So You Want to Major in English (Without Going Bankrupt)

When I was in school (a statement that gives me crippling feelings of self-absorbed oldness only a millennial can achieve) there was a running joke that went as follows: “an English major is probably the biggest waste of money you could possibly – oh wait, we forgot the sociology majors.” That’s how you make yourself feel better while pursuing a degree that’s slightly less respected than a professional career at McDonald’s. And the more I got to thinking about it, the more I wanted to do my own English major PSA.


I cannot technically promise prophetic writing powers

Depending on the person, an English major can be the most or least helpful route you can pick. Unlike some of the STEM fields (maths and sciences) it isn’t constructed to lead directly to a career path (unless you’re interested in teaching), and that can be completely terrifying for a new graduate. On the other hand, the skills you learn in terms of critical thinking, pattern recognition, contextualization, and the ability to articulate your thoughts clearly (not to mention write a killer paper) are extremely flexible and will serve you well not just in any number of jobs but as a productive member of society.

The key is being self-motivated – in other words, just do stuff. Start a blog, make goofy videos with your friends, write constantly. Not only will you be improving (and never be afraid of criticism – you don’t have to take every single bit of it, but watching reactions is one of the best ways to help yourself grow as an artist), but you’ll also be building a portfolio. Most jobs in the arts have increasingly hellish requirements for actually getting paid, and the more you’ve trained yourself in being able to work consistently and well, the better odds you’ll have. You get used to keeping a constant eye out, taking your basic skills and layering job-specific stuff on top of it – editing, secretarial work, journalism, comics, reviews, poetry and prose. You can be just about anyone, though it won’t be easy.

Still interested?

The Learning Part:

As far as the actual coursework, it varies from school to school as far as offerings A prospective four year schedule might break down a little like this:

Years One and Two will be all your basics: survey courses (basically a history of literature – if you choose an English major, be prepared to read and process a TON of reading at a pretty quick pace. At one point junior year I had two dozen novels for various classes. You do improve quickly out of necessity). There will usually be some kind of classics requirement, which is a more in depth study either of a time period (Renaissance/Gothic/Early 20th century) or a certain author (there will always be a Shakespeare course, which I wholeheartedly recommend, and a variety of others depending on the department’s resources).

You’ll also want to start exploring various intro classes (creative writing, technical writing, education, so on), because in year 3 things will start to open up for specialization. Like every major, you’ll also have a number of basic requirements – language, math, public speaking, etc. Knock these out as quickly as you can – it means if you decide to switch majors you’ll have all of the widely applicable stuff done, and won’t have lost much time or money on the specialized stuff.

Year 3 is when, if you choose, you can branch out. The most traditional form of English major is designed to make teachers – lots of lit courses, great familiarity with the canon of dead white guys so that you too may one day wear tweed jackets (I only had one teacher with tweed jackets. We did not get on). But there will also be options if you want to go into writing (nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and possibly more specialized forms of each), editing or technical writing (this is informative, scientific/business style stuff, probably the most useful if you want to get a white collar job, and worth taking at least one class in to shore up your grammar rules), education (children’s lit or other youth genres, seminars on education styles, student teaching and the works).

You’ll also get to start dipping your toe into the fun stuff – the modern theory classes (Gender/Queer/Race studies, film theory courses, modern media, video games, all the fun stuff – these tend to look at more modern stuff and grapple with ever evolving theory, and will really test your critical thinking if you work to engage with it). Year 3 is also a time to take other classes within the venn diagram of English – history, psychology, theology, philosophy, sociology, etc. It will give you a chance to recognize the skills you’ve been learning in a new light (away from the traditional place they’re expected), and thus be able to strengthen them. This is good practice for post-school life.


Everyone waits til the last minute to start that paper at least once

Year 4 – When you’re not being terrified and questioning whether or not to look into grad school, this is when you get to do the world-reaching things: visiting grad schools or doing student teaching, looking into internships or writing residencies, studying abroad, or working on freelance writing stuff. Other than finishing up what classes you have left, the big thing is the Senior Seminar (take this early if you can, because it then becomes hugely helpful in the other senior-level classes). You’ll have to write at least one 15-20 page paper (I did mine on gender fluidity in Silent Hill 2, which I am occasionally tempted to clean up and post), and possibly more depending on whether you want to do honors classes and the like.


The Money Problem

Going to college isn’t cheap, and tuition just gets worse every year. Some people are lucky enough to have parents willing and able to pay the bills for them, but there’s also an enormous number of us who have to learn to either scrape things together or spend a lifetime under crushing student loan debts. This is especially true if you’re going to major in English – as I said before, it can be damnably difficult to get a job after graduation (never mind a paid one). But never fear! Four years of ramen and shut-in habitation taught me at least a few possibilities for debt minimization (and if it reassures you at all, I did in fact graduate free from student loans).

