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Improve Your English for College or University: 6 Simple Steps

Are you an international student at an English-speaking university or college? Looking for ways to improve your academic English and boost your confidence when speaking? At OTUK, we provide specialised online English courses to help you improve your English for higher education, cultural integration and settlement.

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Quick intro: your questions answered

What level of English do I need for international study?

To be accepted into an English-speaking college or university, you usually need to demonstrate your English level by completing an IELTS exam, or similar. Most UK universities expect an IELTS score of 6.5+. However, once you have passed this exam, you may still feel that you need help with your spoken and written English to study confidently at a higher level and integrate better locally.

Many international students at UK universities find that their English is not fluent enough on arrival, and even after a pre-sessional course. This is because they need more interaction and daily language contact in order to improve fluency, confidence, and to understand the realities of the “real English” used by native speakers in their host city.

When you start any university or college course, you will need to show your ability to write clearly and accurately in academic English. We will look at how to do this in more detail in this guide.

How do I apply to enter a UK university?

Many universities now work with partner schools, institutions and agents in your home country. These organisations provide services to help international students apply to universities in the UK and other English-speaking countries.

In the UK, your university application will go through an organisation called UCAS. Check out this useful guide on how to apply to UK universities from outside Great Britain.

What is academic English exactly?

Academic English is the language that we use when writing assignments – such as essays, presentations and dissertations. It is quite different from the English we use to communicate in daily life or at work.

Academic English must show a balanced view, not just a personal opinion. This means we rarely, if ever, use the first person (“I”). It is important to use different ways of introducing ideas, showing consideration and understanding of relevant facts and prominent theories linked to the subject of the essay or assignment.

Academic English must also show the writer’s (or speaker’s) ability to think critically. This means demonstrating that you can analyse a text, theory or fact in a balanced way and draw your own rational, balanced conclusions.

Academic writing should be written in a formal register (style). This means not using contractions (i.e. couldn’t, can’t, etc.) or slang (informal phrases and words).

Academic writing can seem very difficult and complicated at first – but it does not have to be! In fact, the best academic writing is clearly written and easy to understand, despite sometimes including complex ideas and vocabulary.

How do I adapt quickly to university life in the UK or overseas?

Once you have got your place at your university of choice, you will need to do all the usual things associated with moving to another country.

This includes arranging transport, finding a place to live, setting up a bank account, registering with a doctor and getting to know your new university campus and neighbourhood. And that is before you even start your course!

Sound scary? Do not panic – we are here to help, with expert guidance and friendly tutors who are experienced in teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) – as well as general conversation, grammar and pronunciation.

We can tailor lessons to prepare you to start your life and studies in your new English-speaking city, helping you to quickly adapt to life in another country.

Check out this excellent post from Save the Student. It contains some great tips for international students coming to study overseas.


6 simple steps to improve your English for university

1. Find the right academic English tutor

Looking for an experienced teacher to help you navigate academic life at university in the UK (or another English-speaking country)?

Online Teachers UK has a team of qualified native English tutors who provide online lessons tailored to your needs. Contact us to set up a free consultation and see how we can help!

2. Learn useful intro words and phrases

Here are some ready-made phrases that are really useful for academic writing, along with their definitions:

This essay aims to examine/discuss/analyse: This is a great way to introduce a piece of academic work. It shows that you (the writer) understand the formal, neutral register that should be used when writing an essay, dissertation or research paper.

Firstly, secondly, thirdly: Using these adverbs is a good way to distinguish three distinct points, or reasons for your argument. For example:

“Firstly, the evidence from 1963 suggests…
Secondly, Freud’s theory of the ego would argue…
Thirdly, critics notably disagree on…”

However, in contrast, conversely: These terms are very useful for introducing a different point of view to one your essay has already raised. Any good piece of academic writing should show understanding of the different theories related to the topic.

Check out this BBC guide for lots of helpful hints and tips to improve your academic English.

3. Perfect your paragraphs

Q. Want to know what one of the key signs of a well-written essay is?
A. Perfect paragraphs!

A paragraph is a block of text in an essay in which the writer discusses a particular point or argument. Here is an example of two paragraphs, taken from an assignment written by an ESOL tutor in training:

3. Perfect your paragraphs

“Student K. had a fulfilling career as a mathematics teacher in her native country, and is hoping to eventually continue this in the UK. This is her principle reason for improving her level of English. She plans to live here for the foreseeable future because of the conflict in Syria. However, she says she misses her family and homeland every day and, in an ideal world, would like to return one day. 

