Foreign Language Requirement for College Admissions

Learn How Many Years You Need

Spanish / English class
DElight / Getty Images

Foreign language requirements vary from school to school, and the exact requirement is often not clear for any individual school. For example, is the "minimum" requirement really adequate? Do language classes in middle school count? If a college requires 4 years of a language, does a high score on the AP fulfill the requirement?

Requirements and Recommendations

In general, competitive colleges require at least two years of foreign language classes in high school.

As you'll see below, Stanford University would like to see three or more years, and Harvard University urges applicants to take four years. These classes should be in the same language—colleges would much prefer to see proficiency in one language than a superficial smattering of several languages.

When a college recommends "two or more" years of a language, they are clearly signaling that language study beyond two years would strengthen your application. Indeed, no matter where you apply for college, a demonstrated proficiency in a second language will improve your chances of being admitted. Life in college and after college is becoming increasingly globalized, so strength in a second language carries a lot of weight with admissions counselors.

That said, students who have just the minimum can win admission if their applications demonstrate strengths in other areas. Some less competitive schools don't even have a high school language requirement and assume some students will simply study a language once they get to college.

If you score a 4 or 5 on an AP language exam, most colleges will consider that evidence of adequate high school foreign language preparation (and you're likely to get course credit in college). Check with the schools to which you apply to find out exactly what their Advanced Placement policies are.

Examples of Foreign Language Requirements

The chart below shows the foreign language requirement at several competitive colleges followed by examples of the exact wording used by various college's admissions departments.

SchoolLanguage Requirement
Carleton2 or more years
Georgia Tech2 years
Harvard4 years recommended
MIT2 years
Stanford3 or more years
UCLA2 years required; 3 recommended
Univ. of Illinois2 years
Univ. of Michigan2 years required; 4 recommended
Williams4 years recommeneded
  • Carleton College: "Normally, students will be expected to take two or more years of a foreign or classical language unless it is not offered at their school." 
  • Georgia Institute of Technology: "The 2 units of the same foreign language must have an emphasis on speaking, listening, reading and writing." 
  • Harvard University: "Four years of a single foreign language" 
  • MIT: "Two years of a foreign language."
  • Stanford University: "Three or more years of the same foreign language. Your study of a foreign language ought to include the development of four basic skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprehension."
  • UCLA: "2 years required, 3 years recommended - Two years of the same language other than English. Courses should emphasize speaking and understanding and include instruction in grammar, vocabulary, reading, and composition."
  • University of Illinois, Main Campus: "2 years required, 4 years recommended"
  • University of Michigan, Main campus: "Freshman applicants to the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts are strongly encouraged to take four years of language study, but only two years of the same language are required for admission."
  • Williams College: "While there are no absolute requirements for admission, competitive candidates typically study English, math, natural science, foreign language and social studies in four-year sequences and present a distinguished record throughout their secondary school career.

A Final Word About Foreign Language Requirements

As you consider whether or not to take a foreign language in your junior and senior years of high school, keep in mind that your academic record is almost always the most important part of your college application. Colleges will want to see that you have taken the most challenging courses available to you. If you choose a study hall or an elective course over a language, the admissions folks at highly selective colleges won't view that decision positively.