Studying an English literature degree: What is it really like?
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Studying an English Literature Degree: Is it all Happy Endings?

Jennifer Prince November 29, 2021

Studying an English Literature degree comes with a whole host of assumptions. Having hardly any lessons, reading a library’s worth of books and not being able to get a job after graduation, to name a few. Looking for some clarity? You are in the right place. This article exists to set the record straight and get to the bottom of what studying English at degree level is really like.

First things first, you do not have to have read all of the literary classics (think Dickens, Austen, etc), or be able to read at the speed of light to study English. To get the most from lectures and seminars, the important thing is simply to enjoy the subject. 

Moving from A-level to university is a big jump. But it is no dramatic leap of faith. In essence, teaching is more self-guided. This is both a blessing and a curse. For perhaps the first time, when, where, and how you study outside of contact hours is up to you. Being able to prioritise your time is useful here. While you can completely adapt your study to what is most productive for you, it is also incredibly tempting to not do any work.

If you are considering studying an English literature degree, there is going to be a lot of reading. And yes, although that is obvious, it still somehow takes you by surprise just how much reading there is for each module. Often the texts are really interesting. But, because the degree is so broad, do not expect to be passionate about every text you study. In the same way it is difficult to be excited about a 9am lecture, Shakespeare might just not be your thing. And that is ok. 

Prioritising your Reading

Getting ahead on reading before each semester starts is helpful, but not always feasible in a busy student lifestyle. Work smart. Do not try to read every single bit of primary and secondary reading for each week. That is not realistic. Reading the primary material is most important. But if, for one reason or another, you have not managed to read it in time, it is not the end of the world. Instead, try to read a summary or extracts that will be discussed in the seminar. That way, you know what is going on and can contribute to the discussion.

Then make sure you have read the entire text(s) and around the texts for the literature that you will write your essays on. This is likely to be the topic that most interests you in the module. Still go to as many seminars and lectures if you can. They are great for building holistic knowledge, keeping to a routine, and gaining skills alongside meeting people on your course.

Quick tip

Do not buy all of the books on the reading lists brand new! Use online resources or buy them second hand if possible. It will save you a lot of money. 

As Literature is such a broad subject, there is a lot of freedom to choose what to study. The amount of choice increases after everyone has been taught the fundamentals of drama, poetry and novels in first year, right up to picking your own dissertation topic in third year. Nevertheless, from the offset it is possible to tailor your work to your interests.

In particular, seminars are quite flexible as they are discussion-based. Seminar leaders encourage students to voice their opinions and bounce ideas off each other. Additionally, course conveners will set a list of essay questions for each assignment. Aside from choosing texts or part of a text to write about, there is usually an option to create your own essay question, if your interests are not covered by the suggested questions. So, if you are more interested in the political side of a text, speak up! 

It takes time

It must be said that academic writing is difficult to get your head around. Remember starting A-levels and getting that unexpected E grade in your first assessment? Unfortunately, the same applies to university. Do not be disheartened. Studying an English literature degree takes three years to give you time to improve and achieve the grades you want.  Make use of university writing services and tutor’s office hours as a shortcut to improving academic writing. Honestly, it should be, but it is not always clear from the start how to write a ‘good’ academic essay. 

Some people reading this will know what direction they want their career to go in after graduating. Some will have no idea. And some people will change their plan over the course of their degree. Any of those positions are perfectly fine to be in. A Literature degree is not at all undesirable for employers as it equips you with many transferable skills. Humanities and arts are essential to modern-day living, so if this degree is what you will enjoy, go for it!

See also: Joint honours: An honest review

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Jennifer is a Manchester-based freelance journalist and has been writing for Freshered since its launch in November 2021. She graduated in December 2022 from The University of Birmingham with a BA (Hons) degree in English Literature, where she spent much of her time writing and reporting for Redbrick Newspaper. A lover of variety, Jennifer covers topics ranging from university advice, live music and theatre reviews, to news and current events, but seeks to expand her work to cover sustainability and the climate crisis. Her aim is to make journalism more accessible to the everyday reader. As a GirlGuiding Volunteer in her spare time, Jennifer is never one to be boring. When she’s not writing she can often be found with her head in a book, trying a new craft, or on the dancefloor.