written by: Haley Drucker•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 10/29/2012
If you’re considering a major in literature, it’s probably because you love reading and studying cultures. It’s also important to choose the right school, one with the right kinds of courses. These are the ten top literary colleges in the US, chosen for their highly ranked literature programs.
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If you love to read, and love to think critically about and analyze what you read, then an English major in literature may be the right choice for you. Studying literature as an undergraduate exposes you to a variety of texts from different cultures and time periods, and helps you place those texts in a larger historical context. Literature majors have strong critical skills, and they know how to interact with culture rather than just consume it.
What school should you attend? Many universities have a literature major, and most have at least some literature classes. These ten are the top literary colleges in the US and are great choices for anyone considering this field of study. Each was chosen for its highly competitive status and top-rated literature program, and they all come with better-than-average academic rankings.
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Bennington College (Bennington, Vermont)
At Bennington College, the reading and writing programs are closely linked. Even the literature classes involve plenty of writing, because that is the way students can best interact with and critique important cultural texts. Courses are offered in a variety of genres, time periods, and themes, from Shakespeare to feminism to humor. The Bennington literature program also hosts a series of gatherings where students and faculty can read their work and attend lectures and readings by visiting scholars and writers.
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Brandeis University (Waltham, Massachusetts)
Brandeis University offers several options for the aspiring literary scholar. Students can major in English, and concentrate on the many literature courses offered in the English department. Or they can major in Comparative Literature, an interdisciplinary field of study that requires courses in history and foreign language. This program emphasizes the analysis of cultural differences and similarities between texts, moving beyond the American and British literatures that usually dominate reading courses.
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Claremont McKenna College (Claremont, California)
Claremont McKenna College offers a separate literature major and strongly emphasizes the importance of good writing. The courses focus on American and British literature, with niche options such as film literature, women’s literature, and African American literature. The focus is on critical analysis and understanding, and the major provides a good basis for careers in a variety of fields—from law to journalism to teaching.
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Columbia University, School of General Studies (New York, New York)
At Columbia University, the English department is focused on literature and the English major itself is titled “English and Comparative Literature." All other aspects of English studies, from rhetoric to creative writing, are interrelated to literature and seen as ways to interact with cultural texts. Emphasizing the study of literature from a variety of cultures, genres, and time periods, this program features courses on everything from canonical literature to African literature. The Columbia literature program also offers advanced seminars, as well as independent study courses.
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Hamilton College (Clinton, New York)
Hamilton College offers a major in Comparative Literature, built from courses on texts from cultures all across the world. History and literary theory are the two orienting focuses, but the major is flexible and can be adapted to each student’s individual interests. All students will be expected to take certain core courses, but beyond that it is up to the student to explore different literary traditions and choose his or her favorites. The program culminates in a comprehensive senior seminar, and involves some work with foreign languages.
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New York University (New York, New York)
Another comparative literature program is offered by New York University, again focusing on literature from a wide variety of cultures. The program is flexible and customizable, only requiring a few common courses. Many courses explore the relation of literature to media and disciplines as diverse as philosophy, anthropology, and politics. Faculty members are of diverse backgrounds and specializations, and the major is meant to prepare students with the critical skills they need to apply to graduate school or pursue a career in a field such as law, education, or even entertainment.
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Reed College (Portland, Oregon)
The literature program at Reed College is closely tied to the languages department, offering students the chance to specialize in literature in a language other than English. Or they can choose from a variety of interdisciplinary literature majors, focusing on American literature, classics and religions, history, or theater. In addition, students can create their own interdisciplinary field of study, linking the analysis of literature to another program within the college. Reed’s literature program is incredibly flexible and individualized, and offers something for just about any literary interest.
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Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, Pennsylvania)
The comparative literature program at Swarthmore College explores literary traditions from around the globe, and from different eras and time periods. Reading in both English and foreign languages is emphasized, as are the interdisciplinary aspects of literary studies. Coursework is offered in English literature, literature from modern cultures such as Germy, Japan, and Russia, and theater. The major is flexible, and a separate honors track is offered.
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University of Southern California (Los Angeles, California)
The University of Southern California’s comparative literature department is broad and closely linked to many of the college’s other departments. Coursework is offered in the usual range of cultural and historical texts, but also in political and social literary studies. Students have the opportunity to study the relationship between literature and art, and the program offers an unusual number of courses in Asian literature. Many of the faculty also teach in other departments, bringing their unique cross-disciplinary knowledge to the literature classroom.
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Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, Missouri)
At Washington University, the comparative literature department functions under the philosophy that texts are not confined by cultures and borders, and that they should be read and analyzed in the context of a global as well as a national culture. The program requires study in at least one foreign language, as well as courses in translation. Courses in theory are offered at the undergraduate level, and there are major programs focused on comparative arts, literature and ethics, and more.
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There you have it: the ten top literary colleges in the United States. This doesn’t mean, of course, that if a school isn’t on the list it isn’t also a great school. It just means that these universities are good options for anyone considering a literature major, and they deserve careful consideration. The college you choose can have a big impact on your future, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time for the research process.
Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges: 2011
The Best 371 Colleges: 2010 Edition by The Princeton Review
Fiske Guide to Colleges: 24th Edition by Edward B. Fiske
English is a broad and popular field of study, and there are a lot of competitive and highly respected colleges with excellent English programs. This series covers the top US colleges for majors in creative writing, literature, and English education.