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10 Tips to Prepare Your Academic English for University

Passed your exams? Great! Got a place at an overseas university? Fantastic! But is your English really up to the task? To get the most out of your education in the UK or US, your academic English needs to be solid. In this study guide, our experienced EAP tutor Holly N. will give you her best tips to make sure your English is good enough for life at university. Let’s take a look!

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1. Work on your grammar

Many of my students say: “I’ve passed my IELTS exam, so I don’t need to work on my grammar!” Yes, the IELTS exam gives you a good foundation for the English you will use on your university course, but it’s a good idea to keep improving your grammar even after you have met the basic language requirement to enter university.

Why work on grammar specifically?

Well, most international students know what their weak areas are, and for a lot of students this is writing. It’s likely that you made some grammar mistakes in your writing exam and it’s important to know what tenses you should improve on before you start to write academic essays. You don’t want these errors to become “fossilised mistakes” (bad habits), which are then very difficult to correct.

If you are confident that you can use grammar accurately and can express your ideas clearly in English, then this will mean you can dedicate more time to all the other stages of the academic writing process – research, formatting, paraphrasing, etc.

What grammar do I need to know for uni?

Academic writing doesn’t always mean lots of long, complicated sentences! You can still get good marks if you write in a relatively simple way. If you make mistakes with your grammar, it might have a negative impact on the reader, who might feel frustrated by the mistakes or might not understand what you are saying. This is why it’s important to keep things simple.

Before you start your university course, make sure you’re really confident using simple grammar structures. Below are a few examples of tenses that are frequently used in academic writing. If you can use these accurately, then you will definitely be at an advantage when you start your university course.

  • The present simple
    I don’t need to worry about the present simple. I did it at secondary school!
    Perhaps that’s true, but a lot of students still make basic mistakes with this tense and it is frustrating for the reader.For example:
    – Huang believe that working from home can significantly increase productivity.  (incorrect)
    – Huang believeS that working from home can significantly increase productivity.  (correct)
  • The past simple
    This tense is used to describe actions in the past that have finished and that took place at a specific time. If you want to talk about investigations and research by other academics at a certain point in the past, you will need this tense.For example:
    In 2008, Hamilton and Jones published a paper in which they demonstrated a strong link between…
  • The present perfect
    This tense is used to talk about actions in the past that have finished, but that did not take place at a specific time.For example:
    Several studies have reported that working from home has no impact on productivity. (It is not clear when these studies happened)
  • The passive voice
    This is used when the action is more important than the person (or the thing) that does the action.For example, in the sentence
    This theory was first defined by Christopher Mann in 1979”, the writer gives more importance to the theory than to Christopher Mann himself.These are just some examples of English tenses that you will see regularly in academic texts and that you will need to use correctly. There are many other grammar points that you should perhaps revise. For example, compound sentences, coordinating conjunctions, the comma splice, etc. These are all important in EAP (English for Academic Purposes).

2. Improve your reading speed

At university, you will be expected to read a lot and you will also need to show in your academic writing that you have read widely. It can be a shock for many students when they arrive at university and are given a very long reading list for their course. If you’re not in the habit of regularly reading books, articles and websites in English, then reading for university can be a slow and painful process!

Do you mean skimming and scanning?

Yes. At times, skimming (when you read superficially to get a general understanding of an article) is going to be more useful than scanning (when you try and understand every single word). This will be the case when you need to find your own sources to support your ideas.

Sometimes you might choose to read an article because you think it is relevant to your argument, but then you might realise that the article isn’t going to help with your essay. If you have spent a long time reading this article in detail and looking up every new word in the dictionary, it can be frustrating when you have to then disregard it.

So save some time and get into the habit of reading for a general understanding only at first. If there are individual words that you don’t know, try to work out the meaning from the context. This will increase your reading speed and you can then read the article again in more detail if you decide you can actually use it in your essay.

3. Listen in a new way!

Academic listening can be a problem for many international students. There are two reasons for this:

i) Students have to listen to very long lectures, instead of short extracts
ii) Students have to listen in a new way

What do you mean “listen in a new way”?

As you know from personal experience, listening exercises at school, with a private teacher or in exams tend to involve some advanced preparation. You may be given a list of questions, a specific task/context or even an answer sheet with multiple choice options. This is very different from listening to spontaneous speech in English, especially native English speech delivered at speed.

Listening to a lecture means you need to “listen in a different way” because there isn’t a list of questions and you have to write AND listen at the same time. You need to understand which points or fact are most important (and write these down). However, while writing, you must also keep following what the lecturer is saying. It’s not easy to do!

Can’t I just record the lecture and listen to it after?

On some courses this might be possible, but it’s best to check with your department first. Even if the rules state that lectures can be recorded, you will still need to have good listening skills in order to understand other students in seminars, and to be able to respond to what they say.

For many students (including native speakers!), listening and note-taking are new skills that they need to develop when they go to university. It takes time and effort to master these new skills so you should start practising early.

4. Master academic referencing

Before starting your uni course, you should already know the answers to questions like these:

* What’s an in-text citation?
* What’s a reference list?
* Do I need to include a page number?
* Do I need to include the author’s first name and surname, or just the surname?
* Is it correct to write “Huang and Anderson” or “Huang & Anderson”?
* If my academic article was written by twenty different people, do I need to write all of their names in my in-text citations?
* What order do I put the reference list in?
* When do I need to use italics?

These are questions that students often ask when they need to use academic sources in their writing. Why not start to think about citations and references before you start your course? This will mean less stress for you later.

5. Polish your email etiquette

I CAN’T SUBMIT MY ESSAY! I was not well at the weekend.

