As well as a person, an English major is also an academic major that can be declared within, usually, the college of Humanities at most any university (or four year college, etc.). Generally, the focus of an English degree is literature, though some programs allow for specialization in linguistics, creative writing, or composition. However, virtually all English programs require at least a course in advanced composition and a course in linguistics. As a final note, this applies to the American higher education system only.

The literature component always requires a broad background obtained through survey courses. Although one can usually specialize in either American literature or English literature, exposure to both is always required. Less emphasis is placed on American literature requirements, due to the smaller number of major periods. Beyond the surveys (from what I have seen, usually 3-4 courses), a few general requirements sit at the core: a major (English) author course (William Shakespeare, John Milton, Edmund Spenser, and Geoffrey Chaucer seem to be popular); one or two additional American literature courses; and two or three additional English literature courses (sometimes the choices are period-specific, i.e. Medieval, Renaissance, Restoration, Victorian, Contemporary).

For those of you who study an engineering or science discipline, this probably seems quite skimpy. I was shocked when I switched majors, mostly because I spent two years preparing for computer science, only to find out that I can actually take fewer classes and still graduate when I had expected. The major cause of this disparity is free electives; though English-specific electives are required, the greater portion of the hours goes toward doing whatever you please. Coupled with the need for an academic minor (usually 6-7 classes) and a year of a foreign language, free electives allow you to spend most of your time doing anything but English. This is the liberal arts approach to education.

To wrap up, if you want to major in English, you need to decide if you want to study literature, linguistics, composition, or creative writing. Sometimes these concentrations are offered as separate degrees (this most often applies to linguistics and creative writing), but are still controlled by the English department. You will probably take 12-16 courses (36-48 semester hours) directly pertaining to English, as well as 6-7 courses (18-21 hours) for a minor, and 2 courses for a language (6-8 hours). The rest will be university requirements and free electives, for a total of approximately 124 hours. By the end of your studies, you will be fairly literate, familiar with literary terms, and experienced with critical writing on the academic level. Figuring out why these skills are useful will be left as an exercise to the reader.

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