English Major Guide


Students taking courses in the Department of English engage with English, American, and Anglophone literature of an astounding historical span and global variety, and are trained to respond to what they read in a rich and complex variety of ways—from expository essays and scholarly inquiries to class discussions and creative writing of their own.

The English department offers a wide range of courses in literature and writing. Literature courses focus on the close reading of texts and the relationship of literary works to other literary works, as well as to historical contexts, modern reinterpretations, and other disciplines. Other courses focus primarily on writing—expository or creative—allowing students to share and critique their work with classmates and instructors, often in the context of studying the work of established writers.

The major’s program of study encourages an accumulation of skills as the means to many kinds of futures. Some majors proceed to graduate study in English or other advanced literary or humanist studies; others go on to careers in medicine, law, freelance writing, teaching, publishing, social work, or business. Some English majors concentrate their electives on biology, psychology, or economics, in preparation for law or medicine or other careers for which the English major can supply essential skills in textual analysis, logic, cultural history, and persuasive argumentation. Other English majors choose to be double majors, combining English for example with Psychology, Biology, or Art History (although double majors must plan carefully to complete their degrees in four years). The major in English at Cornell prepares students for a wide range of intellectual and professional pursuits, and does so by combining innovative and traditional fields and approaches.

Whether considering English as a major, a minor, or simply a field to explore, students are encouraged to consult with the department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS). Descriptions of English courses offered each term and other important information are available on the department’s website english.arts.cornell.edu/courses/.

Admission to the Major

There are no prerequisites for admission to the English major. First-year students, however, may wish to enroll in a section of ENGL 1270, Writing about Literature, the First-Year Writing Seminar (FWS) designed for prospective majors. Like other writing seminars, this course develops skills for critical reading and effective writing. ENGL 1270 is open to all second-term freshmen, and to first-term freshmen with scores of 700 or above on the College Entrance Examination Board Tests in English composition or literature, or 5 on the Advanced Placement Examination in English.

Survey Courses
Most students considering the English major begin with one of the department’s survey courses, which are open to all students. ENGL 2010 and 2020, The English Literary Tradition I and II, provide a survey of British writers. ENGL 2030 and 2040 survey American literature. Several other introductory courses (at the 2000 level) are offered each semester, introducing such topics as modern theory, major writers, and various literary genres.

Introductions to Writing
ENGL 2800 and 2810, Creative Writing, and ENGL 2880 and 2890, Expository Writing, are open to students who have completed their First-Year Writing Seminar requirement and are also suitable preparation for the major. These particular 2000-level courses, however, do not count towards English major credit. ENGL 2800 or 2810 is a prerequisite for 3000-level creative writing courses, which do count for the major. An expository writing course can, with permission of the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, count as a FWS. Creative Writing courses do not count for First-Year Writing Seminar credit.

Important: FWS classes and substitutions fall under the purview of the Knight Institute. You Must see the "FWS | Substitutions" section of the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines website for information and instructions.

Requirements for the Major

To graduate with a major in English, a student must complete with a grade of C or better 40 credit hours approved for the English major. All 2000-level ENGL courses (with the exception of 2800-2810 and 2880-2890) count for the major, as do all 3000- and 4000-level courses. With the exception of ENGL 1100 How Reading Changes Your Life, no 1000-level courses will count. Courses used for the English major may also be counted for the Literature and the Arts (LA) distribution requirement in the College of Arts and Sciences. Many of these courses may also be used to meet the College’s historical breadth requirements.

Major requirements for students matriculating in Fall 2022 and later:

Students matriculating in 2021 may choose to follow either these requirements or those listed for students matriculating in 2020 or earlier.

Coursework requirements

Ten full-semester courses in Literatures in English or related fields

A minimum of seven full-semester courses must be ENGL courses.

Major distribution requirements

Students are required to take the following courses from different categories within the course offerings of Literatures in English:

  • Pre-1800: two courses must be from courses in which at least half of the material consists of literature written in English before 1800, studied in the original.
  • Post-1800: two courses must be from courses in which at least half of the material consists of literature written in English after 1800.

