What To Expect From An English Degree

I don’t think I need to tell anyone that A Level results day was last week. I honestly remember my own results day like it was about three months ago, but no, apparently it was four years since I received a 7:30 text telling me I’d got in and the best three years I could possibly have asked for began.

It’s a really exciting time and posts with fresher tips are all over the internet right now, with good reason. I was very tempted to do my own, but given that I’m hopelessly old now anyway and probably totally out of touch, I thought I’d do something a bit different and focus my tips for uni on my subject. I figure the blogosphere is likely filled with people about to start, already midway through, or considering English degrees, but it’s a subject that can be difficult to describe (let alone justify), so here are my tips as to what you can expect if you’re on your way to your English BA!

(Disclaimer: I did my English BA at Exeter. All unis obviously have very different course set ups so this is just from my experience, but hopefully it’ll give you at least an idea of what you might experience!)

  • You will become very familiar with the following words: problematic, binary oppositions, legitimises, social construct, deconstruct…amongst others.
  • Some part of first year will be spent grappling with overly complicated literary theory that will actually prove so so useful by 3rd year (and that’s not even that complex once you get through the mile-long sentences and super long words!)
  • Your tutors will be (for the most part) lovely, laidback, socially awkward and technologically inept, in approximately equal parts
  • You’ll probably still get given cake and/or chocolate at the end of term because English staff know about priorities
  • It sounds unlikely but you actually can focus your degree on exactly what you want and what you’re interested in. I studied precisely one Shakespeare play during my entire 4 years and 2 degrees but some of my best friends did entire modules in him. Meanwhile, I was studying American Novels written since 2000 (the best module I ever took)
  • You’ll find yourself identifying sexism, colonialism, any other kind of ism, in every TV show you ever watch – including the adverts. You will also start identifying everything you ever come across as a “social construct.” I am not even joking.
  • Your non-English friends will think you never do any work and will bemoan your lack of exams until you feel guilty for doing English. Don’t feel guilty – own it. Not your fault you picked the best degree!
  • When you tell people outside of uni what you do, they WILL assume you’re going to be a teacher. Just smile.
  • You will become an expert in reading about 4 pages of a book in order to surmise its general premise
  • You will also become an expert in coming up with one useful comment to blurt out in a seminar, before sitting back, satisfied that your work is done, for the rest of the session.
  • You get to do what, for most people, is essentially a hobby (reading), for three years of your life. That’s it! That’s all you have to do! (And as an aside, you will probably wonder every day how exactly you’re getting away with this one…just go with it.)

Any fellow English students/grads have anything to offer? I think it’s fair to say I absolutely loved my English degree (MA…not so much, but that’s another story) and I am also very happy to report that doing English doesn’t seem to have hindered any of my friends in their job hunt. So if you’re thinking about it, don’t let the lack of obvious career choices put you off (and if you have any other questions, feel free to tweet/email me!)


Read Me

There are a million things I should be doing today – dissertation, mainly, and also packing – but I saw this on one of the many other millions of blogs I read, and as an English student, felt compelled to do it.
What are you reading right now?
Currently, A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore, but I left it in Exeter over the holidays ’cause I only have the huge hardback version. On the train home I started reading Infinite Jest which I might persevere with on my flight to Florida on Monday.
Do you have any idea what you’ll read after you’ve finished this book?
The pile of books on my bedside table is ridiculous. I brought The Paris Wife home for holiday reading but then I found Silver Linings Playbook on a bookshelf at home so I might read that one first!
Five books you’ve always wanted to read but have never got round to?
I have actually never read Pride & Prejudice – it’s the only Austen I’ve never read! So that’s definitely on the list. The Time Traveler’s Wife. We Need To Talk About Kevin. Catch-22. On The Road. I could go on!
What magazines do you have in your bathroom/lounge right now?
I don’t really tend to buy magazines ’cause they don’t keep me entertained for long enough but I think there’s a Company in the living room somewhere and there was a Vogue floating around for a while
What’s the worst book you ever read?
Worst? I have read some awful chick-lit in my time. Super cheap books on Kindle are so tempting but they’re so not worth it half the time!
What book is really popular but you really hated?
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I didn’t really hate it but I just didn’t love it. It took me a long time to finish it, which is super unusual for me. Also, Of Mice and Men! We had to do it for GCSE so that was probably part of it but I didn’t like it at all.
What’s the one book you recommend to everybody?
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. It’s my ultimate favourite book of all time.
What are your three favourite poems?
Hmm I don’t know – I’ve been forced to read so many poems the last three years that it’s hard to say! I really like The Dug-Out by Siegfried Sassoon. Also, Kid by Simon Armitage. Funnily enough I had to read both of those at school – the Sassoon was for AS-Level and Kid for GCSE!
Where do you usually get your books?
Generally Waterstones or Amazon. My very favourite bookshop in the world is Kramerbooks in DC but it’s kind of a long trip…
Where do you usually read your books?
In/on my bed or while travelling
When you were little, did you have any reading habits?
Oh God, I was always, always reading. Like, always.
What’s the last book you stayed up half the night to read?
I’m not sure – maybe The Art of Fielding?
Have you ever ‘faked’ reading a book?
Oh, many a time for a seminar. Never to impress anyone in conversation though!
Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?
Hmm I doubt it. I’m notoriously indecisive and will anguish over what book to buy for, like, hours.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I loved the Famous Five books, and all the Noel Streatfeild novels. I still read White Boots and Tennis Shoes every now and again. Oh, and Malory Towers! I wanted to go to boarding school so badly!
Which book changed your life?
Hmmm I honestly think Birdsong is one of the reasons I wanted to do English at uni and almost definitely the reason I did so well at AS-Level. So I guess that did to a point.
What is your favourite passage from a book?
I don’t know! It would depend completely on what mood I was in.
Who are your top five favourite authors?
I love Sebastian Faulks, if you couldn’t tell, and I really like John Green (so predictable). Also, Sarra Manning – I love her writing and I follow her on twitter and she’s hilarious. I loved Bret Easton Ellis when I was in 6th form but I’ve kind of gone off him a bit – I think I actually prefer James Frey, even if he did lie a little bit about his “autobiography.” We did A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in one of my modules last year and I fell a bit in love with Dave Eggers.
What is your favourite classic book?
Ooh I don’t know. I really like Emma. 
Five notable mentions?
I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe because it was so hilariously similar to life at W&M last year
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I prefer it to Gatsby
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld I LOVE IT
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Long long long but so good!
And…the Gossip Girl books. I liked them so much better than the TV series, for ages I just wanted to BE Blair Waldorf (actually I definitely still do…)