English is perhaps the only high school subject for which colleges almost universally require or recommend a full four years of study. The college admissions officers will expect you to have strong writing and reading skills since these are necessary for communication regardless of your major. This is also why many institutions require students to take courses in writing as part of a general education requirement -- strong writing and communication skills are important for nearly every major and career. In fact, many high schools require students to take four years of English classes for exactly that reason.
Note that non-native speakers can often demonstrate their proficiency in English with the Test of English as a Foreign Language rather than with coursework.
Different colleges word their English requirements differently, but as the examples below illustrate, nearly all want to see four years of high school English:
Carleton College: "The strongest candidates for admission to Carleton have taken ... four years of English ... At a minimum, applicants should have ... three or more years of English (with a stress on writing)" (https://apps.carleton.edu/admissions/apply/requirements/)
MIT: "A strong academic foundation in high school both improves your odds of getting into MIT and will help you make the most of the Institute when you're here. We recommend that your high school years include ... four years of English" (http://mitadmissions.org/apply/prepare/highschool)
NYU: "We would expect your preparation to include ... 4 years of English with a heavy emphasis on writing" (http://www.nyu.edu/admissions/undergraduate-admissions/applying-for-admission/freshman-applicants/general-requirements.html)
Stanford: "Our experience has suggested that students who excel in a curriculum like the one below are well-suited for the demands of college academics ... English: four years, with significant emphasis on writing and literature" (http://www.stanford.edu/dept/uga/basics/selection/prepare.html)
UCLA: "Four years of college preparatory English that include the reading of classic and modern literature and frequent and regular writing." (http://www.admissions.ucla.edu/prospect/adm_fr/fracadrq.htm)
Williams College: "By far the most important aspect of your application is your high school transcript ... a program of study should ideally include a full four-year sequence in English" (http://admission.williams.edu/apply/highschoolprep/coursework)
Notice that many of these colleges specifically emphasize writing-intensive English courses. There is no exact definition of what makes a high school English course writing-intensive, and your school may not have denoted their courses as such. If a large part of your high school English course was focused on developing writing techniques and style, it will probably count toward a college's writing-intensive course requirement.
It is also important to remember that, while many schools may "recommend" four years of English rather than "require" it, colleges look more favorably upon applicants who have met or exceeded the recommended guidelines. Your high school record is a strong indicator of your potential performance in college, and admissions officers are looking for students who challenge themselves in their coursework rather, not those who simply meet the minimum requirements.
The chart below summarizes the recommended or required English coursework for a range of colleges and universities.
|Auburn University||4 years required|
|Carleton College||3 years required, 4 years recommended (emphasis on writing)|
|Centre College||4 years recommended|
|Georgia Tech||4 years required|
|Harvard University||4 years recommended|
|MIT||4 years required|
|NYU||4 years required (emphasis on writing)|
|Pomona College||4 years recommended|
|Smith College||4 years required|
|Stanford University||4 years recommended (emphasis on writing and literature)|
|UCLA||4 years required|
|University of Illinois||4 years required|
|University of Michigan||4 years required (at least 2 rigorous writing courses are recommended)|
|Williams College||4 years recommended|