Foreign Language Requirement for College Admissions

Learn How Many Years of a Foreign Language You Need to Get Into College

By Allen Grove

Foreign language requirements vary from school to school, and the exact requirement is often not clear for any individual school. For example, is the “minimum” requirement really adequate? Do language classes in middle school count? If a college requires four years of a language, does a high score on the AP fulfill the requirement?

In general, competitive colleges require at least two years of foreign language classes in high school. As you’ll see below, Stanford would like to see three or more years, and Harvard urges applicants to take four years. These classes should be in the same language —colleges would much prefer to see proficiency in one language than a superficial smattering of several languages.

When a college recommends “two or more” years of a language, they are clearly signaling that language study beyond two years would strengthen your application. Indeed, no matter where you apply for college, a demonstrated proficiency in a second language will strengthen your application. Life in college and after college is becoming increasingly globalized, so strength in a second language carries a lot of weight with admissions counselors.

That said, students who have just the minimum may win admission if their applications demonstrate strengths in other areas. Some less-competitive schools don’t even have a high school language requirement and assume some students will simply study a language once they get to college.

If you score a 4 or 5 on an AP language exam, most colleges will consider that evidence of adequate high school foreign language preparation (and you’re likely to get course credit in college). Check with the schools to which you apply to find out exactly what their Advanced Placement policies are.

The chart below shows the foreign language requirement at several competitive colleges. The exact wording used by particular admissions offices to describe foreign language requirements is also provided.

Sample Foreign Language Requirements for College Admissions 

School Language Requirement
Carleton 2 or more years
Georgia Tech 2 years
Harvard 4 years recommended
MIT 2 years
Stanford 3 or more years
UCLA 2 years required; 3 recommended
Univ. of Illinois 2 years
Univ. of Michigan 2 years required; 4 recommended
Williams 3 years required; 4 recommended


Below you’ll find excerpts containing exact wording used by admissions offices of numerous colleges and universities to describe foreign language requirements.

Carleton College
“Normally, students will be expected 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
“You should leave secondary school knowing at least one foreign language well enough to read it easily and pronounce it acceptably. Knowing a foreign language enables you to enter another culture and to understand its ideas and its values. A fundamental aspect of language-learning must be a grasp of vocabulary and syntax that allows you to read novels, plays, poems, and magazines, with as much of a native speaker’s comprehension as possible. We have found that students who have mastered a foreign language before they come to Harvard take more language courses here than those who have not. Indeed, these students often embark on the study of languages not commonly taught in American secondary schools.

Many secondary school students take a smattering of several languages—for example, Latin for two years, French for a year, and Spanish for a year. When it is too late, they realize that they cannot read or speak any of these languages well. We urge you to try to study at least one foreign language and its literature for four years. Continuity of study is important, too, because a “year off” from a language can be a real setback. Once you are comfortably fluent, you will possess that language—and better appreciate the culture it has shaped—for the rest of your life.”

“Two years of a foreign language.”

Stanford University
“Three or more years of the same foreign language. Your study of a foreign language ought to include the development of four basic skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprehension.”

“2 years required, 3 years recommended – Two years of the same language other than English. Courses should emphasize speaking and understanding and include instruction in grammar, vocabulary, reading, and composition.”

University of Illinois, Main Campus
“2 years of one language.”

University of Michigan, Main campus
“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: a full four-year sequence in English and mathematics; study of one foreign language for three or, preferably, four years.”

Allen Grove is the former director of a program for new college students, a professor of English, and a freelance writer who focuses on college admissions, student success, and the transition from high school to college.

Reprinted with permission from


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