How to master the skill of academic writing for successful study abroad?
How to master the skill of academic writing for successful study abroad?


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10 Must-Have Skills for a Harvard University Student


Habit number 5. academic writing

In a previous article, we discussed the need for academic and critical reading skills to successfully handle the volume of material and course demands at institutions like Harvard. Gradually mastering this skill, and recognizing the peculiarities of the vocabulary, types and organization of written texts in a particular academic field, you begin to understand the standards that your writing must meet. Does this mean that now you are ready to write just as beautifully and structurally?

Written papers are an important tool for reflecting on the material read, as well as a way to exchange knowledge and ideas not only with the professor, but also, in principle, with a wide audience. That is why the art of written communication is to ensure that your thoughts and ideas are clearly understood by a diverse audience. For many international students, the art of academic writing is not easy. Most international students at Harvard will tell you how much time they spent writing first essays, lab reports, and so on. What is the difficulty?

Feature 1: Different value systems of the written language in native and English languages

First of all, the written language of the native and English languages ​​can have different value systems: when in one language, for example, the strength of the author’s artistic style and the number of extraordinary metaphors are important, in the other, the logical organization of the text is valued. When starting to study academic English, reading and writing strategies, it is important to pay attention not so much to the content of the material, but to the system for organizing this content. When I taught academic English, I often observed such an interesting reaction from students who were just taking their first steps in mastering academic English: instead of perceiving the canons of written English as an effective tool for communicating specifically with an English-speaking audience, they found them “strange” and “ uncomfortable” and continued to write in English, but “in Russian”. Why is this happening?

Feature 2: Neurolinguistic features of learning a foreign language

From a neurolinguistic point of view, this reaction is understandable. When we start learning a foreign language (in this case, learning academic English can be compared to the next beginning), especially if it differs significantly from our native language (which is true for Russian and English), the established neural network formed by the continuous use of the Russian language, makes us think the same way when reading in English. Therefore, mastering academic English, especially at the initial stages, requires the active use of the ability to control automatic reactions (namely, the use of the peculiarities of Russian thinking) and generate answers using attention and reasoning. This ability is an important function of the executive power of a person, which, by the way, is individual and is determined by the totality of genetic data and previous experience of a person. That is why when people ask me how long it will take to learn how to write an essay, prepare for the TOEFL and GRE, I always answer that it depends not so much on the training program, but on your personal abilities and amount of practice. By the way, it is the duration and intensity of academic English lessons and the amount of written practice that are important factors in the gradual reduction of the need to control automatic reactions formed by the native language.

Feature 3: Academic Writing Requires Impeccable Logic

Another feature associated with the complexity of using the written language is the need to clearly formulate the topic and purpose of the written work, to determine the central idea and, accordingly, the system for organizing auxiliary ideas. You will see that the ritual of the writing process of an experienced “writer” always begins the same way. It begins with an outline of the main ideas that form the macro-skeleton of the essay, and is further complemented by abstracts of supporting ideas, which are also logically arranged. Of course, such a plan is possible only after a thorough analysis of the literature on a particular topic.

Almost all written work at the university, together with the direct assignment, indicates a requirement for the number of words. For example, write a 20-page synthesis of an empirical neuroscience study without exceeding the 150-word limit. Therefore, when the limit is increased to 500 words, it is perceived as an unaffordable luxury.

Why set word limits? As you may have guessed, the volume of words is not at all proportional to the amount of time spent on its implementation, rather the opposite. Essay length limits, first of all, emphasize that people do not want to read a lot, they want to read the essence. In order to be able to put the most important things in 150 words, you need to have an impeccable reading comprehension and be able to distinguish the main from the secondary, and this skill brings us back to the skill of critical reading.

Feature 4: Academic language as an element of subculture has its own rules, foundations, principles and values

Academic communities can be compared to a certain kind of subcultures that live by their own concepts, use their own language, styles, unspoken rules and which promote certain values. Therefore, if you want to be understood and accepted in a particular academic community, it is important to learn how to speak and write in the vocabulary of such a subculture, to follow certain styles and grammatical rules.

It is also important to note the unconditional observance of such ethical issues as, for example, academic citation - recognition of the work and work of your colleague when using his ideas and materials as part of your work.

Feature 5: Practice makes perfect

As with any new endeavor, mastering academic writing in English requires practice, a thoughtful approach to learning, and a mental readiness to overcome obstacles. At first, you will feel tired as your brain actively uses executive functions to expend energy on energy-intensive activities such as automatic response control and meta-analysis. But with practice, both skills and automatism will come, and the energy consumption of the brain will decrease.

Remember, professors do not have time to figure out who is native English and who is not, and how much work it costs you to write this essay in 500 words. They are equally cold-blooded in assessing the quality of writing, so we, as international students, have to work harder. But as a result of mastering a second language at the level of your native, you literally improve the quality of all the functions of your brain's executive power, self-control, cognitive flexibility, working memory and prolong the youth and health of your main center!

How is writing skill assessed for admission to university?

Given the importance of academic writing skills for university studies, this criterion is important in the assessment system for incoming students. When applying to competitive universities in the United States, international students, along with native speakers, take tests such as ACT or SAT for undergraduate and GRE or GMAT for graduate programs, which include writing an academic essay. In addition to this, personal entrance essays also perfectly demonstrate the level of academic writing of the candidate. All this is just to support the fact that the development of academic writing skills takes time and consistency. You should not count on a miracle here.

And already when you are a university student, you will have the opportunity to continue to improve in writing. All international students of Harvard, for example, take the mandatory online summer course Academic Writing Workshop, and during the academic year you can always sign up for an individual consultation at the Writing Center, where, of course, the work will not be written for you, but they will help you identify weaknesses and offer tools for its improvement.

Skill for all occasions

The ability to clearly articulate thoughts, build arguments and communicate in the language of the target audience is an important skill when applying for a job, looking for partners or writing a funding application. Therefore, I bring to your attention The Purdue Online Writing Center and Harvard College Writing Center for independent work on academic writing in English. It is likely that you still cannot do without a mentor, because every letter needs an audience!


Author: Evgenia Efremova, Master's student at Harvard University 
and academic director Global Ambassador


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