“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The man who never reads lives only one.” —George R.R. Martin
If you like reading and good discussions, the appeal of English is self-evident. Studying this language and its literature is a phenomenal way to learn about yourself and the human condition.
According to the College Board’s Big Future website, English majors take classes on topics like American literature before 1900, authors of the developing world, continental literature, history of English, linguistic analysis of modern English, literary theory and criticism, literature by ethnic minorities, literature by women, modern literature in English, poetry and poetics, Victorian literature, and the works of Chaucer.
The major is usually flexible, with few specific requirements. Coursework consists of reading and writing papers, with fewer exams than other subjects. Many colleges offer “concentrations” within their English majors so that students can specialize in fields like creative writing, education, literature, rhetoric, and technical writing.
As an English major, you can write for campus publications like literary magazines and newspapers. You can work as a tutor in the writing center (see Adam Vincent’s article here), or volunteer as a reading tutor in the community. Most departments encourage their English majors to study abroad and get a firsthand look at the world they read about.
In the twenty-first century, most college students have to be practical when they choose what to study. People can’t afford degrees that don’t improve their job prospects! The English major has to defend itself, because students and parents don’t understand how you can gain “real-world skills” from reading old books and writing essays about them.
If you major in engineering, you can be an engineer. If you major in accounting, you can be an accountant. The possibilities aren’t so obvious with most majors, and this is both scary and exciting. My university’s English department website says, “English leads readily to careers that put a premium on writing skills and on the ability to analyze complex human situations. In addition to the fields that have often been of first interest to English majors (writing and publishing, journalism, advertising, the film industry, public relations, and teaching), significant opportunities exist in the corporate world, in government and in nonprofit organizations such as those devoted to social service, the environment or the arts.”
Many students choose to double major, and several universities are creating special programs to popularize this option. For example, Stanford has recently designed a joint major in English and computer science. Of course, English majors can also attend a variety of graduate schools in business, education, law, library science, medicine, social work, and even STEM fields like (you guessed it) computer science. For example, check out Priyanka Srinivasan’s article about pre-meds who aren’t biology majors.
In an article about majoring in math, I said, “I’ve always gotten the idea that there are lots of careers available to me as a math major, but it’s also become clear that I can’t just take a bunch of math classes and walk into one of those careers right out of school.” It’s the same for English majors. Along with studying for your classes, you should research careers and prepare for ones that interest you.
Advice for High School Students
Whenever possible, take advanced English courses as well as other writing-intensive courses. You should also take four years of a foreign language. If you’re looking for enrichment, you might be able to take dual-enrollment courses in “specialized” subjects like poetry, semiotics (the study of signs and symbols), or eighteenth-century British literature. Colleges offer many courses that aren’t taught in high schools, and you might be interested in exploring other fields like cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy, or world literature.
If you’re interested in English-related extracurriculars, some ideas include joining your school’s book club if they have one (or starting one if they don’t) and working for their literary magazine, newspaper, or yearbook. Outside of school, you can participate in writing competitions like the ones listed here. Since you’re reading this article, you probably already know that you can apply for an internship with The Prospect or (if you’re a girl) the Smart Girls Group. There are a variety of writing-related summer programs, most notably the free, insanely-selective Telluride Association Summer Program for rising seniors. Unfortunately, most programs are very expensive (although this article features some exceptions), and it’s often better to get a job or volunteer at home.
When you’re making your list of colleges, be sure to consider whether each school’s program will work for you given your interests and hopes for the future. Many English majors enjoy liberal arts colleges because they’re small and allow for a lot of one-on-one attention from professors. Other students want to attend larger universities because they offer more classes and opportunities to get your writing published. Colleges also differ with regard to the amount of flexibility you’ll have to double major or take electives.
Colleges to Check Out
- Brown University
- Hamilton College
- Kenyon College
- Johns Hopkins University
- Reed College
- University of Connecticut
- University of Iowa