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The basics
Study abroad : Once you arrive

Essay writing skills for international students

Essay writing is an essential skill that all international students need. We take you through how to approach the process with some guidelines and advice.

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As part of our academic writing series, we look at how to start essay writing at university. Academic writing is very different from any English language writing you may have done so far. It’s a process, and you shouldn't miss any parts of the process.  


Here we give you an overview of the steps involved in academic essay writing and some advice for each section. 


How to start essay writing 

Process of essay writing in an infographic - Reading, Planning, Writing and Reviewing





To begin writing, the first thing you must do is read. Read the essay question carefully and highlight the key words and parts of the question. Read your lecture notes and do further reading on the subject using the reading list and other resources you have been given.  


While reading, make lots of notes and make sure you keep a list of all the sources you have used. You’ll need this to write a comprehensive reference list at the end. Being able to reference and use citations is vital. Copying and using other peoples’ words in your essays is a serious offence at university and has serious consequences. You can find out how to reference and use citations in our article on referencing.  



This part is as important as the actual writing, so make sure you never miss this step. Use the essay question to help guide you and keep you focused. The question can help provide the overall structure for your essay. Your reading and notes will also help you decide on a plan, don’t worry if you need to change the order or structure as you go along; it’s easier to adapt a plan than to rewrite a whole essay.  


During this planning phase, you’ll be able to organise your ideas into different sections and start inserting some details and references into paragraphs. Once you’re happy that your plan is organised clearly and cohesively (the ideas and paragraphs link together) and that it covers each part of the essay question, you’re ready to begin writing.  



If you’ve followed this advice so far, then beginning to write will be easier now that you have a good, solid plan. While writing, make sure that your arguments are supported by evidence and that you reference each time you use the words or ideas of a different source. Each university and sometimes each department has its referencing style so ensure you follow the guidelines.  


To potentially avoid using someone else’s words or ideas, you need to be able to summarise and paraphrase. Paraphrasing is expressing the meaning of something you have read during your research in your own words. It's a key academic writing skill that all university students need to learn - it isn’t just international students. Each university has its own academic skills and English language support services, so please make sure to use these services. 



This is the final part of the essay writing process and definitely shouldn’t be missed or cut short. You should reread your essay and check the following: 


  • Each part of the essay question is answered. 

  • The introduction has a thesis statement and clear essay structure.

  • Each paragraph has only one topic. 

  • Each paragraph should have a topic sentence. 

  • Relevant and strong evidence. 

  • The conclusion summarises the main points and doesn’t introduce any new information. 

  • Referencing has been used correctly. 

  • The reference list is included. 

  • A bibliography is included. This is a list of all the sources you have used in your research, even if you haven’t referred to them directly in your essay. 

  • The style of writing should be formal: 

                           - use more sophisticated vocabulary.

                           - use more sophisticated grammar structures.

                           - do not use contractions. 

  • Grammar and spelling.

  • Save and back up a copy of your essay.


Hopefully, you’ll find this advice useful. Come back for more tips in our academic writing series. While you're here you might find our series on useful English language for different situations helpful.  

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