At the present time, Student K. is volunteering at Nottingham Central Library to assist young children with their maths, science and literary skills. She says that although she finds this rewarding, she would like to return to teaching as a form of employment, rather than in a voluntary capacity.”

In the first paragraph, the writer discusses the student’s background. In the second paragraph, the writer moves on to discuss the student’s current situation and career goals. These are two distinct areas of content.

Why use paragraphs?
  1. It shows you have planned well
    Using paragraphs to explain each point helps to show the reader that you have carefully thought about what you want to say, and how to say it.
  1. It allows you to move on to a new point clearly and easily
    Using paragraphs actually helps you to move on to a new point when writing an essay. Plan well before you begin writing, to establish the order of the different points you want to make. Then, use this plan to write each paragraph.
  1. It improves readability for you and anyone who is marking your written work
    Readability is how easy (or hard) your text is to scan and read, for you (while editing), your tutors (while marking your work) – and anyone else who might read your work. Properly structuring your academic text into paragraphs will help improve its readability.
  1. It shows that you know how to write an essay
    Writing in paragraphs is the correct way to write any text that is longer than a few lines. It helps break up your work, making it easier to read, and allows you to deal with each point effectively and concisely.
Paragraph planning – why is it so important?

Structuring your essay into paragraphs makes it clear that you have planned your content. It also makes your writing easier to navigate for the reader (for example, your tutor or the person who will be marking your work).

If your writing had no paragraphs (or very long paragraphs), it would be difficult to distinguish one point from another. Check out this great post from the BBC on how to structure and organise your writing into paragraphs.

4. Think and write “critically”

Critical thinking involves several skills, including conceptualising, analysing, refining and evaluating.

4. Think and write “critically”

Let’s break these points down and define them:

Conceptualising: To conceptualise means to put together different pieces of information, or ideas, to form a new concept.

Analysing: To analyse means to study a fact or concept in detail, using independent thought and research to discover its meaning or value.

Refining: To refine means to break something down into its essential parts. This means to take away all the unnecessary information and make the important ideas or facts clearer and easier for others to understand.

Evaluating: To evaluate means to understand an idea, thought or argument and go on to assess how accurate or valuable it is. A key part of critical thinking is acknowledging that not all arguments are equal, and being able to explain why some are more accurate than others.

When writing critically, you will also need to evaluate your own work to see where improvements could be made. This is an important stage to complete before handing in any assignment. Remember to read your work back and check for any errors. You should also read your writing and think about how you could make it clearer.

5. Present with confidence

Most students have to present their work to their lecturers and peers at some point during their time at college or university.

It is normal to feel nervous about standing up in front of people and talking about your findings or ideas. However, there are ways we can make things easier (and less stressful!) when planning our presentations.

  1. What are the most important parts of a successful presentation?
  2. Planning and practising!

Plan the structure of your presentation just as you would do for an essay or dissertation.

Keep your slides (if you are using PowerPoint) short – your audience will not want to read many words on screen. Bullet points can work well.

Then practise, practise, practise!

The more you practise your presentation, the more confident you will feel – and the better you will know your content, without having to rely on written notes.

Have a look at this blog post from the London School of Economics (LSE) on how to create and deliver a successful academic presentation.
6. To write smart, you should think ‘simple’

The main thing is to understand exactly what you need to write, before you write it. Avoid any unnecessary words to make your writing clearer and easier to understand.

Contrary to what many international students believe, studying in English at college or university does not have to be complicated or stressful – even at the highest levels, such as post-doctoral research in a specialist field.

Looking for an experienced academic English teacher?

If you need personalised support with your academic English, our friendly and experienced UK tutors are available to assist you.

At OTUK, we offer one-to-one online tuition, tailored specifically to your level and needs. Whether you want to focus on formal English writing, conversation skills, or any other aspect of English, we can help.

Contact us today for a free consultation!

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 Rachel I.
— English Tutor
Written by Rachel I.
— English Tutor