What to Know About College-Level English

In college, there’s typically a greater variety of English classes. Students should know that college-level English explores subjects both narrower and deeper than what they may have experienced in high school. If you are an aspiring English major, writer, or simply looking to improve your reading and writing skills, here’s what you can anticipate about college-level English:

1. College-level English emphasizes critical thinking

In college-level English courses, there’s more of a focus on critical thinking, both in the way you read, annotate, and interpret texts, and in the way you write. In general, college-level English moves away from formulaic structures, like the five-paragraph essay, and asks you to consider the nuances and complexities of an argument. You’ll likely have fewer exams and tests than you did in high school, and instead have more papers, essays, and research projects—possibly even presentations. Your final project could likely be a 10-15-page paper where you explore and develop an argument of your own choice, often backed with texts you’ve read from the course or outside research.

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2. Writing courses versus literature courses

College-level English departments offer different kinds of English courses; the two most common categories are literature and writing. Literature courses will have you read published texts, and your writing will also center around these texts. You can often find courses on a variety of subjects, such as:

  • poetry

  • fiction

  • nonfiction

  • specific time periods or eras

  • movements

  • geographical regions

Writing courses will focus more directly on improving your own writing (even though this is a byproduct of taking a literature course!), which can range from analytical writing all the way to creative writing. The former will help you develop your rhetorical skills and how you logically put together an argument, and the latter will often be in the form of workshops, where you can receive and give feedback on poems, stories, and so on.

3. College-level English provides options to carve your own path

If you end up becoming an English major, sometimes—depending on your school—you can choose a specialization within the major, or you may just work toward a general English degree if the former isn’t offered. Either way, you can likely carve your own path, taking courses that interest you in terms of movements, regions, and so on, which isn’t always the case in other departments where a more formalized structure may be in place (it always depends on the school at hand, however). If you’re not sure what courses to take, ask an English professor you trust, your academic advisor, or other peers in your program for recommendations.

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4. College-level English offers interdisciplinary studies

A great benefit about college-level English is how it can tie in so seamlessly with other subjects and fields. Many English classes are cross-listed, perhaps with gender studies, cultural studies, philosophy, art, and more. Take advantage of these opportunities to explore a side interest, or look to see how your interests might intersect in a specific course. Taking these kinds of courses can help you learn about how you might want to use your English skills in the future, whether in a career or in further schooling.

5. Readings and conferences

Many colleges and universities often bring in writers and authors throughout the year for readings, seminars, book studies, and lectures. These are great opportunities to meet with active, successful writers, to hear about their processes and their career journeys, to network, and to simply be inspired by work that is being put out in the world now. Keep a lookout for conferences as well—your college English department is likely to host a graduate student English conference that you’re welcome to attend, and it may cover a variety of topics that interest you.

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College-level English is a different beast from high school, one that will require more of your effort as a student, but it will also challenge you to become a better writer and thinker. Don’t forget to visit your English professors during office hours, as they can help steer you in the right direction if you feel cloudy about your writing, projects, or future.

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