College Essay Tips for English Language Learners

October 16, 2014

Even if you don't major in English or a humanities field, improving your writing skills as an international student will help you in many ways and can open doors for you, such as with applications for scholarships. 

The academic essays you write in your classes at a U.S. college offer a basic way to start to eventually master this lifelong skill. Take a look at some of the common mistakes below that many international students make when writing an academic essay.

1. Not being aware of grammatical errors: Even your American roommates will make grammatical mistakes if they do not pay close enough attention to what they write. 

Your writing might sound really good when you write it, but always make sure that you do not leave any grammatical errors when you're finished writing and editing your essay. Think about your professor, who needs to grade dozens of papers in a night. If your professor has to pause frequently in reading your essay because of grammar mistakes, he or she will have a hard time understanding your brilliant ideas.

One trick to try for essays that aren't very long is reading them backward, from the last sentence to the first. My favorite communications professor suggested this strategy to me to help me check over what I've written. 

When you read your essay normally, your brain can trick you into thinking that your writing is perfect, but reading it backward instead gives you time to consider your words more carefully and spot the grammatical errors.

Also, do not forget about your school’s writing center. This place is truly a great destination whenever you want to improve an essay and your writing skills. 

2. Using inappropriate vocabulary: As an international freshman, you probably have not yet forgotten all the fancy SAT words you memorized to pass that and other college entrance exams. But do not bring those fancy words to your academic essay when you're not entirely sure of their meaning or how they are used in context. 

Simply throwing these flamboyant words into your essays does not make your writing sound wiser and more academic. In fact, the opposite is often the case.

The staff of the writing center can help you check your vocabulary use. And if you meet a passionate writer at the writing center like I did, you can have a great conversation with him or her about the use of certain words and the different connotations of their synonyms. 

3. Forgetting to cite sources: Unlike a blog post or personal essay, academic essays won't sound knowledgeable if you only refer to what your friend or an unknown person said. Moreover, plagiarism is not welcome at U.S. colleges, and knowing how to cite sources is a must-have skill for international students.

As an international student who has just come to the U.S. to study, you may not be familiar with this habit of citing sources. Talking to your English professor, learning from friends in class or reading more academic essays can help you build this skill. As a bonus, you will also get into the habit of making sure your work is factually correct, and you will soon realize that Wikipedia isn't the only source to check when writing an academic paper. 

Improving English writing skills could never be an overnight process. But being aware of the common mistakes international students who do not speak English as their first language make while writing an academic essay can help you be more conscious as you write.


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