A recent opinion piece in the New York Times last weekend mourned the passing of the English major as an assured path to a job or graduate school.
English was never a degree offering a specific career track. Twenty years ago and beyond, English majors from top liberal arts colleges were sought after in every profession. Today, as the debate about the value of the college degree rages on, schools are being expected to provide more vocational coursework and guidance to ensure the employability of their graduates. So majors offering a specific pathway to a career, like computer science, engineering and nursing, are being encouraged over the humanities.
Today I want to share why I believe that English continues to be an excellent choice for a major, why English majors will always be in demand, and how you can use it to maximize your ability to get a job after college.
English Majors Know How to Communicate
The written word is in crisis. Good writers have always been scarce, but the decline of formal communication in favor of the quick fix, coupled with the fact that fewer people are choosing journalism, means that those who can write well are in short supply.
Take the cover letter, which may soon disappear altogether. In my career practice, I can tell you, cover letters are generally a travesty. If you can write a good cover letter, you automatically set yourself apart from your peers. No need to stress your communication skills explicitly—a well-written cover letter tells that story itself.
English Majors Know How to Think
Employers scout English majors because they know they will find people who know how to think and how to reason. Every good job out there today requires independent thought and analysis, the purview of English majors. The fact that you wrote a great paper on Homer and got an A? Excellent. Its relevance to a prospective employer? Unclear unless you draw the corollary—it’s up to you how to do that. And this brings me to how English majors can become employable.
Start Thinking and Planning Your Career Early
Possibly the most important piece of advice I can give you is to start thinking about your career interests as early as high school, if possible. If you excel at math and computer science, I’m not concerned about how you’ll get a job. But for those of you who gravitate to the humanities, you must start shoring up your strengths and marketability through strategic volunteering, internships and jobs, as early as you can.
Those experiences will begin to help you shape your path to the job market.
Figure Out Your Destination Job
Find out what kinds of jobs use writing and hire English majors, and figure out which ones spark your interest. Pay attention to the careers of people you admire. Become a LinkedIn sleuth by finding the people doing work you think you’d enjoy and see what skills you’ll need to enter those fields. Once you have an idea of the jobs that interest you, you’ll have the focus to pitch yourself for internships and volunteer experiences that will give you the experience you need. And as you go through college, you’ll be able to match your coursework to those interests.
Learn About Specific Industries
Find an internship in an industry you find compelling and combine your writing abilities with knowledge of specific industries. Interested in marine biology and sustainability? Get an internship writing press releases and articles for the Environmental Defense Fund. Do you enjoy picking apart ad campaigns and figuring out why certain YouTube videos go viral? You may be able to get an internship with an ad agency, a ratings agency like Nielsen or a media company that caters to the advertising industry. Love video games? Write reviews for a gaming website or be a tester for a gaming company. Whatever you’re immersed in, there’s someone blogging about it, testing it, reviewing it or selling it.
As an English major, you are much more attractive to employers if you not only know how to communicate well, but can communicate about a specific industry, issue or cause that you already know and care about. It’s up to you to figure out what that is.