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Heading off to university abroad is an adventure of a lifetime. Yet, for many non-native English speakers, this adventure comes with a significant challenge: mastering academic English. While casual conversation might come naturally, navigating the academic landscape — with its requirement for in-depth analysis, structured writing, and formal debate — demands a more refined command of the language.

English for academic purposes, is a specialised discipline that focuses on language skills needed for success in higher education. These include analysing scholarly articles, understanding complex theories, writing well-argued academic essays, and participating effectively in seminars and group discussions.

Core skills for academic English

Understanding and writing in academic English is key to unlocking your full potential at a university abroad. Let's dive into these core skills and see how they help.

Academic reading and comprehension

Reading and understanding English university textbooks is different from reading for fun. These books have dense, specialised language full of jargon and often present complex ideas that require more effort to understand. Unlike leisurely reading, academic texts are designed to inform, challenge and expand your knowledge on a subject. Here are a few reading techniques to make sense of complex texts:

  • Skimming: Quickly review a text to grasp its main themes. This technique is particularly useful for getting through dense material by identifying the core idea without getting bogged down in the details or jargon.

  • Scanning: Focus on finding specific pieces of information to address the challenge of navigating complex and lengthy academic material. This strategy helps you locate key terms or concepts efficiently without reading every word.

  • Critical Analysis: Engage with the text by questioning its arguments and evaluating its evidence. This approach helps break down complex ideas and jargon, allowing you to critically assess the material’s validity and relevance to your study.

  • Annotating: Marking important points and jotting down questions or reflections helps in actively engaging with the content. This method combats the passivity that dense, jargon-filled texts can induce, making it easier to recall and understand key concepts.

  • Summarising: Restate the main points in your own words to reinforce comprehension and memory. This strategy is especially effective for consolidating your understanding of complicated topics and ensuring you can articulate them in your academic work.

Academic writing essentials

Academic writing is all about writing in a precise, clear, and detailed manner. Effective academic writing is not just presenting ideas but structuring them in a way that convincingly argues your point. Here’s how you can master this important component of university success:

  • Structure and style: When writing academic essays, each paragraph must have a purpose. Start with a clear introduction that sets up your thesis, followed by body paragraphs that each tackle a piece of your argument or idea, and conclude with a summary that ties it all together. Keep your writing formal while aiming for clarity above all. Ensure your complex ideas are accessible as if you’re guiding a friend through a new concept.

  • Thesis development: The thesis is your cornerstone, the claim or argument you’ll spend your paper defending or supporting. It's similar to having a strong stance on an issue, where you prepare to present your case with conviction, akin to convincing friends about the merits of your favourite film or TV show.

  • Maintaining academic tone: The tone of your writing should reflect its scholarly intent. This means choosing precise wording, avoiding slang, and steering clear of conversational fluff. Think of it as the difference between a formal presentation and a casual chat; both can convey the same message, but the former demands a polished approach.

Improving your English writing skills for university papers can be honed over time. For additional support in refining these skills, consider downloading the IELTS by IDP app, which offers valuable practical exercises and tips for improving academic writing.

Enhancing research and study skills

Studying in university when English is not your first language can be tough. But don't worry! With the right approach, you can develop research and study skills to help you find academic success. Even if you're still working on your English, these skills will help you grasp big ideas and remember your lessons better.

Note-taking and summarising

Being able to summarise lessons and take notes will help you absorb and understand subjects better. Try these tips during your next lecture:

  • Look for main ideas: If you’re having trouble following the lecture, jot down the main points and keywords in the presentation instead. This way, you’ll know exactly what you need to come back to.

  • Use your own words: After university lectures, review your notes and try to put what you've learned into your own words. Digesting and revising the content can improve your understanding of the lesson and your English.

  • Record lessons: If your lecturer or professor allows it, record the lesson. Listening back lets you catch things you might have missed and make notes at your own pace.[1] [2] Many universities now offer recorded lectures, so be sure to check if this option is available at your university and where you can download these recordings.

  • Practise summarising: After reading or finishing a class, try to write a short summary of the topic. The process of breaking down complex topics into a summary can help you develop the language skills to articulate and communicate intricate ideas more effectively in English.

Developing research skills

Good research is a big part of doing well in university. Here's how to get better at it, even if academic English seems daunting:

  • Start simple: Look for informative articles or summaries in simpler English to understand complex topics. Rather than starting with peer-reviewed journals, try reading online articles on the topic before gradually moving on to more detailed texts.

  • Organise your findings: Keep a notebook or digital document where you jot down interesting points from your research. Consider using apps like Microsoft OneNote or Google Docs for digital note-taking, as they allow for easy organisation and access from any device. Creating separate sections or folders for each project or subject can help keep your notes tidy and easily retrievable.

  • Use online tools: Many online platforms offer tools to help you organise your research and manage references. Tools like Zotero and Evernote can be incredibly useful for keeping your sources well-organised and making note-taking more efficient. Starting to use these early on can save you time.