Of either the pre- or post-1800 courses, the following further requirements apply:

  • Two courses must be focused on Literatures of the Americas, at least one of which must cover the following fields: American Indian or Indigenous, African American, Asian American & Asian Pacific Islander, or Latinx.
  • One course must be focused on literatures of the Global South (African Literatures in English, African Diaspora Literatures in English, Asian Diaspora Literatures in English, Caribbean Literatures in English, South Asian Literatures in English).

Courses may qualify for multiple categories, but students may use a single course to fulfill no more than two of the four categories above.

  • 4000-level: two courses must be at the 4000-level or above. The 4000-level requirement may only be satisfied with ENGL seminar courses.
  • Concentration: three courses must form an intellectually coherent “concentration.”

Notes on course credits

  • Concentrations are defined by students in consultation with their advisors. Concentrations might feature historical periods or regions of literatures in English (including those required as above), particular genres, or particular approaches. Possible concentrations include creative writing; medieval literature; Renaissance literature; African diaspora literatures; literatures of the Americas before 1900; poetry; twentieth-century literatures in English; literary theory; gender and sexuality studies; film and media; drama; etc.
  • Students must receive a grade of C or better in a course to count it toward the major.
  • Courses must be 3 credits or higher to count toward the major unless otherwise noted.
  • No more than two courses of non-Cornell credit per semester may be applied to the major (this restriction includes study abroad under Cornell auspices).
  • ENGL 4930 - Honors Essay Tutorial I - ENGL 4940 - Honors Essay Tutorial II may be counted toward the required 10 full-semester courses but may not be used to satisfy other categories of requirements.

First Year Writing Seminars, ENGL 2800ENGL 2810ENGL 2880, and ENGL 2890 may not be counted toward the major.

All cross-listed courses may count for the major, as may up to three courses at the 3000 level or above from other departments or academic units if focused on literatures not originally in English. Other courses may count only with the approval of the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

Major requirements for students who matriculated in Fall 2020 or earlier:

Students who matriculated in 2021 may choose to follow either these requirements or those listed for students matriculating in 2022 or later.

Coursework requirements

  • 40 credit hours of English courses or related fields
  • A minimum of 28 credit hours must be ENGL courses.

Major distribution requirements

Students are required to take the following number of courses from different categories within the English course offerings:

  • Pre-1800: 12 credits (three courses) must be from courses in which 50 percent or more of the material consists of literature originally written in English before 1800. The sole exception to this rule is ENGL 3280 - The Bible as Literature which, although not originally written in English, may be used to satisfy the pre-1800 requirement. English courses that satisfy the pre-1800 requirement are so designated in the Courses of Study. Courses outside of the department may be used with permission of the DUS.
  • 4000-level: 8 credits (two courses) must be at the 4000-level or above. The 4000-level requirement may only be satisfied with ENGL seminar courses.
  • Concentration: 12 credits (three courses) must form an intellectually coherent “concentration.”

Notes on course credits

  • Students select their concentration in consultation with their major advisor.
  • To receive credit towards the major, students must receive a grade of C or better within a course.
  • A maximum of 12 of the 40 required credit hours may come from appropriate courses originating in departments and programs other than English, provided they are at the 3000-level or above. Upper level courses (3000 or above) in literature and creative writing offered by academic units representing neighboring or allied disciplines (German Studies, Romance Studies, Asian Studies, Classics, Comparative Literature, Africana Studies, the Society for the Humanities, American Studies, Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, Religious Studies, Asian American Studies, American Indian and Indigenous Studies, Jewish Studies, Latina/o Studies, and Performance and Media Arts) are routinely counted toward the 40 hours of major credit. Many 2000-level literature courses in which the material is read in the original language may also be counted toward the English major. Majors should discuss the use of non-English courses for major credit with their faculty advisor or the DUS.
  • No more than 8 credits per semester of non-Cornell credit may be applied to the English major. This restriction applies to study abroad even when that study is conducted under Cornell auspices.
  • ENGL 4930 - Honors Essay Tutorial I - ENGL 4940 - Honors Essay Tutorial II may be counted toward the 40 required credit hours in the major, but they may not be used to satisfy the pre-1800, 4000-level seminar, or concentration requirements.
  • All 2000-level ENGL courses (with the exception of 2800-2810 and 2880-2890) count for the major, as do all 3000- and 4000-level courses. Courses from other departments that are crosslisted with ENGL courses qualify for major credit. Courses used for the English major may also be used to meet distribution requirements in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Planning a Program of Study