Sign up for AP or IB classes: If you’re still in high school, you can buy yourself a lot of time by taking college prep courses (I would recommend the International Baccalaureate classes if you have the choice – the tests are more focused on critical thinking than rote memorization, and have slightly softer passing requirements). These honors classes are no slouch, but they’re excellent at helping you acclimate to the work load you might face in college. And most importantly, they can get you free college credit – study hard and take a free test at the end of the year, and you’ve worked your way out of intro-level English, history, math, and foreign language classes that would cost you several hundred easily (three credits a piece, at least $100 a credit usually). Plus, that gives you more time in your college schedule to experiment with options from various majors and get a feel for what you like.

Check out in-state schools: There can be a lot of benefits to heading out of state for college – meeting new people, being immersed in a new culture that forces you to learn about yourself and your preconceptions, being closer to opportunities that might not be available where you’re from, or extricating yourself from an unsafe or toxic environment. In the end it comes down to the individual. Know you want to work on The Onion? Probably you should look into Harvard. But if you’re not sure, don’t pick a school based on name alone – as far as culture and job possibilities, most states will have a major university city that offers at least some of that, and the internet has made the world a lot smaller place than it was before. Almost all schools offer lower tuition for residents of that state, ranging anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars cheaper (and trust me, those out of state scholarships don’t even begin to balance it out).

Raid the scholarship board: Apply for everything you can get your hands on. Merit based? Location based? Random luck of the draw? Might as well put your lot in, because that free money can go a good long way for relatively little investment (not to mention it looks like a resume). If you’re actually in college, wait until the second week and then pop down to the finances and scholarships department. If you ask, there will often be leftover scholarships that weren’t accepted or didn’t have a sufficiently applicable recipient. Apply for them! The worst they can do is say no, and if you wind up with extra funds you can put it away for the post-graduation slump.


Don’t worry, most of the houses won’t be nearly this nice

Get a flat utility rate: if you don’t want to live on campus (and frankly, after a year or two you reeeeeeeally won’t want to), you get to enter into the torment of looking for a livable apartment. This is harder than it sounds, given that college towns tend to have…less than ideal living conditions available for legally inexperienced, desperate students. If you can, go in with a roommate (someone you get along with but not a best friend – you’ll be at each other’s throats in no time) to cut down on the rent. Lots of places will offer low rental costs but make you pay your own electric or heat bills. Depending on how cold it gets in the winter, finding someplace with higher rent but utility costs included (meaning your rates won’t rise if you use the hot water or leave the lights on) can save you a lot in the long haul.

Find the food: I’m guessing you know the well-worn cliché about living off of ramen. You certainly won’t be a stranger to it, but there’s a way to find yourself some variety too. The first few weeks of classes are a smorgasbord of free food, most of which requires little more than taking a pamphlet or attending a no-string-attached meeting. Go for it. Smile, be cordial, and eat the sandwiches and chips. Sometimes you might even hear something interesting (but for the love of God, don’t sign up for any credit cards. It’s a trap). Keep an eye out for events on the bulletin board – trust me, if they’ve got food they’ll advertise it. If you feel like you can take on some extra work without your head exploding, swing for a job at the Union – most of them have restaurants, and you can net yourself a free meal or two in addition to the paycheck. If you’re living in the dorms with a meal plan, take a backpack and a bit of Tupperware with you, and get good at casually slipping things away while you eat (no, I didn’t really have any shame, why do you ask?).

Investigate programs: If you do choose to go to a smaller or less well connected school, you can offset the experience problem by looking into internships, study abroad trips, or residencies. Some of them are crazy expensive, but some are absolutely free or only have a minimal application fee. For study abroad particularly there are people willing to foot the bill, so long as you’re willing to go to someplace smaller or less glamorous (hint: not London). Actually, I really can’t recommend these kinds of experiences highly enough, particularly for writers. ‘Write what you know’ is largely a crock, but you become infinitely more rounded by opening yourself up to new experiences (so long as they don’t involve potentially being kidnapped – discretion is the better part of valor).

There’s more to talk about, of course, but those are a few basics to get you started. Have questions? Concerns? I’d love to hear them.


And if all else fails, you can just go back to high school and try again

3 replies »

  1. Frankly, if you want to do the literature thing during undergrad, take a comp lit/foreign lang major over english. college level english courses are generally too easy to be engaging, and strangely lacking in linguistic/philological pedagogy. there are english majors who still believe dumb strunk and white stuff, after all!

    really though, the best way to study lit is on your own by reading & writing a lot

    • If you want to study the actual /language/, sure. And naturally, a student should augment their studies with personal research whenever they can. But after the grunt work of the freshman stuff, the upper level discourses can be quite engaging if one is willing to apply themselves – ideally, you get a forum with a knowledgeable overseer and guide (for sources to seek out as well) with a hopefully far more respectful atmosphere than one would get purely through online discussion. It’s not perfect, but I’d hardly call the whole thing a wash.

      • But you need to know the language (and ideally, other languages besides english) in order to fully engage with most English lit. Milton is difficult enough with a working knowledge of standard middle-class American english, so how are these students supposed to tackle Joyce? This is something of a sticking point with me since I feel that most university english programs jump right into the “discursive” element of english pedagogy when most undergrads aren’t well enough equipped. Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, etc. – all these fields have many philosophical (and oftentimes, literary) antecedents that should be learned first. Instead most programs seem content with throwing someone who hasn’t read Plato into a Derrida course.

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