How Many Years of English Do You Need?

Learn About the English Requirements for College Admissions

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English is perhaps the only high school subject for which colleges almost universally require or recommend a full four years of study. The college admissions officers will expect you to have strong writing and reading skills since these are at the heart of college success whether you're an engineer or a history major. This is also why many colleges require students to take courses in writing as part of a general education requirement—strong writing and communication skills are important for nearly every major and career. In fact, many high schools require students to take four years of English classes for exactly that reason.

English Requirements for College Admissions

  • Nearly all colleges and universities want to see four years of high school English.
  • Writing-intensive courses are most important.
  • AP, IB, Honors, and dual-enrollment English classes strengthen an application.
  • International students will need strong TOEFL or IELTS scores to demonstrate their English proficiency.

Samples of Different English Requirements

Different colleges word their English requirements differently, but as the examples below illustrate, nearly all want to see four years of high school English:

  • Carleton College: The strongest applicants will have completed four years of English, and at a minimum the college wants to see three years of coursework with an emphasis on writing.
  • MIT: The institute wants to see applicants who have a strong academic foundation in high school that includes four years of English.
  • NYU: The university notes that the best prepared students have taken four years of English with an emphasis on writing.
  • Stanford: Stanford does not have any requirement for English preparation, but the university states that the best prepared applicants have completed four years of English with a significant emphasis on writing and literature.
  • UCLA: The university's admissions folks will be looking for four years of college preparatory English that include the reading of classic and modern literature along with frequent and regular writing. Like many schools on this list, UCLA doesn't want to see more than one year of ESL-type course work. 
  • Williams College: Williams has no absolute requirements for English study, but the admissions folks tend to admit students who have a distinguished record in a four-year sequence of English coursework. 

Notice that many of these colleges specifically emphasize writing-intensive English courses. There is no exact definition of what makes a high school English course writing-intensive, and your school may not have denoted their courses as such. If a large part of your high school English course was focused on developing writing techniques and style, it will probably count toward a college's writing-intensive course requirement.

English Requirement vs. Recommendation

It is also important to remember that, while many schools may "recommend" four years of English rather than "require" it, colleges look more favorably upon applicants who have met or exceeded the recommended guidelines. A strong high school record is the best indicator of your potential performance in college, and it almost always the most important part of your entire college application.

Admissions officers are looking for students who challenge themselves in their coursework, not those who simply meet the minimum recommendations. The strongest applicants will have taken AP Language and Composition and/or AP English Literature and Composition. IB, Honors, and dual enrollment English classes will also strengthen an application.

The table below summarizes the recommended or required English coursework for a range of colleges and universities.

School English Requirement
Auburn University 4 years required
Carleton College 3 years required, 4 years recommended (emphasis on writing)
Centre College 4 years recommended
Georgia Tech 4 years required
Harvard University 4 years recommended
MIT 4 years required
NYU 4 years required (emphasis on writing)
Pomona College 4 years recommended
Smith College 4 years required
Stanford University 4 years recommended (emphasis on writing and literature)
UCLA 4 years required
University of Illinois 4 years required
University of Michigan 4 years required (at least 2 rigorous writing courses are recommended)
Williams College 4 years recommended

Requirements for Non-Native Speakers of English

If you attended all four years of high school at an institution where all of the instruction was conducted in English, you will have fulfilled the English admissions requirement for most colleges. This assumes you took an English class every year and those classes were not remedial. Thus, even if English is not your first language, you will have successfully demonstrated your proficiency without further testing. 

If your high school instruction was in a language other than English, you will most likely need to demonstrate your proficiency through standardized testing. One of the most common and popular options is the TOEFL, the Test of English as a Foreign Language. A good score on the TOEFL will be necessary to demonstrate that you have mastered English enough to succeed in college. The IELTS, International English Language Testing System, is another popular option used by many colleges and universities.

The TOEFL and IELTS, however, may not be the only options for proving that your English language skills are satisfactory. Many colleges and universities will also consider scores from AP, IB, ACT, and SAT exams to help assess an applicant's language proficiency. Selective schools are also likely to use interviews to assure that an applicant is fluent in English and capable of engaging in classroom discussion.

Carleton College:
Stanford University: 

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Your Citation
Cody, Eileen. "How Many Years of English Do You Need?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 31, 2021, Cody, Eileen. (2021, March 31). How Many Years of English Do You Need? Retrieved from Cody, Eileen. "How Many Years of English Do You Need?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).