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Why English? Beyond the BA

The Pre-Professional Major

Stock Photo of readingEnglish is often referred to as a "pre-professional" major because the strong emphasis on reading, writing and thinking provides an excellent foundation for graduate study in the humanities, library science, social sciences, law, business, and public administration. While most graduates with a degree in English move directly into careers or teacher certification programs, some use their undergraduate education as a springboard into post-baccalaureate programs.

MA and Ph.D. Programs in English

Students considering applying to graduate programs in English should speak to an undergraduate advisor early in their programs. Advisors can help plan a suitable program of courses and later can offer advice on where, when, and how to apply.

Arguably the most difficult part of applying to graduate programs is finding the right one, and the process can lead to considerable soul-searching. For some, location will be the most important factor, while for others the quality of the program or the presence of particular scholars will be most important. Regardless of each applicant's particular needs, all applicants will need to find their own personal balance amongst the following general criteria:

Geographic Location
Reputation of the Program and/or University
Program Offerings (strengths in particular specializations)
Degree Requirements and Timeline
Career Placement
Availability of Financial Aid and Assistantship

Such an important decision requires considerable research and reflection. With most universities maintaining a prominent presence on the internet, much of the research can be conducted online simply by looking at individual university web sites. The University of Florida maintains a reasonably up-to-date list of links to colleges and universities. The MLA Guide to Doctoral Programs is an online searchable database with increasingly detailed information about graduate programs in the United States and Canada. Also, U.S. News and World Report has a thorough site on graduate schools, which includes a section ranking graduate programs. Please note, however, that you must pay a fee to see the complete U.S. News and World Report rankings and educators are increasingly speaking out against how incomplete and potentially deceptive such rankings can be.

Faculty members in the Cal State LA English Department are another valuable source of information on graduate programs. Besides considerable knowledge about their own graduate school experience, most will have contacts throughout the country and will be especially knowledgeable about their specialization.

Finally, if you are considering applying to a graduate program in English, you should keep the following in mind:

  • Be sure to check the requirements, policies and deadlines of each individual program.
  • Pay attention to financial aid deadlines, which are often earlier than the deadline for admissions applications.
  • If a program you are considering requires applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), you should plan to take the GRE in the Fall term of your last year as an undergraduate. Taking the exam early will ensure your scores arrive in time to the graduate programs you've chosen.


Law School

"“The best preparation for the study of law [is] the
study of poetry, and especially lyric poetry"”

Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court

Law schools do not recommend any particular major for undergraduates interested in applying to law school.  But they do recommend that undergraduates choose majors that will enable them to develop skill in careful reading and effective writing—the precise skills that English majors develop. It comes as no surprise then that English is among the top three or four most common majors of law school applicants, and that English majors consistently score well above the average on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).

That English is one of the most sensible choices for pre-law students is made clear by the advice offered to students looking for the "best" undergraduate major for law school by Law School Admission Council:

Law schools want students who can think critically and write well, and who have some understanding of the forces that have shaped the human experience. These attributes can be acquired in any number of college courses, whether in the arts and humanities, the social sciences, or the natural sciences.

An undergraduate career that is narrowly based or vocationally oriented may not be the best preparation for law school. As long as you receive an education including critical analysis, logical reasoning, and written and oral expression, the range of acceptable college majors is very broad. What counts is the intensity and depth of your undergraduate program and your capacity to perform well at an academically rigorous level.

This emphasis on thinking critically and writing well leads Professor Daniel R. Pinello of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York to offer the following advice:

Some years ago, a survey was sent to law-school deans. One of the questions on the survey was what majors the deans recommended students have in college in order to prepare effectively for law school. The four majors most frequently recommended by law-school deans were (in alphabetical order) English (sometimes called literature), history, philosophy, and political science (sometimes called government). Thus, my recommendation to those students wanting to go to law school is that they major in one of those fields. Moreover, if English turns out not to be the major selected, then it should be considered seriously as a minor because writing well is absolutely essential to success in the law. ("Advice for Getting Into Law School")

Business School

What do Henry Paulson, CEO of Goldman Sachs, Michael Eisner, former CEO of the Walt Disney Corporation, and Donald Regan, former chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch have in common? All received undergraduate degrees in English. Contrary to popular myth, you do not need an undergraduate degree in business to get a job in business or to apply to graduate business schools.

According to the College Board, "graduate business schools generally prefer applicants who've completed a broad, well-rounded, and challenging curriculum, with no one major preferred over another". 

However, while no one major is preferred over another, coursework in English is often cited for honing verbal and written communications skills, which are not only critical in the business world but basic to success on the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). 

The centrality of communication skills helps explain what appears to be a curious anomaly: English majors tend to outscore business majors on the GMAT. And for years, a considerable number of the students accepted into top business schools have come from liberal arts backgrounds, with English and history among the most common undergraduate majors.

If you are an English major and are considering applying to a graduate business school, you should consider including some coursework in more technical fields such as economics, statistics, and math. While such coursework is usually not required for graduate business schools, it will better prepare you for the GMAT.