It’s no secret that most English majors really like reading and writing. Many of us go on to use our degrees in unsurprising careers: publishing, editing, writing, teaching, etc. But although these career choices are certainly prevalent amongst our peers, they don’t provide the whole scope of options available to those with an English degree.
For example, I work in marketing and advertising. In fact, I sell television commercials and various forms of online advertising for a local TV station. Towards the end of college, I developed an interest in working in media thanks to an advertising and public relations course I took at my school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an internship I did in the promotions department at a radio station in my hometown. I was attracted to my current job, which was my first job out of college, because I would get to use my communication skills and creativity on a daily basis to help people grow their businesses.
A typical day in my job includes meeting with local business owners and marketing directors to discuss their marketing goals and how I can use the power of TV and/or the Internet to help them achieve those goals. I also work with advertising agencies as they place TV commercials for their clients. Sometimes people I meet are surprised to learn that I was an English major. They wonder how my major could possibly relate to what I do for a living.
There are lots of memes and jokes out there on the Internet about how the only thing an English major teaches you is how to say “Would you like fries with that?” or “Would you like whipped cream on your frozen coffee drink?” I’d like to make the case that in fact the English major, like many of its liberal arts degree brethren, actually teaches several transferable skills that are essential whether you work in marketing, sales, teaching, publishing, writing, law, or yes, the local coffee shop.
Here are my top five handy transferable English major skills:
This skill becomes useful immediately when you interview for jobs and continues in almost any job. The moment you sit down at a job interview, you are telling the hiring manager a story about yourself. Whether or not you tell a favorable story will determine the interviewer’s impression of you and oftentimes whether or not you get the job offer.
In my current sales role, storytelling is a way of selling to potential clients, and the more you pay attention, the more you will see that storytelling is a key component of nearly any job function. If you’re a teacher, you have to help your students connect with the works of literature they’re reading. They need to know why To Kill A Mockingbird matters to them and their own lives. This is storytelling. The best marketing messages show consumers how a given product or service fits into their personal story. Those of us who are loyal iPhone users probably can’t imagine life without our devices; we’ve bought into the intersection between our stories and the stories Apple is telling us.
2. Close Reading
In English classes, we're taught to look for the subtext in the works we read. Every conversation in the workplace, whether it's with coworkers or clients/customers, has subtext built into it. English majors can more easily pick up on tonal shifts and shift conversational gears accordingly. If you happen to work in sales like I do, this skill makes a huge difference when it comes to connecting with prospective customers. People buy from people they like and trust, and close reading/active listening is the first step in earning someone’s trust.
3. Justifying Your Ideas
When analyzing a text in an English class, students have to be able to defend their positions, especially when they go against the typical reading of that text. In the working world, we are often called upon to explain why we think an idea will work, or why it won't. I was taught that for every line of direct quotation in a research paper, there should be at least three lines of explanation/interpretation. Being able to justify my ideas (ideally without being a know-it-all, of course) gives me credibility in meetings at work, and managers love to see that they’ve hired a smart, capable employee.
4. Tactful Communication
As English majors, we studied tone and subtext so much that we are perfectly suited to writing that challenging email to an unhappy client. I've had to do this several times in my work, whether it's to apologize for a mistake I or someone on my team made, deliver hard news, or explain why something can't be done. Knowing how to strike the proper tone is the difference between appeasing your client or creating an enemy for your company.
5. Spelling & Grammar
No matter what your job function is, good grammar is essential. I end up helping proofread everything that goes out to clients from my office, because every comma splice, typo, etc., undermines our professionalism. My coworkers know they can count on me to point out their spelling and grammar errors (all in the name of making the company look as good as possible, of course!). By being able to communicate effectively and professionally, you will automatically stand head and shoulders above plenty of other people in the workforce.
There are undoubtedly many more useful skills that an English major teaches, but in the interest of brevity we’ll stop here. English majors, be confident in yourself and in your degrees—you have a lot to offer the world regardless of what path you choose!
About the Author
Hayley Crowell Curry graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013 with a double major in English and Spanish and a minor in creative writing. She now makes her home in Winston-Salem, NC, where she works as a TV and Internet marketing consultant for a local TV station. In her spare time, Hayley continues to write guest blog posts, fiction pieces, and various freelance projects. Some of her favorite words include “ignite,” “serendipity,” “burgeoning,” and “mellifluous.” She loves ice cream, a capella music, reading as often as possible, and cheering on her beloved Tar Heels. You can follow her on Twitter @_hayleycurry and/or connect with her on LinkedIn.