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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- MBA Writing Tips