Oral communication in academic settings

Being able to communicate effectively in English is crucial for any international student in university. Whether it's delivering a presentation or taking part in class discussions, these skills can make a huge difference in how well you convey your ideas and engage with your studies or your peers. Here's how to sharpen your oral communication skills , ensuring you can express yourself clearly and confidently in English for academic purposes:

Presentation skills

  • Preparation is key: Start by thoroughly researching your topic and organising your thoughts in English. Creating an outline helps structure your presentation and ensures you cover all points logically, enhancing your ability to communicate complex ideas effectively.

  • Practice: Try rehearsing your presentation several times in English. Practise in front of friends or a mirror to get comfortable with your material and the language, and listen to recordings of yourself to refine your pronunciation and delivery.

Participating in university seminars and discussions

  • Be prepared: Familiarise yourself with the topic in advance of your classes by going through the self-reading materials provided in the particular course. This not only builds your confidence to participate but will also improve your ability to follow the discussion and understand what others are saying.

  • Active listening: You don’t only have to speak to develop key academic English skills! By practising active listening and really honing in on what your university classmates and lecturers are saying, you can pick up on nuances and vocabulary specific to your field of study. This attentive approach helps you better understand different accents and speech patterns, enriching your comprehension and ability to engage in discussions.

Vocabulary and language development

Building a rich English vocabulary for academic purposes can help you grasp complex concepts more quickly, engage in meaningful discussions, and articulate your ideas with precision. For instance, in environmental science, terms like “biodiversity” and “sustainable development” represent critical concepts crucial to the subject. Expanding your vocabulary to be familiar with such jargon improves your chances of excelling in university.

Building an academic vocabulary

  • Read widely: Exposure to different texts, from academic journals to textbooks, can introduce you to new vocabulary. Try to read a variety of materials and keep a journal of terms and phrases related to your field of study.

  • Engage with subject-specific media: Watching documentaries or listening to podcasts in your field of study can be incredibly beneficial. For example, if you're studying environmental science, try watching a documentary on climate change to expose yourself to important concepts and specific vocabulary used in the field. This helps you understand how these English terms are used in real-world discussions and research, enhancing your ability to apply them accurately in your academic work.

  • Use jargon and technical language: Try actively incorporating the new jargon and technical terms you’ve learnt into your essays, discussions, and presentations. This practice can improve your comfort level with technical language and enhance your academic writing and speaking.

Bridging the cultural gap


Studying at English-speaking universities in countries like Australia, the UK, and Canada can be a culturally eye-opening experience. Each destination has its own unique set of norms and practices, from local English slang to distinct academic traditions and local customs.

Understanding academic culture in Australia, the UK, and Canada

The academic environments in Australia, the UK, and Canada share common values like academic integrity and a strong emphasis on critical thinking. However, there are notable differences in their approaches.

For example, Australia’s laid-back approach is often reflected in its classroom interactions and group projects, the UK’s rich historical traditions influence its formal academic ceremonies, while Canada’s multicultural ethos is evident in its inclusive and diverse campus life.

  • Teaching and learning styles: Universities in the UK tend to take a more formal and structured approach to lectures and tutorials, with a significant focus on independent study. Australia and Canada, while also valuing independent learning, often encourage more interactive and collaborative classroom environments.

  • Academic year structure: The academic year in Australia typically starts in February, while universities in the UK and Canada start in September. This difference can affect application deadlines and study schedules.

  • Cost of education: The cost of tuition and living in English-speaking countries can vary significantly. The UK and Australia tend to have higher university tuition fees for international students compared to Canada, which is generally perceived as more affordable.

Cross-cultural communication

Take the time to immerse yourself in your study destination's cultural norms and local English slang! Taking part in festivals, social events, and university clubs helps you understand the nuances of how people in the region communicate. This will help you feel more integrated and at home in your host country, which in turn can boost your academic performance!

Get ready for English-speaking universities with the IELTS Academic test

Wondering if you’re all set to thrive in English-speaking universities in the UK, Canada, or Australia? The IELTS Academic Test evaluates your essay writing and text comprehension skills, making it a great benchmark to assess your English proficiency for university.

Attaining a minimum overall band score in the IELTS Academic Test, which showcases your ability to understand lectures, assignments, and exams in the English language, is often a requirement for overseas university applications. It demonstrates your readiness to tackle higher education in English.

Prepare for universities in the UK, Canada, or Australia with IDP

As you gear up for your academic journey in English-speaking universities across the UK, Canada, or Australia, IDP is here to guide you every step of the way. Download the IELTS by IDP App, to explore resources like guides and our official IELTS Preparation Tool to ensure you’re fully prepared for your IELTS Academic Test.

Ready to take the leap towards your university dreams? Book your IELTS Test now and set the foundation for your academic journey.

If you’re curious about studying abroad, IDP also offers free overseas education placement services to help you chart your path to the right university.

Connect with an education expert by booking a free counselling session with IDP today!