How Many Years of English Do You Need?

Learn About the English Requirements for College Admissions

Reading a Book in Class
FatCamera / Getty Images

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.

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

SchoolEnglish Requirement
Auburn University4 years required
Carleton College3 years required, 4 years recommended (emphasis on writing)
Centre College4 years recommended
Georgia Tech4 years required
Harvard University4 years recommended
MIT4 years required
NYU4 years required (emphasis on writing)
Pomona College4 years recommended
Smith College4 years required
Stanford University4 years recommended (emphasis on writing and literature)
UCLA4 years required
University of Illinois4 years required
University of Michigan4 years required (at least 2 rigorous writing courses are recommended)
Williams College4 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 TOEFL, however, is rarely the only option for proving that your English language skills are satisfactory. Many colleges and universities will also accept scores from the IELTS, International Language Testing System. Scores from AP, IB, ACT, and SAT exams are also used by some colleges to help them assess an applicant's language proficiency.

Sources:
Carleton College: https://www.carleton.edu/admissions/apply/steps/criteria/
MIT: http://mitadmissions.org/apply/prepare/highschool
NYU: https://www.nyu.edu/admissions/undergraduate-admissions/how-to-apply/all-freshmen-applicants/high-secondary-school-preparation.html
Stanford University: https://admission.stanford.edu/apply/selection/prepare.html 
UCLA: http://www.admission.ucla.edu/Prospect/Adm_fr/fracadrq.htm​ 
Williams: 
https://admission.williams.edu/apply/​