The job search is daunting, sure, but it’s doubly so for liberal arts students. How do you convince someone you’re right for the job if you majored in something so abstract, like say, English? How can you frame your ability to write lengthy essays on 19th century poetry or analyze the meaning of T.S. Eliot’s work in a way that will resonate with recruiters?
I run an interview series by, for, and about English majors called after words where I ask former English majors across a variety of industries to share advice on how they broke into their various fields and careers. Here’s what they told me they look for when hiring for entry-level positions—spoiler: they’re all qualities and skills that English majors possess!—and how you can stand out from the pack.
1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
English majors learn to read subtext and look for the meaning behind words. You can show off this skill in interviews by digging into the questions you’re asked.
Roxanne, a UX writer at Google, likes to ask interviewees, “How would you describe quality writing?” She’s “looking for them to ask follow-up questions, like what the goal of the writing is. Is it to get someone from point A to point B as quickly as possible? Is it getting them there as happily as possible?”
Jane, a design research lead at Dropbox, adds, “It’s fine to say to a hiring manager, ‘I don’t have specific job experience to talk about, but I’d love to walk you through how I formulated my thesis to show you how I approach coming to conclusions and then selling those conclusions to others.’”
2. Clear and Succinct Verbal Communication
Good communication skills aren’t as common as you may think—which provides a great opportunity for English majors.
Lacey, a software engineer at REVSYS, says, “This sounds cliché, but excellent verbal communication skills really matter. It’s not something the tech industry takes for granted. If you communicate clearly and in a structured manner in an interview, that will go a long way.”
Caroline, an entertainment attorney at Amazon Studios, agrees. She says, “I’m looking for organization in your answers. Interviews are stressful, and it’s easy to start rambling, bounce from example to example, and try to squeeze things in as they occur to you. It’s one thing to say you’re an organized person, but it goes much further if you demonstrate it in the way you form thoughts and answer questions.”
3. The Ability to Express Yourself Through Writing
It’s not just verbal communication that matters, either.
Victor runs social and content strategy at Big Spaceship and believes that “more and more, writing is the foundation of communication. If you haven’t mastered writing, it’s going to get harder to work effectively with others. Conversations that used to be in person or over the phone have moved to email, text, and Slack. If you’re able to express yourself clearly, concisely, and empathetically through writing, you’ll have a huge advantage.”
Harry, a DJ and attorney, agrees. “Good writing skills are vital in every business venture. When you’re trying to sell something—and especially when that thing is yourself, or a more abstract idea like art—being able to format your ideas in a way that’s persuasive will make or break you.”
4. Preparation Ahead of Time
The key to nailing your interview? Practice!
Lacey recommends you “look up the kinds of questions that get asked a lot, write out some answers, and take the time to walk through them out loud.” I also recommend practicing using the STAR framework.
Nathalie, a brand marketing manager at Urban Outfitters, stresses the importance of company-specific research. “Show that you’ve done your research and put thought into what the company is currently doing and how it could do it better. At Urban Outfitters, we do a lot of marketing through Instagram. If I’m interviewing someone, I ask them for something they like about our Instagram strategy, and something they would change. If they can name something specific they saw us post, that’s a great start.”
5. Passion and a Sense of Purpose
Worried you don’t have enough work experience to point to? Demonstrating passion can go a long way toward convincing employers you can do the job.
Camonghne, a political strategist, says, “I don’t expect anyone to walk into a room and say, ‘This is exactly what I’m going to do with my future.’ But you should know why you’re sitting in that chair talking to me, and hopefully it’s not just because you need a job. I want to know what compels you to come here and what you’re interested in. I want to know why you care about the work that my organization does.”
6. Curiosity and Initiative
Whether it’s blogging, making videos, or developing a website, working on projects outside of school will demonstrate that you’re a bright and motivated person.
Victor says, “The number one piece of advice I can give is to start making things. The work you’ve done as an intern or student probably isn’t the most interesting work you’re capable of doing. Show off your creative potential by carving out a side hustle or coming up with a really cool project.”
Gleb, an IT manager, adds, “I always ask for an example of a project they worked on in their spare time. I’m looking for examples of self-directed learning—someone who gets so curious about a topic that they decide to learn everything they can about it.”
Nate, Managing Editor at For The Win, “learned HTML because I wanted to make my own website. My buddy and I did a podcast, so I learned how to edit audio. Developing a bunch of skills gives you more ways to help, and that makes you easier to hire, even if you don’t have the ‘right’ resume.”
7. A Knack for Storytelling
Storytelling isn’t just for writers and marketers. If you want to sell yourself in an interview, it’s important to show, not tell, the impact you have on others.
Criminal justice reformer Kaitlin says, “When preparing for an interview, think deeply about the skills being asked for and have a few good stories to share that demonstrate them. Don’t just tell me you’re a good team player, collaborative, or detail-oriented—have examples ready.”
She adds, “I’ve asked candidates to tell me about a time when they demonstrated attention to detail, and it’s shocking how many said, ‘Oh, I make lists.’ We all make lists. The people who impressed me shared specific stories about having a real impact on a professor, a client, or even a friend by being thoughtful and focused on details.”
8. The Ability to Put the “Human” in Humanity
Finally, it’s important to remember that while a hiring manager may seem intimidating, they were in your shoes once and want to get to know you as a person.
Rusty, Dropbox’s office manager, calls this out as something English majors do well. He says, “One concrete skill I learned was how to read your audience and communicate with them in relatable ways. It’s so important, especially in interviews. When you’re young, and don’t have a lot of professional experience to fall back on, you have to find a way to connect with the person you’re interviewing with.”
Victor drives this point home, reminding us: “When I’m reading cover letters, I look for humans, not robots. Don’t be overly formal; be vulnerable. Make a connection with me. Demonstrate that you understand how people write on the internet now.”
Personally, I will go to bat for people I feel a human connection with—especially someone I can connect with when it comes to being an English major.
TopicsSyndication , Finding a Job , Resumes & Cover Letters , Interviewing for a Job , Job Search , New Grads
Photo of person in job interview courtesy of sturti/Getty Images.
Hilary is the co-founder of after words, a free career resource exclusively for English majors. She currently works in product marketing at Dropbox, and is passionate about helping others find meaningful work. Sign up for her newsletter, follow @afterwordsproject on Instagram, or learn more about her work at hilarygridley.com.More from this Author