How valuable is an English major really?
More often than not, a degree in English is frowned upon, seen as impractical in a job market that demands engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and programmers. But every once in a while, the English major reemerges as a popular hiring choice of CEOs and business execs.
As it turns out, English majors do learn quite a few valuable work skills (yes, more specific than “reading” and “writing”). English majors work well under deadlines, communicate effectively, think creatively, and have an all-important mastery of bulls—ing.
“Because there are so many different options that students in the liberal arts can go into using transferable skills and soft skills, what will guide them along the way will be the foundation of that liberal arts major along with work skills they build along the way,” says Marc Goldman, executive director of the career center at Yeshiva University.
We’ve compiled a full list of what English majors learn below.
Setting schedules and working under deadlines
The bread and butter of an English major is meeting deadlines. That might mean reading 400 pages of Virginia Woolf and feminist literary criticism over five days, or conducting research for a 25-page term paper. Sometimes, it might mean cranking out a lengthy writing assignment on short notice. English majors routinely take on large projects that require them to manage their time efficiently, meet self-imposed deadlines, and work under time pressure to complete long- and short-term projects. Those skills are valuable in any workplace.
Communicating clearly and grasping tone
Today, written communication reigns: email, instant messaging, texting, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. That means writing skills are incredibly important. English majors know how to write crisply and concisely, and also have a strong grasp of tone. In business communications, for example, English majors will understand how to tailor their language to fit the company. English majors will also likely pick up the tone of an email from the boss or a client, and better understand what note to strike in the reply.
Thinking critically and arguing a point
English majors are taught to rethink and question everything they read. Rarely is there one “right answer;” rather, there are many possible answers that can be interpreted and argued in different ways. “I think being able to take a work, a piece of literature, or anything in the written word and being able to analyse it and think about it and take it not necessarily at face value is something that can be used in many work settings,” Goldman says. In learning to make an argument about a book, English majors are taught to pick a manageable topic, frame an argument, and present it effectively — skills that will serve them well for any workplace presentation or project.
Taking constructive criticism or “agreeing to disagree”
Even though there’s rarely one “right answer” in English, that doesn’t mean everything is a right answer. Sometimes a professor will disagree with your point, or your argument will be discarded in favour of a classmate’s. Goldman calls it the “ability to have healthy debate” and “understand how others argue their points.” English majors learn to take constructive criticism.
Grammar and spelling
Yes, this seems obvious, but far too few people these days have a solid knowledge of English grammar and a broad vocabulary. English majors love words. They know the difference between they’re/their/there and why “less” is different from “fewer.” Everyone makes typos once in a while, but you can be sure most English majors are producing clean copy.
Probably not a skill you want to advertise to a prospective employer, but when push comes to shove, English majors have a handle on sounding like they know what they’re talking about. How else do you think they got all those pages written in college? They present well and are confident in their ideas. Also known as “fake it ’til you make it,” this one is a popular skill and slogan of liberal arts majors everywhere.
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