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Love English but historically bad at essay writing - English Lit for A level?

I'm in Y11 and have chosen Economics, Philosophy and English Language for A level, but I'm now wondering if I should switch from Language to Literature.

I had school avoidance when I was younger and I've missed a lot of school, and due to this and COVID I didn't get any learning support until very late - Y9. I'm kind of aiming to just scrape by with my GCSEs, but my ability is a lot higher than what my predicted grades suggest and I perform really well in class discussions and classwork. In terms of English, I genuinely enjoy reading and analysing literature and have a decent grasp of literary techniques, as well as (luckily) having a good memory.

The problem is that in the last few years I've really struggled writing essays under time pressure. Generally, coursework and subjects like philosophy or politics have been fine, but though I always had lots of ideas for English essays, I struggled with the structure and with actually writing them. I found it hard to separate ideas into topic sentences and paragraphs, as everything felt very inter-connected to me (this may sound strange but it makes sense in my head!).

This wasn't ever really explained to me in class, as we spent more time on analysis and making sure everybody understood the text - whereas I needed help with writing. I just happened to have different strengths and weaknesses from people in my class, and I don't begrudge my teacher for focusing on how to help the majority of pupils, but of course it made things hard for me.

Now, with the help of a tutor, I've gotten better at following a formula for each extract or poem, based on the themes of each text. This has made me much more confident about sitting exams, and it means that I'm not worried all the time and am able to properly appreciate the beauty of the language and enjoy my lessons.

I'm increasingly hesitant about picking English language - for other reasons; it's just not the best fit for me - and I want to replace it with something else. My question is: will I be too overwhelmed with the sheer writing skill required at A level?

I have no problem with working very hard at A level, as long as it is on subjects I genuinely enjoy. I would much prefer something a little too challenging to a little too boring, but I'm scared to potentially jeopardise my university applications as I really don't want to take a gap year and resits.

If I jump into the deep end, will my essay writing improve quickly enough?
Reply 1
Also forgot to add - I'm taking Russian A level at home so I do have a back-up fourth a level in terms of uni apps. But that also adds more to my workload.
Reply 2
Hi gehr.
I think your current A Level choices represent a heavy workload, especially if you're self-teaching Russian. (Is that what you meant when you said you were doing it at home? Or do you have a tutor?)
To give a useful answer, it would be helpful to know what your 'ballpark' plans are post-A Level. Are you a prospective uni applicant? If so, what kind of area are you looking to study in?
As for English A Levels : I taught both Language and Literature for the whole of my career. Both are great subjects! Again, future plans would determine which you should go for. There is a Language and Literature (combined) course, which I'm sure you'll be aware of. Does your school/college offer that option? For you, it might be worth thinking about.
Otherwise, get back to me with the answers to my questions, and I'll see what I can come up with.
Reply 3
Hi! Thanks for your reply. I'm doing Russian with an online tutor, six times a week, an hour each session. Plus I do vocab learning and homework from each session. I plan to continue that over the next two years, but I'm going to need to do more self-study and homework, as hopefully within a few months we're moving towards studying texts and films rather than grammar and practice sentences with some extracts and a fair amount of conversation. My aim with Russian is to improve my reading and listening first and foremost, as understanding the literature is important to me, and then after that my writing, so that I can start to write analytic essays about those texts in Russian. So I need to do a lot of studying, but it can fluctuate depending on the week.

Post A-levels, I definitely want to attend university - I'm looking at German unis, as I speak German, but most likely an English uni given A level requirements and the way uni courses are structured in Germany. I think US, Canada or Australia etc. are unlikely. I'd like to study either Linguistics and Philosophy or Linguistics and Politics. The latter is, as far as I know, only offered at two British unis: Glasgow and SOAS (more research needed); the former at most Russell Groups. I'm hesitant about Oxbridge, and I don't want to push myself to reach the highest grades at the expense of everything else in my life and my independent study, but I think I will apply and see how it goes. The prestige of a uni isn't very important to me, and I'm lucky that it isn't important to me parents either, but if the learning environment and enthusiasm of students at either uni match their reputations then I'm not not going to pick it just because of the prestige. I could also change my mind and want to study a different combination, e.g. Linguistics and Anthropology, as I've still got two years to decide after all.

Neither of the colleges I've got a place at offer combined Lit & Lang; my primary focus was finding a school that did 'Philosophy' not 'Religious Studies plus Philosophy of Religion' (not that that's not a great subject, just not what I want to study). The reason I'm worried about English language is that the area of linguistics I'm most interested in is documenting endangered languages, and that's what I'd like to do for my PhD. I find learning about the structures of languages I've not grown up having a background in so brilliantly interesting (hence Russian!), but language acquisition and how English might be used, in conjunction with other media, to market/entertain/inform is not very interesting to me. Linguistic theory also doesn't interest me as much as practice. Originally I was just sort of wowed by the idea of having a subject at A level with any sort of linguistics in it at all, so I didn't really consider anything else, but now I think I might find it a bit dry.
Reply 4
Hi again, gehr.

I’m amazed you say you are ‘historically bad at essay writing’! You seem to me to be very articulate, and more than able to express yourself effectively. The effects of school avoidance, for whatever reason that may have been, are clearly a thing of the past.

If you’re a Y11 student, about to sit GCSE exams, then obviously you’re focusing on those at the moment. A Level choices can likely be finalised on the back of results in August.

You seem to be planning a long way ahead, if you already know the topic for your PhD! It’s great that you’re thinking so clearly, but make sure you deal with the present and immediate future, before spinning out too far.

It seems to me that you like to be in control of things, in your own mind, in order to make the best decisions. This is a good thing, largely. If you’re planning on doing Linguistics at uni, bear in mind that you don’t need to have done A Level English Language. The course would give you a broad idea of the subject area, but it’s not essential. Besides, as an extra ‘pair of eyes’, I’m not convinced that Linguistics would be the best degree option for you, given your reservations about necessary aspects of it.

A Level Philosophy, as an independent subject, without the RE elements, may not suit you, either. As I’ve said, you seem to prefer facts and definition; choosing Economics proves this point. I wonder if Philosophy might frustrate you, in its abstract and subjective nature.

I suspect that as A Level choices you would be wise to consider English Literature. Depending on the texts your college teaches (though there’s a substantial element of self-choice in the NEA), you might find that would give you the scope for discussion, philosophical and analytical, you are looking for. In addition, the features of Literature study you both enjoy and feel confident in make it preferable to Language.

Your Russian studies suggest a heavy workload outside of college. Don’t be the student who takes too much on, and becomes OK at a lot of subjects, but not great in any one of them.

As a third option, given your uni aspirations, how about Politics? A complement to Economics and Literature, and maybe useful to you in UCAS applications. Does Law appeal at all? If you don't mind hard work, it's a good discipline to study. Psychology?

As for uni courses, Glasgow and SOAS are decent choices. Other options (based on a very peripheral trawl on the internet) indicate degrees in Linguistics and International Relations. Look at Nottingham Uni, St Andrew’s, UCL, Bath Uni, MMU, and Leeds Uni. Leeds, especially, seems to declare some expertise in the area of endangered languages and cultures, which you hope to pursue in later years.

Anyway, just some thoughts, gehr. You are an interesting student.

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