It’s as if the moment the word English enters the mind of an incoming college freshman, the barrage begins. Concerned family and caring friends do their best to turn poor, innocent students away from such a “useless” major.
They say things like…
- There are no jobs for English majors.
- Writing is not in demand.
- Unless you want to be a teacher, you’re wasting your education (and your money).
- English is just a generic humanities degree. You might as well major in psychology.
- In fact, stay away from all arts degrees. They’re just self-congratulatory fields that don’t apply to the real world.
It doesn’t matter that you love writing. It doesn’t even matter that you’re good at it. In the real world, artists starve and liberal arts majors go broke. On the surface, these arguments make sense.
But there’s a problem: the arguments are wrong.
- English, Computer Science, Political Science, and Economics majors all find work at comparable rates.
- Nearly every modern company needs writers.
- Education is what you make of it. (Most English majors don’t become teachers.)
- English majors learn specialized and in-demand skills.
- CEO’s actually prefer to hire liberal arts graduates.
However, there is one argument the detractors of English majors get right.
English is a risky degree to invest in. If you’re not careful, being an English major could be a great way to squander the opportunity of a college education.
Thinking of getting an English degree? Here’s what you’ll need to know to get the most out of your education.
1. Have a purpose
“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination… so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” - Stephen R. Covey
English is an extremely broad field of study. It covers everything from literature analysis to teaching English in third world countries to communicating well in business environments.
This variety is one of the nice things about being an English major. While an accountant might be stuck learning different ways to compare numbers on a spreadsheet, an English major can choose to study historical literature, contemporary publishing trends, business and technical writing, and… well you get the picture.
As an English major, you could easily fill your schedule just with classes that dive deep into creative writing, poetry, and the philosophical implications of Shakespeare’s King Lear and graduate a happy little scrivener.
While these classes sound interesting, they likely won’t be very useful in the long run. Because English is such a broad field, to get the most out of it, you have to approach your studies with a purpose.
What do you want to get out of college? How do you want to grow? What knowledge or skills would be most useful to your future career? You don’t need to know exactly what you’ll do after college or exactly where you want to go in life. But you should have an idea of the direction you want to move in.
Keep in mind that, if used correctly, college can amplify your gifts and prepare them for use in the real world. Meandering through college without a plan, taking whatever class seems interesting regardless of what you’ll actually gain from it, is the best way to squander them.
2. Develop specialized skills
“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” - Henry David Thoreau
If you’re considering earning an English degree, I’m willing to bet you’re already a gifted writer. I’m sure you even consider yourself a particular kind of writer. Maybe you love writing hard-hitting blog posts or excel at telling stories, or maybe you’re a phenomenal editor.
Whatever your particular gift, expand it. Let that be your purpose. When you’re choosing your classes, ask yourself “Will taking this class help me be a better storyteller?” Or “Will taking this class help me write better articles in the future?”
This isn’t always easy to do. You may need to get creative in how your perceive the usefulness of some classes: the opportunities to practice the type of writing that you enjoy are not always obvious. If you’re a journalist, you likely won’t get very much journalism practice in a poetry class. On the other hand, a literary analysis class could give you more opportunities to practice researching, interviewing, and writing fact-based articles—all useful skills for journalists.
By choosing classes based on the opportunities to improve a particular skill, you’ll quickly begin to develop specializations. And even if they aren’t always obvious, the opportunities are there. Be mindful of them.
3. Make passion a priority, not a victim
“With me poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion.” - Edgar Allen Poe
Have you ever tried writing something great, but found after only a few minutes of typing, your writing felt contrived? It was more like Frankenstein’s monster—pieces of disconnected dead writing that you were trying to force life back into—instead of the masterpiece that you envisioned.
Be forewarned, this is what college can do to a writer.
Unsurprisingly, you’ll be writing thousands of words every week as an English major. And about halfway through your time in college, you’re going to get sick of research papers and maybe even writing in general. You’ll find that, even when you have no desire to write on a particular subject, even when you feel you’re unable to put two coherent thoughts together, your professors still expect you to turn in a well-written paper before the deadline.
This is where so many English majors go wrong. They allow their mind to take over their writing. Prose that used to flow naturally and for the simple joy of writing, now forces itself into rigid formulas, adhering to the stylistic checklists of academia. The mind produces writing which earns top marks from professors—but in that writing there is no life, no passion.
