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 4 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 can 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.