5 tips for writing essays in English

At UK and US universities, you’re expected to write your essays in English. But what if English isn’t your first language? How do you ensure you submit a quality piece of work that not only contains great content, but also reads well and is grammatically correct?

Firstly, try to take all that pressure off yourself. Secondly, give yourself plenty of time. If you’re lacking in confidence in your English writing abilities, there are many other students who feel the same way as you – both international and ‘home’ students alike!

Thirdly, follow our tips to learn how to produce high quality academic essays to be proud of.

1. Don’t be fooled by the thesaurus

Two students studying outside

The thesaurus is a book and online tool that lists synonyms – words that have nearly the same meanings as other words. Students often use the thesaurus to find more complex words that can replace simple words in essays to make it sound more professional.

It’s a great tool for building your English language vocabulary knowledge but shouldn’t be used so literally. Not all synonyms can be used in your desired context!

For example, if you were to search the word ‘excellent’ in the thesaurus to replace it in the sentence ‘their essay was excellent’, you’ll see ‘attractive’ and ‘exceptional’ listed as synonyms. Both words have quite different connotations, though.

‘Attractive’ suggests something that is good looking, while ‘exceptional’ suggests something that is better than average. Therefore, in the context of that sentence, ‘exceptional’ would be the only suitable word of the two to replace ‘excellent’.

Before selecting a synonym of a word for your essay, make sure you research examples of that word used in a sentence to see whether it would be a suitable word in your context.

2. Use the ‘SEE’ formula to structure paragraphs

A well written paragraph requires three things: a statement, a couple of examples to support that statement, and an explanation of those examples. Put simply, this formula is ‘SEE’ – Statement, Example, Explanation. For example:

Prompt: What makes someone a good leader?

Statement: A good leader is someone who can influence people in a positive way, inspiring them to do better and achieve great things.

Example: Steve Jobs, former CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc., once said: “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.”

Explanation: Apple Inc. is one of the largest companies in the world in terms of revenue, and in 2015 had a CEO approval rating of 95% on Glassdoor. Steve Jobs recognised the invaluable contributions that his employees gave towards the success of his company, making them feel seen and heard. He was an inventor and a forward-thinker who changed the world with his creations, making him a hugely inspirational and motivational leader.

Example 2: Caroline Albanese wrote: “Among the feedback from Apple employees, the majority are happy with their jobs. Employees say they like working at Apple because they feel like their work has a major impact on others. They like knowing that what they do directly impacts someone and that they are a part of something bigger.”

Explanation 2: Arguably one of the most admired leaders globally, Steve Jobs is a prime example of someone who is influential in a positive way, inspiring his employees to work towards a common goal to change the way the world works for the better. This quality is a shining example of what made him a successful leader.

3. Punctuation is important

A student studying on the grass

In English, the punctuation you use can change the entire meaning of a sentence. For example, there’s a sinister difference between “I find inspiration in cooking, my friends and my family” and “I find inspiration in cooking my friends and my family”. Two entirely different meanings – that you wouldn’t want to mix up – all because of a little comma!

The comma in particular is an important punctuation mark to use throughout your essay, acting as a natural pause in a sentence. Commas are also used to add additional information into a sentence, while hyphens make that information more prominent. For example:

  • Tom, a professional football player, bought a new car today.
  • Tom – a professional football player – bought a new car today.

In the second instance, ‘a professional football player’ is really emphasised as part of the reason why he could afford to buy a new car, whereas in the first instance his profession is just an additional piece of information about the person.

Using exclamation marks can help you express strong emotion in your writing. For example, there’s an emotive difference between “I did it!” and “I did it.”

While this is just a brief overview of the use of punctuation in academic essays, your INTO English teachers will explain the correct and incorrect uses of punctuation in far more detail.

4. Read other academic essays – but never plagiarise

If you learn better by example, it’s worth reading highly marked academic essays written by past students. The more you read, the better you’ll familiarise yourself with how to structure your essay and how to correctly add referencing throughout it.

Consider what you like and don’t like about the essay, whether the argument was balanced and if the student used sufficient evidence to support their argument. Develop your critical thinking skills so you can choose the best approaches for your own essay.

However, it’s incredibly important that you don’t copy and paste other people’s arguments to put in your essay. Universities are hot on plagiarism – the act of presenting another person’s ideas as your own. Once you submit your essay, the University will use a plagiarism checker to make sure you haven’t ripped off another paper on the internet and in archives.

If you’re worried about getting pulled up for plagiarism – whether it’s intentionally or unintentionally – there are online plagiarism checker tools that you can run your essay through before submitting it. Adding this important step to your essay writing process will ensure you aren’t penalised for what could be an oversight!

5. Spellchecker is your friend

Scrabble lettings spelling 'learn'

If English isn’t your first language, using spellchecker is especially important when you write academic essays in English. Even if it is your first language, using spellchecker is important!

Rushing to finish such a big piece of work means that we often make silly mistakes. We’re all guilty of it. Spellchecker tools correct misspelled words and fix incorrect grammar, often offering even better alternatives.

While spellcheckers are great tools to spot mistakes that you may not have seen, it’s important not to rely too heavily on them – they don’t always understand context.

For example, you could correctly spell a word but it’s the wrong word for the context. This could be the difference between ‘super’ and ‘supper’ or ‘desert’ and ‘dessert’.

Ultimately, using online tools are an important part of the academic essay writing process, but your brain is the best tool you can use to create a truly amazing piece of work. Remember to also use your teachers and peers for the best guidance you can receive!

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