English: The Hot New Business Degree

When I was a sophomore in college, I, like many others, went through an existential crisis about what to major in. Zoology? Sociology? Psychology? What subject could I stand to study non-stop for the next two years? How did I want to define myself and my interests for the rest of my life? After a taking a few personality tests and performing some deep soul searching, I finally settled on Comparative Literature. My decision was immediately questioned when I informed my family of my intended major.

Family: “Comparative Literature? What is that?”

Me: “It’s kind of like an English degree.”

Family: “English?! What are you going to do with an English degree? Why don’t you major in something useful like accounting or computers?”

I have always possessed a passion for reading and a talent for writing so majoring in English seemed like a natural fit. While my family was disappointed in the short run, I have proven how valuable good reading comprehension and quality writing can be in the job market. As a brand new graduate, I was able to land a full-time job as an editor for an internet company. My friends who choose the more “useful/lucrative” major of business ended up staying in school longer only to have the pleasure of paying for the privilege of a prestigious internship that consisted mostly of stuffing goodie bags for employee parties.

Can English majors be more successful than Business majors? And if so, what skills do they posses that make them more successful?

The key difference between English and professional majors (business, engineering, computer science) seems to be the quality of a graduate’s writing abilities. As reported by Financial Week:

In 2006, 81% of corporate leaders rated the writing of high school graduates as deficient and nearly 28% gave similarly low marks to four-year college graduates, according to survey data compiled by a consortium that included the Conference Board and the Society for Human Resource Management.

As writing skills slide, Americans are squandering an inherent competitive advantage, says Linda Barrington, a co-author of the 2006 report and research director at the Conference Board. “We have the asset of our language being the language of [international] business,” she says. “If we don’t write it well, we are wasting a huge asset that we have in the global economy.”


The bulk of my time in college was spent reading books and then writing analytical, persuasive essays about my interpretation of the material. There were no tests, no real “studying” of any kind. Many of my peers in the science disciplines often chided me for being in such an “easy” major since I wasn’t required to memorize facts, conduct lab experiments or solve complex mathematical equations (haven’t taken math since Junior year of high school and I’ve never looked back). While I can see how folks could view the English curriculum as less rigorous, frankly, it’s challenging to think critically about something you’ve read, develop an opinion about it and then fill 10+ pages with coherent thoughts about why you think what you do.


Being able to express ideas effectively and concisely is a prized skill in the corporate world.


Confusing or unclear writing can be costly in a variety of ways, say Mr. Appleman and other writing coaches. The fallout can include interpersonal misunderstandings, lost work time, jeopardized business deals—or all of the above. “Bad writing wastes time, and time is money,” Mr. Appleman says. “It hurts productivity. And I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.”


…Sloppy or unclear writing can corrode today’s business interactions, particularly given that in-person meetings and even telephone calls are less common, says J.D. Schramm, director of the CAT (Critical Analytical Thinking) Writing Program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. “Because we are writing so much more, it becomes an extension and a representation of us.”


While students with professional-track degrees are always going to be sought after for their specialized knowledge that liberal arts majors just don’t have (I nearly failed Accounting 101), rounding out a professional education, be it business, computing science or engineering, with a few composition courses will make any graduate more valuable to a potential employer.


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9 responses »

  1. I think it’s interesting you reference students in the science fields giving your slack for having an ‘easy’ major because I am now a physics major and I have been asked more times then I can recall what I’m going to do with a Physics degree, as if the degree opens no doors.

  2. Jessica,

    I have a good friend who majored in physics in college. He is now a very successful software tester at Microsoft. Next time someone makes a comment about what you’re going to do with your degree, feel free to share that story.

  3. If you need an answer to the “Can English majors be more successful than Business majors?” question just hop on over to my blog and see for yourself! On your blog you have style, flash, pizazz. On my site, you have a business major who crushes the English language and makes English majors want to get out their red markers and start drawing on their monitors! Great post!

  4. I feel one’s intentions and studiousness reflect more strongly in their undergraduate than the actual degree they receive. Few degrees (baring nursing, engineering, architecture, etc) are specialized enough to keep someone who earns that degree in one specific job. Two of the people at my company that built our software and database structure were music majors in college. Two other guys who are product managers were English majors. I’m a PR/Communications grad working for a software company that analyzes marketing and PR.

    Are the lines blurred these days? Sure. But I think it’s great. It’s tough for young people who feel their only option is college and that they must decide what they’ll do forever in the first couple of years. I experimented and I highly recommend to anyone who wasn’t expressly born to do something to think outside of the box and outside of their major as much as possible.

  5. As an English major who graduated in 1996, I can tell you that I have been as successful as many other fellow students who were engineers or in the business school. I chose to get a post-graduate degree in Instructional Technology, and have designed and developed employee and leadership training for retail, consumer packaged goods, and automotive industries. The lack of communication skills in the workplace surprises me at times. It was nice to read that I wasn’t the only one who recognized the value of an English degree. Thanks!

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