Few students know from the moment they decide to major in English exactly what they wish to study; breadth of studies is as important as following particular connections. The requirements of the English major are designed to provide a flexible framework for increasing skills in literary analysis, research, and writing; within that framework, the “concentration” and the Honors Program provide two further ways to shape the pursuit of the major. English majors are expected regularly to discuss their overall program of study with their faculty advisors.

Students interested in developing their skills as writers will find a variety of workshop courses in expository and creative writing. As a rule, a student may not enroll in more than one such course per semester, although exceptions are sometimes allowed if one of these is ENGL 2880 or 2890.

Study abroad
English majors often study at foreign institutions, for one term or two during their junior year. The Cornell Abroad office has information on a variety of programs at universities around the world. Many majors go to the United Kingdom or other English-speaking countries, but others choose non-English speaking locations. As long as they meet all College and department requirements, studying abroad can readily fit into the English major. English majors planning on completing the Honors Program who are spending the entire junior year abroad may need to take the honors seminar, ENGL 4910, as seniors. Students seeking admission to the Honors Program should discuss their plans with the Director of the Honors Program in English before leaving campus.

Credit for literature courses taken abroad can in most cases be applied to the 40-hour minimum for the major, the concentration, and pre-1800 requirements. The DUS, not the faculty advisor, must approve requests to count credits from study abroad for the English major. Students must confer with the DUS in advance of going abroad as well as upon return. The first conference will include a review of catalog descriptions of courses that the student expects to take while abroad along with alternates; the second will involve an evaluation of transcripts and documentation of successful completion of the work, including papers and exams.

No more than 16 credits per year, or 8 credits per semester, of non-Cornell credit may be applied to the major. This restriction applies to all study abroad even when conducted under Cornell auspices.

The Honors Program

Students who have done superior work in English are encouraged to seek admission to the department’s program leading to the degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honors in English. Following an interview with the director of the Honors Program, qualified students will be admitted provisionally to the program. Plans for this should be made in the sophomore or at the beginning of the junior year. During their junior year, these students complete at least one Honors Seminar, ENGL 4910 or 4920, and are encouraged to take at least one additional 4000-level ENGL course in the field in which they plan to concentrate. A student seeking honors is expected to select a thesis topic and secure a thesis advisor by the end of their junior year. During their senior year, each candidate for Honors in English enrolls in a year-long tutorial, ENGL 4930 and 4940, with the faculty member chosen as thesis advisor. The year’s work culminates in a thesis that is read by at least two members of the department’s faculty.

More information is in the Honors Program Guide.

English Major Junior Fall form

English majors fill out the English Major Junior Fall form by the end of the first semester of their junior year. Students meet with their major advisor to complete the form, making sure they are on track to meet all requirements of the major by their expected graduation date.

Preparation for Graduate Study in English

Students intending to pursue graduate work in English should investigate the requirements of schools offering programs to which they think they might apply. Faculty advisors and the DUS are available for consultation. Majors considering a Ph.D. in English should give special attention to language preparation in planning their undergraduate study; most graduate programs require reading knowledge of at least one foreign language (usually French or German), and sometimes two or more. Some programs require knowledge of Latin. A broad program of undergraduate study in English is advisable since most graduate programs in English require students to demonstrate a wide knowledge of the major authors and periods of British and American literature. Grounding in literary theory and some exposure to the critical tradition is also highly desirable.

For Further Information

Visit the Department of Literatures in English Undergraduate Study webpage.
Contact the Undergraduate Coordinator (Aurora Ricardo, ar2368@cornell.edu).