3 Academic Writing Tips for International Students

·6 min read

One area of concern international students may have is the large amount of academic papers they will need to work on once they're enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities. Prospective and new international students should be prepared to use different writing styles, expand their vocabulary and better their ability to express themselves in papers per academic standards, experts say.

"In an American university, regardless of major, whether it is in arts or science, writing assignments are included in every class," says Larysa Bobrova, coordinator of the English Language Learner Writing Center at Miami University--Oxford in Ohio.

Prospective international students should plan on working on their academic writing early, since once enrolled, they "may be challenged with writing academically in a second language while also learning about the writing and rhetorical style of a new culture," says Saundra Wright, professor of linguistics and director of ESL Support Services at California State University--Chico.

[Read: How International Students Can Adjust to U.S. College Classes.]

Here are some tips to prepare for academic writing at a U.S. university:

-- Practice brainstorming and writing outlines.

-- Get familiar with different citation styles and formats.

-- Use online resources.

Practice Brainstorming and Writing Outlines

A standard research paper starts with a good topic and an outline. Freely writing down ideas and phrases is known as brainstorming and can help students get started.

"It is not uncommon for writers to skimp on the prewriting and/or brainstorming stage, which is an essential part of the process for good writing. So, doing brainstorming is helpful. For English language learner writers, practice can also improve fluency," Valerie Balester, assistant provost for undergraduate studies and executive director of the Academic Success Center and University Writing Center at Texas A&M University, wrote in an email.

A great way for prospective international students to practice writing and brainstorming is by daily journaling, says Jenni L. Bolte, writing center coordinator at Chico State's Student Learning Center. Writing down thoughts and feelings to understand them better, or journaling, "allows writers to practice word choice, sentence structure, spelling and grammar." Bolte says students shouldn't be afraid to share what they're writing with others, since every writer needs a reader.

Balester says it also helps writers to examine a model, such as analyzing scholarly articles or dissertations in their field. She says translating from English to a student's native language can be helpful, but it depends on the individual and his or her English fluency.

"If their English is shaky then they can try to understand in English but stop to translate as they feel the need," Balester says. "They should not have to do formal translations, word for word."

She says students can use translation software as long as they are paying attention to what makes sense since software can make errors.

"If their English is already fairly fluent, translating can get in the way. The goal is to be fluent enough so that translating is not needed," Balester says.

Get Familiar With Different Citation Styles and Formats

The three most common citation styles used in academic writing are the Modern Language Association, or MLA; American Psychological Association, or APA; and Chicago.

There's also the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE style, which is used for engineering, computer science and information technology majors, and Council of Science Editors, or CSE style, for majors such as biology, physics, chemistry and geology.

"In U.S. academic culture, ideas and words are recognized as intellectual property of authors. Using someone else's ideas without crediting them is considered plagiarism. Plagiarism is a serious offense in the U.S. educational system," Bobrova says.

She says students are expected to acknowledge ideas and words used from papers, articles, webpages, books, videos and other sources, and properly cite them.

[Read: What International Students Should Know About Academic Integrity.]

"The choice of referencing format and/or style is first of all usually related to the discipline, and a department's website or student handbook may specify which style should be learned and used. Some professors will specify a style in their syllabus," Mary Jane Curry, director of the Warner School Writing Support Services at the University of Rochester, wrote in an email.

For practice and help with citations, Bobrova says, "students can find guides, manuals, and tutorials for these and other citation styles on websites such as Purdue Online Writing Lab and the official websites of APA and MLA." The Purdue OWL, a free resource, is one of the world's oldest and most used websites around academic writing, according to Purdue University.

When it comes to citations, "domestic students are challenged by this as well," says Alexandra Smith, English instructor and assistant director of the Writing Center at Seattle University. Smith says to help all students, the writing center at Seattle University has been compiling an archive of resources, including free classes that can help students become more familiar with the various citation styles.

Use Online Resources

Students will need to proofread and check their work for errors and can use online free and paid proofreading services, such as Turnitin and Grammarly, that can check grammar, plagiarism, spelling and more. But experts say international students shouldn't rely on them entirely.

"No online source is going to catch every mistake, and some apps can actually misunderstand idiomatic language, colloquialisms or non-English expressions. We always encourage writers to be actively engaged with apps reviewing grammar and error and to never passively accept what they say," says Harry Denny, director of the Writing Lab at Purdue University--West Lafayette.

Instead, he says it's best to use multiple strategies, such as cautiously using an app or online resource, reading one's writing aloud slowly and with a natural voice, and asking a peer to read aloud with the student.

[READ: American Education System: What International College Students Should Know.]

"For students to succeed, they should develop their own self-editing skills and abilities. Lexical variety and word choice have always been problematic for international students," Bobrova says. "They can utilize online dictionaries and software tools to pick the right word that makes the most sense in context and to analyze their writing."

She says these tools include Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online, Oxford Learner's Dictionary, AWL Highlighter and Vocabulary Profiler.

Once on campus, international students should plan to ask for help, says Dorothy Mayne, faculty associate with the University of Wisconsin--Madison's Writing Center.

"Asking for help is key to academic success in general but also with writing specifically. Some research suggests that asking for help is more important to academic success in college in the U.S. than English language proficiency," Mayne says.

She recommends that international students plan to talk with their classmates and instructors about their academic work and "seek help through units on campus like the library and writing center."

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