English Language and Literature
Detail of a manuscript in the Bodleian Library.
(Image credit: Bodleian Library).

English Language and Literature

The English Language and Literature course is one of the broadest in the country, giving you the chance to study writing in English from its origins in Anglo-Saxon England to the literature of the 20th and early 21st centuries. As well as the literature of the British Isles, you can study works written in English from many other parts of the world. The course also allows you a considerable degree of choice about the topics you would like to concentrate on. Studying literature at Oxford involves the development of sophisticated reading skills and of an ability to place literary texts in their wider intellectual and historical contexts. It also requires you to consider the critical processes by which you analyse and judge, to learn about literary form and technique, and to study the development of the English language.

 

English at Oxford

The Oxford English Faculty is the largest English department in Britain. All Oxford colleges have at least two tutors in English who are responsible for tutorial teaching in their own college. Many also give lectures to all students in the English Faculty. You thus have the opportunity to learn from a wide range of specialist teachers.

Library provision for English at Oxford is exceptionally good. All students have access to the Bodleian Library, the English Faculty Library, other faculty libraries and their own college libraries. The English Faculty has long pioneered the use of electronic resources in teaching, and has a wide range of resources and facilities. The English Faculty building has its own computer room and all colleges have computing facilities for undergraduates to use.

In your first year you will be introduced to the conceptual and technical tools used in the study of language and literature, and to a wide range of different critical assumptions and approaches. At the same time, you will be doing tutorial work on early medieval literature, Victorian literature and modern literature up to the present day.

In your second and third years you will extend your study of English literary history in four more period papers ranging from late medieval literature to the Romantic age. These papers are assessed by three-hour written examinations at the end of your third year. You will also have coursework papers over the second and third years: a portfolio of work on Shakespeare; a Special Options paper on a topic selected from faculty research expertise; and an 8,000-word dissertation on a subject of your choice. Submitted work therefore constitutes almost half of your final assessment.

Alternatively, in the second and third years, you can choose to follow our specialist course in Medieval Literature and Language, whose compulsory papers cover literature in English from 650–1550 along with the history of the English language up to 1800, with a further paper either on Shakespeare or on manuscript and print culture. Optional papers for this course include old Norse, medieval French, archaeology, and any of the modern options available to candidates reading for the more general undergraduate course in English.

Careers

A number of English graduates (about 7%) choose to undertake research, while many more use the communication and analytical skills they develop at Oxford in a range of careers including advertising, acting, publishing, teaching, librarianship, public relations, journalism, the legal professions, management consultancy and finance. Recent English graduates include a projects coordinator in education for a London theatre, a trainee solicitor and a teacher.

Duncan, who was an English graduate in 2000, now works as a Senior Manager in Deloitte’s strategy consulting practice. He says: ‘The skills I acquired at Oxford, in being able to analyse and assimilate complex volumes of information in short timeframes, have allowed me to write and present board papers and reports to senior business leaders from a young age’.

Laura, who graduated in 2000, works as a freelance journalist and is Associate Editor at i-escape.com. She says: ‘Being able to hit a deadline, develop ideas, conduct thorough research and talk to anyone at any level, is essential in my job and my English degree gave me the specific skills to do that’.

Related courses

Students interested in this course might also like to consider the English joint courses: English and Modern Languages, History and English, or Classics and English.

A typical weekly timetable

Although details of practice vary from college to college, most students will have one or two tutorials each week, together with some lectures and classes. Each tutorial normally involves the writing and discussion of an essay, which you will be asked to produce from your own research over the course of the week. You will be expected to produce between eight and twelve pieces of written work each term.

