want to demonstrate your interest and independent engagement in the subject if possible. It’s ok to admit that you’re not sure or that you need to read more about something.

Then we progressed to something that was unfamiliar to me - language change in the context of Japan. The question was designed to challenge me as the scenario was completely made up and theoretical. I’d only just begun studying language change in sixth form, which I remember telling the tutor, but I applied what I’d learned so far to help me reason things out. It started out ok, but by the end the questions got really challenging, so I when I left I wasn’t sure if the answers I’d given made sense or if I’d just been making stuff up! I found it a little unnerving to say the least...

More tips from Katie on Sunday!

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