Eight Tips for Making Your English Major Worthwhile

A young man flips through the pages of a book and wonders if she should be an English major.

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Before I started college, I’d always heard that English was a soft subject, that it would never help me get a job, and that I’d go into a mountain of debt just so I could spend a few years reading. So, naturally, I wanted to prove the haters wrong. I declared an English major.

I suspected it all along, but now, having graduated with a degree in English, I know for sure that the major is worthwhile. I became a better writer, an active reader, a critical thinker, and a subtle communicator. These skills benefit me in the workplace (any workplace), and they carry over to my private life. With better communication, my relationships thrive. I could go on all day about just how much my degree in English has enhanced my life, but I’ll stop here because, if your major is English or you’re considering declaring a major in English, you already know.

I do have to make a few concessions to the critics, though. They’re right that an English major is neither the most lucrative nor does it guarantee a job after graduation, which means that we majors have to work especially hard to beef up our résumés and supplement our skill sets while we’re in college. How?

Read for fun, even when you’re drowning in schoolwork.

A lot of college students neglect to read for fun while they’re in school, but not you. Even if you’re in two lit classes each semester, be sure to keep a book of your choosing on your bedside. Reading widely (and deviating from Western literary canon, which you’ll typically study in your literature classes) gives you more to think about, talk about, and learn about. Reading introduces you to perspectives different from your own, and studies by the Reading Agency have shown that reading for pleasure made research participants more empathetic and reduced their stress levels. If you’re wondering how this can improve your employability after graduation, I ask you to show me an employer who isn’t interested in compassionate, interesting candidates who handle stress well. Plus, if you want to apply to grad school in English, you’ll often need to select a specialization: classics, British lit, new journalism. Find out what you like to read, so you know what to commit to later.

Take the time to become a better reader.

If you’re an English major, chances are that you’re at the top of the totem pole in terms of reading and writing, but you can always improve. Prove to yourself that you’re serious about your major and that you aren’t just studying English because it comes easy to you. Not only will this make your tuition payments worthwhile, but the sharper your reading and writing skills, the better you’ll be able to compete with other English majors for spots in top grad schools or jobs. So, take the time to really engage with the books you read. Take notes as you read, and consider hanging on to your old books through college. Who knows! Later in college (or in grad school), you may want to refer to a book from this semester.

Double major (or choose a minor).

My English classes taught me skills that were relevant to all of my electives. I took a film class and was able to analyze the movies as if they were texts, for example. I also took a psychology of art class, in which we talked about why people create and tell stories. The thing is, English is inherently interdisciplinary. That means that it works well in tandem with just about any other subject, but unfortunately, not every employer or parent thinks that way. If you’re worried about how your English major will look on your résumé, you might double major or choose a minor. If you decide to do this early on, you shouldn’t have much trouble finishing the requirements for both concentrations in four years. And at the end of them? You’ll get to doubly impress anyone who takes a look at your résumé.

Learn a language.

This was my secret weapon: I started learning Spanish when I was six, and I kept it up through college. I had a hunch it would be a marketable skill since knowing a foreign language is increasingly important in business, social work, international relations, law, etc. And I was right. When I was first out of college, I couldn’t find work that made use of my English major; I used my skills in Spanish as a backup and what do you know? I found a job within a couple of months.

Learning a language can also complement your English major. Reading a text in its original language is a lot more powerful than reading even the very best translation. It helps you understand the literary, social, and political movements in other countries and cultures, plus you can reflect back on how English compares to the language you’re learning. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages says that bilingualism helps us become more linguistically aware, improves our communication, and furthers our reading abilities in both languages.

Split your classes between writing and literature.

It’s wise for everyone, English majors especially, to develop their reading and writing skills during college. Knock out the requirements for your major with a variety of classes in composition and in literature, which will help you better hone both in-demand skills.

Write a thesis.

The requirements for your major will depend on your school, but you will likely have the option to write a thesis in your senior year. Do it. When you write a thesis, you will choose or be assigned a faculty advisor with whom you will meet regularly during the semester to discuss your progress. Although you won’t need to go to class, your work on your thesis will earn you credit hours. Writing a thesis is solitary work, which means it’s a great way for you to practice time management and self-motivation while also delving into your personal academic interests. While thesis writing is an exercise in personal, professional, and academic growth, there are other benefits. At some schools, writing a thesis is mandatory if you hope to graduate with honors. Even if it isn’t, if you plan to apply to grad school, you may need to submit an academic writing sample of at least 40 pages. If you have a thesis, you’re good to go!

Work an internship or do field work during school.

The easiest way to fill out the professional experience section of your résumé and to network is to work. Most jobs available to college students through work-study or otherwise aren’t particularly relevant to their fields, though. That’s why many students turn to internships and field work. These opportunities may not be well-compensated gigs (they may pay a small stipend or offer credit hours in return for your time), but having any sort of relevant professional experience on your résumé will go a long way when you start looking for jobs after college graduation. My English major friends and I held internships or did field work at publishing houses, magazines, classrooms, literacy nonprofits, literary agencies, newspapers, online literary magazines, and more. There are dozens of options. Visit your school’s career center or field work office to get started.

Become well-versed in computer applications and software.

A girl sits on the couch and reads a book that is required as part of her English major.

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So much about making the most of your English major is about bolstering your reading and writing skills with other talents. And what better talent to have in the digital age than a knack for computers? When I did field work at a publishing house, I had to use computer databases for tracking; when I held an internship at a literary magazine, I had to manage professional social media pages; now, in my work for Student Caffé, I rely on a basic knowledge of SEO. I’d call these skills the bare minimum these days. So what if you know how to use Microsoft Office Suites? It’s not 1997, so impress potential employers with knowledge of InDesign, Photoshop, WordPress, profession-related apps, etc.

The work you’ve put toward your English degree so far is outstanding. I know it, and you know it. Now, prove it to employers and grad schools. From one English major to another, best of luck!

About Gwen Elise

Gwen is an avid traveler who feels most at home in Kentucky and Argentina. Her closet is full of dark dresses, and her walls are papered in colorful maps. She likes to make puns, read, write, and translate to and from Spanish, and she misses Vassar College, her alma mater, which helped her get better at all of those things.

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