1st year

Courses

Four papers are taken:

  • Introduction to English Language and Literature

  • Early Medieval Literature (650–1350)

  • Literature in English 1830–1910

  • Literature in English 1910–present day

Assessment

Three written papers form the First University Examination, together with a submitted portfolio of two essays for ‘Introduction to English Language and Literature’.
All exams must be passed, but marks do not count towards the final degree
2nd year

Courses

Course I:
  • Literature in English 1350–1550

  • Literature in English 1550–1660

  • Literature in English 1660–1760

  • Literature in English 1760–1830

Course II:
  • Literature in English 650–1100

  • Medieval English and related literatures  1066–1550

  • Literature in English 1350–1550

  • The history of the English language to c.1800

Assessment

All period papers will be examined by final written examinations at the end of the third year

3rd year

Courses

Course I:
  • Shakespeare (may also be studied in the 2nd year)

Course II:
  • The Material Text or Shakespeare (choice of option)

Both courses:

  • Special option paper

  • Dissertation

Assessment

One extended essay for Special Options, due in at the end of the first term; dissertation and portfolio for Shakespeare/The Material Text, due in during the second term

Candidates are expected to have English Literature, or English Language and Literature to A-level, Advanced Higher, or Higher Level in the IB or any other equivalent. A language or History can be helpful to students in completing this course, although they are not required for admission.

All candidates must also take the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT) as part of their application. Please see how to apply for further details.

All candidates must follow the application procedure as shown in how to apply. The information below gives specific details for students applying for this course.

Written work

Candidates are required to submit one recent example of writing, by 10 November 2014. This should be a marked essay produced in the normal course of your school or college work and should not have been rewritten after marking. Preferably it should be an analytical discussion of a topic or topics in the field of English literature, though an English language topic is permissible. It should not be a short timed essay, a critical commentary on particular passages of text (practical criticism exercises), or a piece of creative writing.

Written test

All candidates must take the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT), normally at their own school or college, on 5 November 2014. Separate registration for this test is required and the final deadline for entries is 15 October 2014. It is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure that they are registered for this test. See the www.elat.org.uk for further details.

What are tutors looking for ?

Successful candidates will tend to be those who can give evidence of wide, enthusiastic and thoughtful reading. Tutors appreciate that you may be nervous in interview. You should not be afraid to defend your views or to suggest authors whose work you would particularly like to discuss.

Selection criteria

Candidates may wish to refer to the selection criteria for English.

Suggested reading

We recommend that you read as widely as possible, and think critically about all the texts – literary or not – that you read. Read more about this in our examples of interview questions.

You can find literary resources on our Great Writers Inspire site. You may also like to look at literary websites and listen to radio programs such as BBC Radio 4's 'In Our Time'.

Jack, 2nd year

'The real value of Oxford’s English course is its sheer scope, stretching from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf and beyond. Being guided through all the different ages of English literature means you explore periods and styles you may otherwise have rejected out of hand, discover brand new tastes, and even more levels to your love of literature!

The ability to sit and read some of the greatest works of prose, poetry and performance in a city steeped in its own near-mythological wealth of history and beautiful architecture gives you a sense of being lost in your own fantasy, your own realm of turrets, tutors and texts.'

Emma, English, who graduated in 2010

The most unexpected thing about my course:

'The freedom I had to direct my own studies, from choosing the books I wanted to write on to developing my own specific area of focus within them. The course was a completely different learning experience from school because I was given the freedom to really work out what I thought about texts without having to worry about meeting assessment objectives or covering key themes. I've left Oxford knowing that I've really explored why I love literature so much and that I've contributed something individual to the study of literature, even if it ends up being just read by me.'

I wish they'd told me when I was applying to university...

'That you should pick a university (or college within one) that you feel at home and comfortable in, rather than on a purely academic basis. Whilst it's great to go to a top university, this is also somewhere you have to live and work for three years and it needs to feel like a place where you could do that. I choose a college at Oxford, St. Anne's, that is a bit more informal and modern than some other more historic colleges because I enjoyed the open day and had an intuitive feeling that I could live there. From my experience here, I think it is really important to pick a place to study where you think you will be happy, not just a place which will impress other people.

The best thing that Oxford did for me:

'Gave me courage. To trust my own opinions, to learn where I could push them further, to take risks in academics, social situations, societies, friendships and to feel like if I tried hard enough I could really achieve something of note. Oxford has been the best experience of my entire life. I never really felt school spirit, but at my college I feel like I am part of one big team where people really cared about me as a person, not just as a statistic on a piece of paper. Oxford gave me the confidence to believe in myself and the tools to understand my own biases and failings.'