Thanx so much!


This is an email from a student to their tutor. It was sent 5 minutes before the deadline for the essay. Do you think this is acceptable? How would you feel as the tutor receiving this message?

Unfortunately, most students have not had much practice writing formal emails before they arrive at university. International students may also struggle with selecting the right level of formality to use when speaking and writing in English. It’s important that you give the right impression when corresponding with university staff and other students.

Here are some of the problems with the impolite email above:
  1. There is no greeting
    Always start with a greeting!
    “Dear Dr Smith” (this is best if you are not sure how formal to be)
    “Dear Alex” (this is ok if the tutor has said that you can use their first name)
    “Hello Alex” (slightly less formal)
    “Dear all” (if you are writing to several people)
  2. There’s no name at the end, only a first initial
    You should finish with “Kind regards” or “Best wishes” and then your full name.
  3. The student has written “thanx” like in a text message
    This is not acceptable in formal email correspondence. Always use full forms. It’s still fine to use contractions like don’t, I’m, you’re, it’s etc.
  4. The student has used capital letters inappropriately
    This may even appear rude as sometimes all-capitals is used informally to indicate shouting. There’s also no apology here – e.g. I am terrible sorry for the very late notice, but…
  5. The student wants a deadline extension but hasn’t actually asked for this!
    Be clear about exactly what you want or need. You can use polite and simple language to do this – e.g. Do you think it would be at all possible for me to have an extension of 2 days due to my recent illness?

6. Speak up!

Living overseas provides a great opportunity to improve your English speaking skills. However, many international students fail to fully integrate or make friends with students from their host country. This is often because they lack confidence with their spoken English or experience “culture shock”. Try to improve your spoken English and knowledge of the local culture BEFORE you arrive at university.

Here are a few ways you might do this:
  • Take online speaking classes with a Skype English tutor
  • Join Facebook groups to practise speaking with other international students
  • Attend some face-to-face social events with British/American expats in your town
  • Watch popular English TV series online (learn new vocab, notice the accents etc.)
  • Use a language exchange website to find a native English speaking partner

7. Write right, alright?!

Writing essays and assignments for university takes a lot of time and effort. This is especially true if English is not your mother tongue. You may even find that you make basic mistakes with your English writing because your attention is focused 100% on the content/material. This isn’t a problem, but you do need to proofread your work thoroughly before you submit it!

Many universities provide a proofreading checklist. However, if you already know the types of mistakes you make most often, this can help you save time when editing. For example, if you often make mistakes with tenses, then you should pay particular attention to these when proofreading.

Perhaps also consider a “proofreading exchange” with a fellow student from your course. Take it in turns to edit each other’s essays. Two pairs of eyes are better than one!

8. Build your vocab

When it comes to EAP vocabulary, there are terms connected with your specific technical subject (e.g. Medicine) and more general Academic English words used on all degree courses. You will need both during your time at university.

If you have an extensive vocabulary, it will help you when reading, writing, speaking and listening in English. Like grammar, this skill covers every base. You should think of vocabulary/words as bricks in your “English house”. If you have too many missing bricks, then your house will fall down. Keep building your vocabulary!

Here are 3 ways to expand your AWL (Academic Word List):
  • Spend 5 minutes a day doing short vocabulary exercises on the website
  • Read websites, articles and books about your chosen university subject
  • Watch interesting Youtube videos or TED talks related to your subject, turn on subtitles, note down new vocab

9. Contact your international department

Most universities provide a number of services especially for overseas students. When you arrive, you should get in contact with your university’s international department. Their staff can give you practical advice on how to set up a student bank account, manage your finances, register with a local doctor, etc.

University international departments also bring together local and overseas students via a range of social activities and events. These can be a great place to practise your English and to meet new people!

You may also be able to benefit from a mentoring scheme. These pair you up with a second or third year student who knows more about the university/city and can answer your questions or give helpful advice.

Visit your university’s official website to find out more about this before you arrive.

10. Manage your time!

University encourages students to be very independent in their studies and to decide by themselves how to structure their study time. For some students, this can be difficult at first and they can get distracted easily. In contrast, other students may spend all their time studying, but with zero downtime. Getting the right balance is important, both for your health and for your studies.

Here are 5 suggestions to ensure a better time balance at uni:
  • Create small “mini goals”
    Instead of thinking “I have to write an essay” (which might seem like a huge, complex job), divide this big task into smaller, more manageable pieces. The Assignment Survival Kit is a useful tool from the University of Kent that does exactly this.
  • Reward yourself!
    Give yourself a little reward if you complete a “mini goal”. For example, have a cup of tea and a chat with a friend in the kitchen, go out for a short walk in the sun, cook a nice dinner that evening, etc.
  • Choose the right study space
    Find somewhere suitable to work – like the library or a quiet study area on campus. It will be full of people working so you might feel encouraged to join them – or guilty if you don’t! Creating accountability to others can be a good motivator.
  • Be “indistractable”!
    Identify your distractions and remove them for a short period of time while you study. See them as things to build into your rewards when you have completed a task. For example, turn off your mobile phone and put it in your bag.
  • Take a timeout
    Having short, but regular breaks is important because it can help your mind stay focused on your studies. If you’ve got a mental block, get up, stretch your legs, perhaps go and grab a coffee. This will give you time to “process” and come back fresh to your essay or task.

Want to improve your Academic English for university? You’re in the right place! Contact us today for your free consultation with one of our experienced British English teachers. Find out how we can help you succeed with your English and get the most from your higher education.

Click here to download this post via our mobile website!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

Written by Holly N.
— Academic English Tutor
Written by Holly N.
— Academic English Tutor