It’s almost counterintuitive, but as an English major, you need to constantly be reminding yourself why you were drawn to English. For every paper you write, write a story or a poem or an article of your own. Talk to other people about their projects, tell them about yours. Immerse yourself in the craft that you love, simply because you love it.
Remember that great writing comes from the heart. Your passion—not your mind, not the grade—gives your writing life.
4. Be valuable
“Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
The critics of English majors have a point. The same way a bachelor’s degree in dance doesn’t qualify you for a salaried position at an accounting firm, an English degree isn’t a surefire way to lock down a "real job” fresh out of college. The type of knowledge and skills that you gain by studying English, while useful in the right circumstances, are simply not the primary tools you’ll use to be successful at most jobs.
I know you love writing. That’s great! Writing is not a skill everybody has. (And the fact that articles like this one are published every day on countless corporate websites proves that there are jobs out there for writers.) But this is what you need to understand: in most positions, writing alone won’t be enough to sustain you.
In order to make yourself more attractive to potential employers, learn skills that pair well with writing.
There’s demand right now for writers who can research products and present their findings in easy-to-consume ways. Journalism is hungry for storytellers that understand both politics and the mind of the reader. Writing sales copy for a direct mail marketing campaign is different than writing sales copy for a website which is different from writing a post for social media designed to boost brand engagement.
Developing skills like these demonstrates an ability to adapt your writing to be applicable in a business setting. Additionally, by preemptively learning these skills, you add extra value to yourself as an employee, which gives you an advantage over other English majors who are after the same job, but only took creative writing and poetry classes in school.
5. Use your capstone project to give yourself a leg up
“Words are where most change begins.” - Brandon Sanderson
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, what you choose to do for the capstone project is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as an English major. Not just because earning your degree depends on successfully completing the project, but because the capstone is your last real opportunity to separate yourself from the crowd and get an edge in post-college life.
Choose a project that showcases your skills or helps you learn something immediately useful.
For example, in the future I intend to start a publishing house. I have a passion for stories, and being an author and a publisher is a long-standing dream of mine. It’s what drew me to English in the first place. But I’m also very business-minded, and my studies reflected these intersecting interests. As a result, my capstone project was about how marketing principles could be applied to fiction writing in order to reverse the general downward trend in reading across the entire population.
Sure, it sounds a little dry based on that description, but this project gave me valuable insight into realistic, and immediately applicable techniques for getting more people to read what I write.
6. It’s okay to go after a “risky” major.
"Real joy seems to me almost as unlike security or prosperity as it is unlike agony.” - C.S. Lewis
Earning an English degree isn’t the easiest way to find success in life. It’s definitely not the most “secure” path. But maybe it’s your path. And that’s okay.
Real-world application should influence what you choose to pursue in college. It would be irresponsible to ignore the opportunities that some degrees would open up to you.
However, choosing your major based solely on how the world sees its value is a quick path to misery. If you have little or no interest in a subject, you’re unlikely to develop a passion for it. Without passion, motivation suffers and resentment rises. Maybe you start off only hating an assignment—but soon you hate the class, then the subject, then college itself.
If you’re forcing yourself to do something that you hate, you’re probably going to fail. So don’t do that to yourself. If you plan on finishing college, it’s probably best that you study what you’re interested in.
College is what you make it. No single course of study is innately more valuable than all others. An arts major can go on to be more successful than a business major. The value that you get out of your studies and what happens after you graduate depends entirely on you.
Still, there is a pressure to pick the most “valuable” degree to pursue.
My advice? Don’t stress about it, because it’s not that important.
Every major is valuable if applied in the right circumstances and pursued intentionally. Don’t set yourself up for failure just because biochemical engineers earn a higher salary than staff writers.
If you love writing, study what you love. If you want your degree to be more valuable, focus on expanding and refining your gifts. If you want to make yourself more valuable, adapt and acquire skills that compliment your writing.
Most importantly, if it would bring you joy—be an English major.
Wyatt is an Unbound graduate and a driven entrepreneur. He’s passionate about building businesses and gets annoyed when someone says the only way to be successful is to get a “real” job. When not working on a new business idea or general self-development, Wyatt spends his time pursuing the life moments that make him feel alive.Read more by Wyatt