English degree guide: studying literature or language at uni

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If you're keen to explore literature or language in depth and from different angles, English could be the subject for you. It'll also help you develop a broad range of transferable skills.

Fancy spending three or four years revelling in the written word? An English degree might suit you. English is not a vocational degree that prepares you for a specific profession. However, it will help you to develop transferable skills – that is, skills that are relevant to many different jobs and careers, which will be valued by a range of employers.

English degree entry requirements

Many courses require English literature or English language and literature at A level. Entry is competitive, and it is not unusual for universities to ask for three As at A level or similar. If you have taken Scottish Highers you may be expected to have a combination of As and Bs, plus an A in Advanced Higher English literature and at least a B in another Advanced Higher.

English literature degree or English language degree?

You could choose to study a degree in English literature, English language or a combination of both.

What you’ll study on an English literature course at university

The structure and flexibility of English literature courses varies, so make sure you visit the departmental websites of universities you are interested in and familiarise yourself with what is on offer. Courses typically take a historical approach in which you study older works in your first year and then move on to more recent works as your studies progress. Important and influential figures such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens and Joyce are highly likely to crop up on your reading lists. In addition to studying works of English literature from Anglo-Saxon times onwards, you will also develop your critical understanding and learn different ways of considering literary texts and interpreting them as part of the wider culture of an era.

It’s important to research the required and optional elements of any courses you’re considering. For example, you might be expected to explore an interest in a specific area of critical theory and understanding, such as feminist or post-colonial perspectives on literature. Make sure you’ll get the chance to focus on the texts you’ll be studying in ways that will interest you.

What you'll study on an English language course at university

Some courses focus on English language, which is offered as a distinct subject by some universities and explores the history, use and structure of English. You could cover areas such as linguistics (the scientific study of language) and phonetics (the study of speech and the sounds of language). You could learn how to analyse literature through close attention to language, assessing how particular effects are created and developing your understanding of grammar and rhythm. You might also be able to pursue an interest in a related area such as creative writing, film studies or drama as part of an English degree, and you may be able to study a range of kinds of writing, including journalism and travel writing.

Joint honours courses – combine English with another subject

Many universities offer English as part of joint honours courses, typically in combination with another language or with a closely related subject such as history. The English component of these could focus on literature, language or both.

How many contact hours will I have on an English degree?

You’ll typically have six to ten hours of class time each week, which is usually about half lectures and half class discussions, sometimes referred to as seminars. You’re likely to spend 21 to 30 hours per week in studying by yourself.

English degree jobs

Popular career paths for English graduates include:

  • publishing
  • journalism
  • librarianship
  • the media
  • arts administration.

If you don’t mind taking a bit of a tangent, you could also consider the following.

  • Public service often appeals, and there are plenty of English graduates to be found in teaching and the Civil Service.
  • Those with a head for numbers may be drawn to banking or accountancy.
  • Jobs in advertising, marketing or PR (public relations) can offer business-minded English graduates the chance to use their creativity as well as their analytical skills.
  • Careers in law are also popular, unsurprisingly given the emphasis placed by many English degree courses on analysing documents and arguing a case.

‘Why study English at university?’ Skills you’ll gain

Skills you could develop through your studies include:

  • Strong written and oral communication skills, including the ability to construct an argument
  • The ability to weigh up and assess different perspectives, theories and interpretations
  • Analytical skills
  • Research skills
  • IT skills
  • Planning skills
  • Time management – planning individual and group work and presentations, juggling a range of tasks and meeting deadlines.

These skills are highly valued by employers in many different fields, and an English degree will help you keep your options open for a broad range of different careers. Developing your skills through extracurricular activities, volunteering or formal work experience will help you make the most of your strengths in your applications. English is a popular and competitive subject and the relatively high grades required for many courses call for academic ability that will also help to make you more employable.

Degrees similar to English

Perhaps you’d prefer to approach language or literature from a slighly different angle, or do something a bit more focused towards a particular career. One of the following might suit you better, or you could take a joint honours degree that combines it with English.

  • You might be interested in other arts and humanities subjects, such as history or media studies.
  • Modern languages or Classics courses typically include the study of literature in other languages.
  • If you know what career you are interested in, you could consider a relevant course; for example, would-be teachers could take an education degree and would-be managers and administrators could study business-related disciplines.
  • If you are interested in how we acquire and process language, psychology might appeal.

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