Foreign Language Requirements: Do They Matter for College Applications?

Padya Paramita

Foreign Language Requirements: Do They Matter for College Applications? 

When the time comes for course selection in high school, you have to choose carefully. Almost every college expects you to have taken four years of English, math, science, and at least two years of history classes. Along with these requirements, top schools also often ask that you pursue a language outside English for at least two years. So, foreign language requirements have increasingly become a core prerequisite for most institutions. 

When picking your high school classes, plan accordingly. Whether you opt for the popular choices of French or Spanish, or the slightly less conventional route of Chinese or German, aim to pick a language that interests you and stick with it for at least two years. To help guide you through foreign language requirements, I’ve outlined the expectations at different universities and liberal arts colleges, detailed how admissions officers view this component, and finally offered tips to help you find ways to fulfill the requirement if it’s not easily available to you.

Years of Foreign Language Requirements at Different Top Schools

Not all schools expect students to have the same number of years of studying a foreign language. Some require or recommend two years; others ask for three. Many schools recommend that you actually commit to the component for all four years of high school. Some schools such as Wesleyan University and Wellesley College allow you to use your AP foreign language scores for college credit or for placing you into a higher level college language class.

Note that you should be pursuing the same language throughout high school. Don’t take one year of Spanish, then another year of French (unless you really love languages, in which case you could add a second). But make sure you still have those continued years for one second language. The following table lists the number of years for foreign language requirements across 100 prominent national universities and liberal arts colleges in alphabetical order. 

Table Key

Number of Years Required: This number indicates the number of years that you have to take a language besides English during your time in high school in order to gain acceptance at the university.

Number of Years Recommended: This indicates the number of years you should aim to take foreign language classes in order to boost your application. You should target this unless absolutely impossible.

School Number of Years Required Number of Years Recommended
American University 2 3
Amherst College 3-4
Barnard College 3
Bates College 2 4
Boston College 4
Bowdoin College 4
Brandeis University 4
Brigham Young University 2
Brown University 3 4
Bryn Mawr College 3
Bucknell University 2 4
Carleton College 3
Carnegie Mellon University 2
Case Western Reserve University 2 3
Claremont McKenna College 3 3
Clemson University 2 3
Colby College 3
Colgate University 3 4
College of William and Mary 4
Colorado School of Mines 1
Columbia University 4
Cornell University 4
Dartmouth College 4
Davidson College 2 4
Duke University 3
Emory University 4
Fordham University 2 4
George Washington University 2 4
Georgia Institute of Technology 2
Grinnell College 3
Hamilton College 3
Harvard University 4
Harvey Mudd College 2
Haverford College 3
Johns Hopkins University 4
Kenyon College 3 4
Lafayette College 2
Lehigh University 2
Macalester College 3
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2
Middlebury College 3
Mount Holyoke College 3-4
New York University 3 4
Northeastern University 2 3-4
Northwestern University 2
Oberlin College 3
Occidental College 3
Ohio State University 2 3
Penn State University 2 3
Pomona College 3 4
Princeton University 4
Purdue University 2
Rice University 2
Rutgers University 2
Santa Clara University 2 3-4
Scripps College 3
Sewanee: University of the South 2 4
Smith College 3
Southern Methodist University 2 3
Stanford University 3
Swarthmore College 3
Syracuse University 3
Texas A&M University 2 2
Tufts University 3 4
Tulane University 2 3
United States Air Force Academy 2 2
United States Naval Academy 2
University of California (Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara) 2 3
University of Chicago 3
University of Connecticut 2 3
University of Delaware 2 4
University of Florida 2
University of Georgia 2 3
University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign 2 4
University of Maryland 2 2
University of Miami 2
University of Michigan 2 4
University of Minnesota 2 2
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill 2
University of Notre Dame 4
University of Pennsylvania 4
University of Pittsburgh 2 3
University of Richmond 2 4
University of Southern California 2 3
University of Texas - Austin 2
University of Virginia 2 5
University of Washington 2 3
University of Wisconsin 3 4
Vanderbilt University 4
Vassar College 4
Villanova University 2 4
Virginia Tech 3
Wake Forest University 2 4
Washington and Lee University 3 4
Washington University in St. Louis 2
Wellesley College 4
Wesleyan University 4
Williams College 4
Worcester Polytechnic Institute 2
Yale University 4

