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Studying an English degree

If you’re thinking of studying English at university, reading up on your options first is as important as reading great authors.

Since almost everybody studies English at school, you’ll already have a good idea of whether it’s the subject for you at university. But studying it at degree level is a bit different for a number of reasons. You will still be reading a lot of books and writing essays, but studying an English degree normally requires a lot more independent study than doing it at GCSE or A-level. This means that although you might have fewer lectures than students studying other subjects, you will be expected to do a lot of reading at home. Secondly, there are different types of English degree, so you need to do some research in advance and think about what you’re interested in and good at so you choose the right one.

  • English literature is the study of authors and their ideas. You will often read a range of literature from medieval times up to the present day in your first year, with a chance to take specialist modules in areas such as science fiction or contemporary American literature later on in your course.
  • English language is the study of how the English language works. You will look at how the English language developed and spread, how words and sentences are structured, and how we learn to speak. English language involves a lot of linguistics, and has crossover with other subjects like psychology and communication studies.

These can be studied as separate subjects, or combined into a single degree. Some degrees called ‘English’ might focus more heavily on one area than the other however, so make sure you read the course description and prospectus carefully first. It’s also quite common to study one as a joint honours degree with another subject such as history, business studies or a modern language.

Are there other options?

There are other subjects closely related to English available at degree level. You might study some modules in these as part of an English literature or language degree, but some universities will also offer them as separate subjects.

  • Creative writing teaches you how to write your own fiction and non-fiction prose, poetry or plays. It is similar to English literature in that you will be studying great authors, but your focus will be more on their practice and style and how it can be applied to your own work.
  • Comparative literature is the study of literature from different cultures. You will compare books written in contemporary English to those written in other languages and at other times to see what ideas they share. Studying comparative literature normally requires you to have an A-level or be fluent in another modern language.

What qualifications do I need for an English degree?

A good mark in either English literature or English language at A-level or equivalent is essential. It’s also important to have an A-level in at least one other facilitating subject like history or a modern language to increase your chances of getting in.

Where can it lead?

English teaches a wide range of transferable skills such as:

  • Written communication
  • Research
  • Critical thinking
  • Making and presenting an argument
  • Understanding different points of view
  • Creativity

See our article What can I do with an English literature degree? for careers ideas. Most of these jobs will be open to people with an English language degree as well, and that subject also teaches a more scientific approach to statistics and data that may be more useful for certain teaching or social work jobs.

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