What I Learned From Being an English Major

What I Learned From Being an English Major

What are you going to do with that?

If you studied English in college or are thinking about it, you’ll definitely get that question.

The first instinct is that you’ll teach. Or be poor. Or both.

And that’s definitely a possibility…but it’s true for a lot of other degrees too (Raise your hand history majors!).

Having an English degree can be a tough road, because us writing/language/art types get tangled in a net of infinite possibilities.

We think. A lot. Overanalyzing is part of our nature. It’s what we’re good at. And so yes, we apply that to our life choices too. Because studying English gives you a strong foundation to do a lot of things, the opportunities are endless. And they could be crippling.

What I Learned From a”Useless” Degree

Though I’ve had some ups-and-downs in my career, I’m still learning and changing. That said, I’ve found some ways to use my English degrees (I have two of them!).

1. How to Communicate

No, I didn’t study formally study writing in college. I took a few creative writing classes and a screenwriting class. But what I did learn in college as an English student was to transform notes into an argument.

I learned how to take random thoughts and make them coherent.

I learned how to write clearly and cut out the B.S. Communication is a skill that has to be constantly refined.

Bad habits are easy to fall into, and so are half-developed ideas.

Studying English helped me to avoid that…at least a little bit.

2. How to Research

Once, I had to look up a bunch of financial filings for a story I was working on.

I was going deep into something I didn’t have any experience with. Yet, I found some small nuggets, put them in the story and made a few (local) headlines for my work.

Studying English helped me to find what mattered among the muck. I was reading for detail.

I probably mastered this with my master’s degree (ha!), but spending time in difficult books and scholarly articles is a discipline that does not always come naturally to 18–22 year olds. That said, research is a skill I still use almost every day, whether it be finding new industry trends or going deep to find technical information.

3. How to Be Curious

Here’s a cliche: books expanded my mind – or something.

Novels are stuffed with references and allusions in different historical time periods and settings. These interconnected themes skitter throughout my head, and sometimes I didn’t know how to make sense of them all. It drove me deep into rabbit holes that I never thought I’d come out of.

I’m probably curious to a fault. Books showed me different facets of the world and helped me realize how many gaps I have in my knowledge…and how far I still have to go with learning, travel and experiencing different cultures.

We all know (hopefully?) that the world is a complex place. That there’s more to life, situations and stories than a few single answers.

It’s not just thumbs up / thumbs down. Being an English major helped me get there.

4. How to Analyze

You have to do something with your curiosity and what you find.

In a creative setting or work, this means exploring further, remixing, stealing, adding and adapting for something new.

In business, it means application. It’s asking “What can we do with this?”

English majors are especially skilled at this— taking the implicit, hidden meanings and making them explicit — more broadly applicable in a different setting. You can take lessons from stories and examples and apply in them in a broader context.

5. How to Tell Stories

Stories are an absolute premium right now. Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Apple and all kinds of other “content creators” are literally fighting over the world’s best storytellers.

Yet entertainment isn’t the only industry searching for storytellers. Brands are too. Every brand needs a story and then another story and then another one after that.

Products are differentiating themselves with their brand stories, their messaging, design and more.

Companies want to create an alluring story, because people want to be part of a story larger themselves. Sometimes that means watching a new movie, having a religious experience, or buying something new (not all of those are equal–I know!). But there is an opportunity there for you as an English major to participate. Everyone is talking about it.

I’m not Steven Spielberg, but as a person who literally has studied thousands of stories, I know you have the skill and opportunity to help bring this to fruition.


Remember, as an English major…

You don’t have to teach.

You don’t have to bank your whole career on one mega-hit novel (though that would be nice).

You have more options than that because communicators are more in demand than ever before.

If you’re an English major, use that to your advantage.

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