School-Specific Foreign Language Requirements

As you can see, most top schools at least recommend that you pursue a language outside English for two years or more - schools such as NYU, Tufts, and Pomona require three. As you start thinking about your college list, you can check out the websites of each college to view the specific requirements. Below are some examples of the way that different schools frame their foreign language requirements:

School Foreign Language Requirement Policy
Carleton College We expect students to take two or more years of a foreign or classical language, unless it is not offered at their school.
Georgia Institute of Technology Two courses in one language emphasizing speaking, listening, reading, and writing are required.
Harvard University We recommend four years of a single foreign language.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology We recommend (please note that these are not requirements) that your high school years include the following: Two years of a foreign language
Stanford University Recommended High School Curriculum: Foreign Language: three or more years of the same foreign language.
University of California schools Language Other than English (2 years required; 3 years recommended): Two years of the same language other than English. Courses taken in the 7th and 8th grades may be used to fulfill part of this requirement if the student’s high school accepts them as equivalent to its own courses.
University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign Following are the kinds of courses you need to take while in high school and the number of years you need to take them. You should work to consistently make strong grades in these courses: Language other than English: 2 years required; 4 years recommended
University of Michigan Students entering the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts are strongly encouraged to take four years of language study, but only two years are required for admission.
Williams College A challenging and well-balanced program of study ideally should include the study of one foreign language for three or, preferably, four years.

Understanding the instructions for each of these colleges is quite straightforward. Carefully note the wording. Michigan saying students are “strongly encouraged” denotes that you must try your best to take 4 years of language classes, unless there’s an extenuating circumstance that prevents it. Colleges want to make sure you’re ready for their distribution requirements, so don’t take this component lightly!

How Foreign Language Requirements are Viewed in the Admissions Office

You might wonder how strict foreign language requirements are and whether they’re necessary, especially if they are recommended, as opposed to required. A lot of students don’t pay attention to the importance of taking a second language as much as they prioritize getting the math and English components each year. But, it’s still important and should not be overlooked. According to InGenius Prep’s Zak Harris, who has worked as an admissions officer at Johns Hopkins and Bowdoin, they are definitely seen as part of the core classes needed to qualify for admission. He adds, “Most schools want at least two years and some even three. For our students, especially those looking at top schools, I push for 4 years if it's possible, and the student is good enough in the language.” 

Admissions officers also take into account the type of high school that you attend. Some will waive the language requirement for applicants students who are already fluent in another language. Zak adds that the strictness will depend on the college and the student’s specific circumstances, such as background and the strength of the rest of their curriculum.

Multiple years of experience in a second language will absolutely strengthen your application. Zak believes that just like the rest of your classes, your foreign language requirement needs to be a priority. Not having sufficient second language classes may put you out of the running for a spot in the accepted pile at a college where it's recommended or required. 

If You’re Unable to Take Foreign Language Classes 

So, what do you do if your school doesn’t offer proper foreign language courses or if learning a new language isn’t one of your strong suits? If your issue is the former, you can try and check with a local community college and see if there is a foreign language class that works with your schedule. Or, you can take an online class. You may even self-study for AP or SAT subject test language exams. All of these would show initiative on your part, and admissions officers would appreciate you going out of your way to make sure you have fulfilled the foreign language requirements

Schools That Don’t Require Foreign Languages

Another alternative to taking foreign language classes, regardless of whether they’re not as widely available in your school or you wish to fill your schedule with other courses you prefer, is to apply primarily to colleges that don't ask applicants to meet this requirement. Schools in the table above that only recommend language classes are a good place to start, but the safest bet in this case could be choosing a school which doesn’t have foreign language requirement or suggestion at all. Some of these include:

  • Babson College
  • California Institute of Technology 
  • Colorado College 
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 
  • Pepperdine University 
  • Stevens Institute of Technology 
  • University of Rochester

Some undergraduate colleges within the umbrella of large universities may not have foreign language requirements either. For example, if you’re applying to the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, you don’t need to have taken a French, Spanish, or Chinese class. But if you’re hoping to be admitted to the College of Literature, Sciences, and Arts, you must take at least two years of second language classes, if not the recommended four.

Long story short, foreign language requirements definitely matter for college applications, and should be considered seriously. If you want to attend a top school, in order to make sure that you don’t fall behind the most competitive candidates, you should commit to taking at least two years of the language of your choice. When in doubt, always look through college websites and check the individual protocols to make sure you are prepared for the schools that interest you most. Good luck!


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