Foreign Language Requirements for College: What You Need to Know

Young man holding a computer in one hand and flags from several countries in the other.

Foreign Language Requirements for College: What You Need to Know

Published August 16, 2023

Young man holding a computer in one hand and flags from several countries in the other.

Find out how colleges approach foreign language requirements, including what options are available if you’ve already completed high school courses.

Colleges across the U.S. emphasize the importance of a well-rounded education, and for many, this includes proficiency in a foreign language. Yet, navigating these foreign language requirements for college admissions and graduation can sometimes be challenging. 

As one parent in the Paying for College 101 Facebook Group inquired, does a robust high school language record exempt a student from college-level requirements? The answer is far from straightforward, as evident from the range of experiences shared by other parents.

Why Do Colleges Require a Foreign Language?

Understanding and interacting with diverse cultures is essential in today’s interconnected society. By emphasizing foreign language studies, colleges aim to:

  • Promote a Multilingual Society: In a world where global interactions are a daily occurrence, multilingual individuals are better positioned for a multitude of careers, especially in the tech, education, business, and law sectors.
  • Cognitive Development: Learning a language is more than just about communicating. It sharpens cognitive skills, boosts memory, and enhances multitasking abilities.
  • Facilitate Cross-cultural Communication: In a diverse global community, understanding languages breaks barriers, fosters peace, and promotes mutual respect.

General Foreign Language Requirements 

Colleges and universities across the U.S have varying admissions and graduation requirements when it comes to foreign languages.

Admission Requirements:

For many colleges, there’s an expectation for students to have taken a minimum number of foreign language classes in high school to be eligible for admission. This is often at least two years of study in the same language.

Competitive colleges sometimes have higher expectations. Hools W., a parent in the group, points out that, “It really depends on the college.” Some institutions might expect just two years of high school language studies, while others could mandate more. Hools further notes, “Most will waive a foreign language requirement if the student completed four years [of foreign language classes] in high school.” But, as with many things in the realm of higher education, there are no guarantees.

Some competitive colleges recommend, and a few require, applicants have more than two years of a foreign language in high school. Below is a sampling of colleges and their foreign language requirement for admissions. It’s important to check the requirements for each school your student is considering applying to.

CollegeYears of Foreign Language RequiredYears of Foreign Language Recommended
Princeton University4
Harvard University4
Columbia University3-4
Massachusetts Institute of Technology2
Yale University4
Stanford University3-4
University of Chicago2-3
University of Pennsylvania4
California Institute of Technology3
Johns Hopkins University4
Northwestern University2 (not required for McCormick)
Duke University3
Dartmouth College4
Brown University4
Vanderbilt University2
Rice University2
Washington University in St. Louis2

Graduation Requirements:

Many students are surprised to learn that their college has foreign language requirements for graduation. Numerous majors and institutions mandate that undergraduates pass one or more semesters of a foreign language. The credits from these classes often count towards general education requirements, and without them, students can not graduate.

How to Navigate College Language Requirements

For students hoping to bypass college language courses, there are a few potential shortcuts:

  • CLEP Exam: This examination assesses understanding of college introductory material in Spanish, French, or German. Robin P., another parent, suggests, “If your student just finished French, Spanish, or German, and their college accepts the CLEP exam for credit, look into it. It can get a student up to 12 credits, depending on the college. Some colleges also offer their own language placement exam where students can test for credit.” 
  • College Placement Exams: Beyond CLEP, many colleges have proprietary language placement tests. As Marsha K. shared about her STEM-major son’s experience, “My son’s college required a placement test. It wasn’t for credit but to determine what class level to register for, regardless of what he took in high school.” Angela H. resonated with this, noting her daughter’s similar journey, despite her high school Spanish background. “My daughter had to take a placement test to be exempt from having to take it at the college level, even though she took Spanish in high school.” 

Major Matters: The Influence of Your Chosen Field

The degree or major a student selects can also significantly impact language requirements. Heidi H. explains that “Typically a bachelor of science degree does not require a language, and a bachelor of arts degree does.” 

Gemila L. further highlights the intricate nuances: “It’s not just the college; it can be department-dependent.” She recalls how her daughter, despite excelling in Advanced Placement Spanish, still faced college language classes due to her major. In contrast, her son’s major had no such demands.

Tami B. adds another layer of complexity: “Several colleges that our daughters applied to required at least two years for initial college admission. But since they had completed four years [in high school], the requirement for an upper-level language class was waived.”

In Conclusion

Navigating college foreign language requirements is not a ‘one size fits all’ endeavor. As Marni A. aptly puts it, “If you passed the Advanced Placement test or took a dual enrollment course, that will pretty much cover all majors [at most schools] — unless, of course, you wish to major or minor in a language.”

The shared experiences from the Paying for College 101 Facebook Group underscore the importance of proactive research and tailored strategies. Either way, finding out more about the foreign language requirements is a great question to ask on a college tour or to research online as early as possible, so your student can take advantage of any opportunities available to them.

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Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Common Data Set Ultimate Guide: Use It to Find the Right College

What I Would Have Done Differently When I Was Applying to College

How to Earn College Credits in High School

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