Blog

How to Write a Great Essay If English is Not Your Native Language

For international students whose primary language is not English, writing a college essay can be challenging. But English competence is not everything when it comes to writing well. Even native English speakers can struggle without the right approach.

For international students whose primary language is not English, writing a college essay can be challenging. But English competence is not everything when it comes to writing well. Even native English speakers can struggle without the right approach. Maurice Boissiere, lecturer and adjunct professor for English writing at the University of Maryland, confirms this view. “I have taught international students with A’s on their essays as well as local students failing the class,” Boissiere said. “Really the point is to ask questions.” Those questions help clarify the point or focus of the essay, also called a prompt.

Style, format and purpose

What are some good questions to ask before writing an essay? Boissiere said all students should ask about the style, format and purpose. Style, he said, defines whether the essay is a research paper, a position statement, an opinion piece or a summary essay. Are you trying to convince the reader of a position? Presenting deeply researched information about a topic? Summing up a situation or event? They all take different approaches in their style of writing. Format is the standard way an essay is structured, such as Modern Language Association (MLA); American Psychological Association (APA) style, used mostly for scientific papers; and Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Purpose, he said, is key to formulating a good thesis, meaning the writer should know what he or she is writing about and not wander through a topic aimlessly.

Precision, concision, proofreading

After answering these questions, there are three tips to ensure the essay is well written. The first tip is precision, that is, to express yourself clearly. “When I see words and expressions that are unnecessarily convoluted, it is a huge red flag,” Boissiere said. “There is absolutely no value in expressing yourself in a sophisticated way if your reader cannot understand what you are saying.” The second tip is concision, or succinctly stating ideas. “Writing is really thinking. If you cannot express exactly what you need to get across, that shows there’s confusion or vagueness in your thinking,” Boissiere said. Finally, make sure someone — preferably a native speaker — proofreads your essay before you print out the final version. Don’t hand in an essay with spelling, punctuation, grammatical or printing errors. And by editing and rewriting parts that seem odd or out of place to your American classmates, you are actually learning more about U.S. culture. “I always try to help international students proofread their essays if they need it. This is kind of my job here,” said John Pugh, graduate student and teaching assistant in the English Department. “Cultural differences can be a barrier for international students who are not accustomed to critical thinking. But writing definitely helps with that,” he added. Lastly, Boissiere said, not enough students seek out help. “I have office hours every week for a reason,” Boissiere said. “But I don’t see many students coming here to ask questions.”

By Thomas Zhu, first published on February 20, on https://www.voanews.com/