My favourite Oxford memory is...

'Long lunches in Hall, laughing with friends, making obscure in-jokes and occasionally having conversations about books and the world that have completely changed my outlook for the better.'

I'd just like to add:

'If you love your subject or think that you could learn to with more time to focus on it then there really is no more exciting place to study it than at Oxford. You are given so much freedom to develop your own ideas and you are able to discuss them in one-on-one sessions with leading academics who take you seriously and care about you as a person and a thinker. You're surrounded by interesting people who will constantly challenge you: be it by their different backgrounds or different skills. If this sounds like an environment you would enjoy, no matter what school you come from or how good you think you are, then I urge you to give it a go and apply.'

Lottie, English, who graduated in 2013

The most unexpected thing about my course:

'How much I love it.  It is totally legitimate to spend a day in bed reading a novel.'

I wish they'd told me when I was applying to university...

'Not everybody likes clubbing!  I was terrified that it was going to be like Ibiza, only colder.  Also, buy a printer before you arrive.'

The best thing that Oxford did for me:

'Playing ice hockey at midnight is legitimate.'

My favourite Oxford memory is...

'Going outside for a fire alarm at 3am and discovering that only about 2% of the college had been asleep.'

Contextual information

The Key Information Sets provide a lot of numbers about the Oxford experience – but there is so much about what you get here that numbers can’t convey. It’s not just the quantity of the Oxford education that you need to consider, there is also the quality – let us tell you more.

Oxford’s tutorial system

Regular tutorials, which are the responsibility of the colleges, are the focal point of teaching and learning at Oxford. The tutorial system is one of the most distinctive features of an Oxford education: it ensures that students work closely with tutors throughout their undergraduate careers, and offers a learning experience which is second to none.

A typical tutorial is a one-hour meeting between a tutor and one, two, or three students to discuss reading and written work that the students have prepared in advance. It gives students the chance to interact directly with tutors, to engage with them in debate, to exchange ideas and argue, to ask questions, and of course to learn through the discussion of the prepared work. Many tutors are world-leaders in their fields of research, and Oxford undergraduates frequently learn of new discoveries before they are published.

Each student also receives teaching in a variety of other ways, depending on the course. This will include lectures and classes, and may include laboratory work and fieldwork. But the tutorial is the place where all the elements of the course come together and make sense. Meeting regularly with the same tutor – often weekly throughout the term – ensures a high level of individual attention and enables the process of learning and teaching to take place in the context of a student’s individual needs.

The tutorial system also offers the sustained commitment of one or more senior academics – as college tutors – to each student’s progress. It helps students to grow in confidence, to develop their skills in analysis and persuasive argument, and to flourish as independent learners and thinkers.

More information about tutorials

The benefits of the college system

  • Every Oxford student is a member of a college. The college system is at the heart of the Oxford experience, giving students the benefits of belonging to both a large and internationally renowned university and a much smaller, interdisciplinary, college community.
  • Each college brings together academics, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and college staff. The college gives its members the chance to be part of a close and friendly community made up of both leading academics and students from different subjects, year groups, cultures and countries. The relatively small size of each college means that it is easy to make friends and contribute to college life. There is a sense of belonging, which can be harder to achieve in a larger setting, and a supportive environment for study and all sorts of other activities.
  • Colleges organise tutorial teaching for their undergraduates, and one or more college tutors will oversee and guide each student’s progress throughout his or her career at Oxford. The college system fosters a sense of community between tutors and students, and among students themselves, allowing for close and supportive personal attention to each student’s academic development.

It is the norm that undergraduates live in college accommodation in their first year, and in many cases they will continue to be accommodated by their college for the majority or the entire duration of their course. Colleges invest heavily in providing an extensive range of services for their students, and as well as accommodation colleges provide food, library and IT resources, sports facilities and clubs, drama and music, social spaces and societies, access to travel or project grants, and extensive welfare support. For students the college often becomes the hub of their social, sporting and cultural life.

More about Oxford’s unique college system and how to choose a college