A collection of some books you might have to read as an English major.
Don't worry: You can do it. (Illustration by Sarah Yu, Duke University)

How to Succeed in an English Class as a Non-English Major

Even if reading isn’t your specialty, finding success in an English course is achievable for everyone.

College x
A collection of some books you might have to read as an English major.
Don't worry: You can do it. (Illustration by Sarah Yu, Duke University)

Even if reading isn’t your specialty, finding success in an English course is achievable for everyone.

Most universities these days require a general education literature course. However, taking one of these courses is often intense work for non-English majors, as they don’t have the same background in literary theory that many English majors do.

So, here’s a quick list of the tools you’ll need to survive in an upper level lit course with little to no prep.

Do the assigned readings

Everyone tries to skip this step, so if you’ve walked into a lit course without even opening the book you were supposed to read, you’re not alone. That being said, it’s the downfall for most students in these courses.

Your professor may do a quick summary of what happened in the book, but most literature courses I’ve been in are discussion led. You can’t get away with just watching the movie. You need to actually read what’s assigned.

Take notes

While this may seem obvious, the amount of students I see who don’t take notes in a literature course astounds me. Just because there aren’t dates and events to memorize, or formulas to drill into your head doesn’t mean you don’t need to retain the information being given. The thing most students struggle with is what to write down. My answer to that is that you should write down anything and everything that interests you.

The amazing thing about most literature courses is that you can usually get by with a fairly self-driven approach. Most of the larger essays are ones you get to pick the topic for, so take notes on what you think is interesting. Also, don’t just take notes on in-class lectures. Keep a notebook by your side as you’re reading an assigned text. Write down interesting points, character connections or words you find interesting. I’ll speak more on this later.

Get the correct edition

A fairly basic notion, but an important one: When purchasing the required books for your course, make sure you’re getting the ones with the correct ISBN numbers.

You don’t want to end up with a different translation for a foreign language text or something with the wrong page numbers. It makes it hard to follow along, and you might miss things the professor is trying to say. English majors everywhere have learned this the hard way.

Look up unfamiliar topics

So you don’t know what queer theory or postmodernism is. Look it up.

When the professor is discussing something in class that sounds like gibberish to you, make a note of it, and look it up later. It may be important to your understanding of the novel. Plus, you’ll learn something new.

Read slow

Another mistake many non-English majors make is rushing through the readings — well, to be honest, even those who specialize in literature do this. The problem is, you could be missing key details when you do this.

If you find yourself re-reading a page over and over because you can’t figure out how the setting changed, or why a character is doing something, slow down. It’ll help.

Go to your professor with questions

I cannot emphasize this enough: professors have office hours for a reason. It’s a whole block of time dedicated to helping students out.

Visit them and talk to them about what you’re struggling with. I’ve never had a professor get mad at me for asking questions in office hours, and they usually enjoy the company.

Make a study group

If you’ve got some friends in the class, that’s great. Don’t use them for a study group. Most of the study groups I’ve made with friends have ended up being more social than academic. Branch out. Talk to new people, get their numbers, form new connections.

English majors are known for being introverts, but get us talking about our favorite book and you’ll find a fountain of knowledge on a very specialized subject. Find the student that’s always answering the professor’s questions and leading the discussions, and study with them. You’ll probably get a new friend out of it, if nothing else.

Annotate your book

This one is very important too. If you have a book you can write in, write in it. Highlight important passages, doodle in the margins, underline phrases you don’t understand.

Here is a guide to a few effective ways to annotate, but keep in mind, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. If you can’t write in your book, Post-it Notes are your new best friends. Get a pack of them and sticker away.

Read the SparkNotes (but not just the SparkNotes)

SparkNotes are a very useful tool if you’re struggling to figure out the plot. The basic summaries can help you focus on the details instead of worrying about what’s actually going on.

That being said, don’t rely on them for your entire reading experience. If there are SparkNotes for a book you’re reading in class, chances are your professor has read it too and will make sure that you aren’t relying on it too heavily.

Keep an open mind

Finally, if you haven’t already noticed, college is a place for people of all types to come together and learn. Make sure to keep an open mind. Learn to acknowledge others’ viewpoints. Literature courses can and will challenge your previously held convictions on a lot of topics, so be open to new perspectives.

English majors, and those in other disciplines, can all coexist in a literature class without leaving anyone out. If you feel like you’re behind in your course, try out something new. You might end up loving that lit class more than you think.

Additional Resource: Improve Your English Skills Today on grammarhow.com

Writer Profile

Emerson Holmes

Lindenwood University
English Studies

Emerson Holmes has been previously published in the Eunoia Review, the Neon Mariposa Magazine and Crab Fat Magazine. To send him turtle-related paraphernalia, or for inquiries, contact him through his website.

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