How to master the skill of academic writing for successful study abroad?
06.10.17
How to master the skill of academic writing for successful study abroad?

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10 Required Student Skills at Harvard University

Skill number 5. Academic writing

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

Written works are an important tool for reflecting 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. The art of academic writing is not easy for many international students. Most international students at Harvard will tell you how much time they spent writing first essays, laboratory reports, etc. What is the difficulty?

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

First of all, the written language of the mother tongue and the English language can have different value systems: when, for example, the strength of the author’s artistic syllable and the number of extraordinary metaphors are important in one language, the logic of text organization is appreciated in another. 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 organization system of this content. When I taught academic English, I often watched such an interesting reaction of 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 with an English-speaking audience, they found them “strange” and “ uncomfortable ”and continued to write in English, but“ in Russian ”. Why it happens?

Feature 2: Neuro-linguistic features of learning a foreign language

From a neurolinguistic point of view, such a reaction is understandable. When we begin to study a foreign language (in this case, the study of academic English can be compared with the next start), especially if it is significantly different from the native language (which is true for Russian and English), an established neural network formed by the continuous use of the Russian language, makes us think the same way when reading in English. Therefore, the development of academic English, especially in 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, incidentally, is individual and is determined by a combination of genetic data and previous human experience. That is why when they ask me how long it will take to learn to write an essay, prepare for the TOEFL and GRE, I always answer that it depends not only on the training program, but on your personal abilities and the amount of practice. By the way, it is the duration and intensity of academic English classes, and the amount of written practice that are important factors in gradually reducing 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 the use of 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 starts the same way. It begins with a plan of the main ideas that form the macro-skeleton of the essay, and is further complemented by theses of auxiliary ideas, which are also logically built. Of course, such a plan is possible only after a thorough analysis of the literature on a specific topic has been carried out.

Almost all written work at the university, together with a direct assignment, indicate a requirement for the number of words. For example, write a synthesis of empirical neuroscience with a volume of 20 pages, without exceeding the limit of 150 words. Therefore, when the limit is increased to 500 words, it is perceived as inadmissible 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. The established limits on the volume of essays, in the first place, emphasize that people do not want to read a lot, they want to read the essence. In order to be able to compose the most important in 150 words, you need to have an impeccable understanding of what you have read and to be able to distinguish the main from the secondary, and this ability brings us back to the critical reading skill.

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

Academic communities can be compared with a certain kind of subculture that lives by its own concepts, uses its own language, styles, unspoken rules and which propagate certain values. Therefore, if you want to be understood and accepted in a particular academic community, it is important to learn to speak and write vocabulary of such a subculture, to follow certain styles and grammar 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 his work.

Features 5: Practice makes perfect

As in any new business, mastering academic writing in English requires practice, a meaningful approach to learning and a psychological readiness to overcome obstacles. At first, you will feel tired from the fact that your brain, actively using executive functions, will spend energy on performing energy-consuming actions, such as controlling automatic reactions and meta-analysis. But with practice, both skills and automatism will come, and brain energy consumption will decrease.

Remember, there is no time for professors to figure out for whom English is native, and for whom not, and how much work you should write this essay of 500 words. They equally coolly evaluate the quality of writing, so we, foreign students, have to work more. But as a result of mastering a second language at the native level, you literally increase the quality of all the executive functions of your brain, self-control, cognitive flexibility, working memory and prolong the youth and health of your main center!

How do you evaluate writing skills when applying for university?

Given the importance of the skill of academic writing for studying at the university, this criterion is important in the evaluation system of incoming students. Entering competitive universities in the United States, international students, along with carriers, take tests such as ACT or SAT for undergraduate studies and GRE or GMAT for master's programs, which include writing an academic essay. In addition, personal introductory essays also perfectly demonstrate the level of academic writing of the candidate. All this is only in support of the fact that the development of academic writing skills requires time and consistency. You should not count on a miracle.

And already when you will be a university student, you will have the opportunity to continue to improve in writing. All international Harvard students, for example, take the mandatory summer online Academic Writing Workshop course, and during the school year you can always make an individual consultation at the Writing Center, where, of course, they will not write work for you, but they will help 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 both in the future employment, and in the search for partners or when writing an application for funding. 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 one can’t do without a mentor, because each letter needs an audience!

Author: Evgenia Efremova, graduate student at Harvard University
and academic director of Global Ambassador

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