There are many challenges facing international students studying at a Canadian university, none more so than the transition into writing academic English. Even students from English-speaking countries find it difficult to jump from the casual day-to-day style to the very high standard expected of students in Canadian post-secondary institutions. It is not only a linguistic, but a cultural shift – expectations are quite different.

Quite often, students will not know the standard design for an essay and the need for a clear thesis statement. This usually happens when a student hasn’t made a plan before starting their research. It is important to make clear from the start the direction a research paper is taking.

Another common obstacle comes when students haven’t yet understood the importance of avoiding plagiarism. It’s very difficult to integrate researched text into one’s own style of writing, and it’s something that can also be affected by one’s level of proficiency in English. A writer can’t just directly quote a source all the time – paraphrasing text is an important skill to master, and one that takes ongoing commitment and practice to be competent in. Strategies to combat this include using a dictionary and thesaurus to find alternative words, rearranging the phrases in a sentence, modifying the word form, changing between active and passive voice, and condensing or extending the original. In addition to this, a student must use a referencing system like APA, which takes even more time to master.

It’s important to avoid grammatical inaccuracies. Students won’t be expected to be perfect in English – many native speakers certainly aren’t, but too many errors make it difficult for an instructor to assess the content. The trick is to become conscious of more common errors so that you can fix them. Completing the University Access Program and/or seeking support from a writing coach can help a student learn how to edit their own work. Students can never forget the basic need to plan, write, and edit.

In the end, students need to tackle one problem at a time so that the improving of their writing skills doesn’t become an impossible task. Building confidence is critical when facing academic writing challenges, so looking at what’s right rather than what’s wrong is important in order to become a competent academic English writer.