One of the biggest challenges international students face when they arrive at university in the UK, US, Canada, Austraila or New Zeland, in terms of their writing, is the transition from writing for IELTS to writing for academic purposes.
After studying for weeks or even years to pass the writing component of the 'Academic' IELTS writing test, achieving the grades required to enrol on a programme at an English speaking university will probably give the student a feeling of 'I've done it'. It's only when the first assignment is due that the student may realise that the IELTS test has not prepared them for the requirements of an academic department.
There are some things that will transfer across, such as sentence and paragraph structure, a fundamental understanding of grammar and the ability to write cohesively (ideas connect between sentences) and coherently (ideas are logically organised and presented). However, here are two main areas where international students struggle to make the transition to academic writing.
The first and perhaps most worrying difference the student will notice will be the word count - perhaps 2500 words in an early Masters assignment. This might lead the student to think they need to write an IELTS-style essay that is ten times longer than in the exam. Of course, if they do this, it is unlikely to receive a good mark. IELTS essays are written from personal experience, lack referencing, and have a singular purpose (argument, discussion, problem-solution, etc.). A piece of academic writing should be primarily objective, based on facts (through first-hand or reported experimentation) and the opinions of authorities in the field, all of which should be correctly referenced. The student's opinion comes in to it only insofar as it flows from those objective facts. Most texts will include a variety of purposes. For example, causes of a problem may be dicussed, before solutions are compared and contrasted, and an argument as to the best solution given.
Recommendation: When reading academic texts, notice the various purposes of each stage of the text. Although journal articles are much longer than student assignments, the moves we make from beginning to end will be similar. Try to identify where the writer references the opinions and experimental work of others, where they discuss their own research and where they are giving their own opinion. Notice how referencing is used to cite the work of others, then check with your department which referencing system you are expected to use.
According to the IELTS writing criteria, high scoring students are able to 'use a wide range of vocabulary', 'use uncommon lexical items' and 'use a wide range of complex structures'. This can lead students in to trying to "show off" their understanding of idioms or simply trying to use as many different synonyms and complex grammar structures as possible. In contrast, academia expects writing to be clear, direct and precise. Complex sentences have their place, and should be used where necessary, but should not be used just for the sake of showing you can. Your reader does not care whether you can use reduced relative clauses, they simply want to understand your ideas. In terms of vocabulary, choose words that deliver the meaning in as few words as possible. Why use 'a temperature measurement device' when the word 'thermometer' does the job perfectly. Repetition is not a problem if you are referring to the same thing more than once. It adds cohesion to your writing.
Recommendation: When reading academic texts, notice the language used. Notice the verbs. Academic texts make heavy use of verbs that make the relationships between things and ideas clear such as 'be' and 'have'. The complexity comes in the noun phrases, which will be the subject of future blog posts. For now, notice how many words make up the noun phrases in the texts you are reading. Become familiar with the academic word list and notice the words in the texts you are reading.
The key thing you need to remember is that your audience has changed. In IELTS, your reader is an examiner who must judge your English-level. In your academic department, your reader is only interested in the quality of your ideas. Use language that allows you to express them as clearly and as directly as possible.