Complete Essay Writing Guide for International Students

essay writing
liberal arts
advice for students
Let us help you find your best fit university!Find your school
By Shorelight Team
Last updated on August 3, 2023

If you are an international student and English is not your first language, academic writing may take extra practice. Learn how to write an essay for your US university classes.

A male international student sits in front of a laptop in a university library and writes essay notes on a notepad.

For many international students, learning how to write an essay is essential to a successful college career in the US. (You may be required to write an essay when applying to college, too.) There are many types of essays and, when it comes to essay writing, there is more than one way to share your ideas and communicate well.

Here are some essay writing tips to build strong academic writing skills, even before you arrive at your US university.

Essay Writing Tips for International Students

No matter your major, writing essays is important to getting good grades – and good writing skills will help you succeed in any future internship or job. If you are an undergraduate student, you may also be completely new to writing academic essays for higher education.

Keep reading to learn how international students at United States universities can get comfortable with essay writing, especially understanding an essay outline, thesis statement, and paragraph structure. 

Create an Essay Outline

Working from an outline lets you plan the main points of your international student essay and put them in order. This makes it easier to stay organized once you start writing. 

“I always require my students to work on an outline before they draft their essays,” says Maad El-Gali, ESL instructor at the University of the Pacific. “Regardless of essay formats, an outline generally leads to successful writing because it allows students to picture what their essay would look like. [It also] allows me to give students feedback before they start [the student essay writing process].”

El-Gali teaches his students that every essay outline must have four parts: 

  1. A thesis statement (also known as a central argument)

  2. Topic sentences

  3. Major and minor supporting arguments

  4. A conclusion

Once you have created an essay outline containing these four elements, you are ready to begin the academic writing process.

Do Your Research 

Student essay writing requires research! Brainstorm ideas for your essay’s focus and look into existing material on the topic you’ve selected. Writing down your ideas and thoughts helps you organize them and plan the arguments for your college essay as an international student.

After brainstorming, it is time to dive into your research. Review existing literature on your ideas to find additional concepts and material to support your main points, and remember always to cite sources when you paraphrase or quote ideas that are not your own. Plagiarism is a serious offense in the US educational system, especially in academic writing. Remember to give due credit to the authors of the material you use! 

Form a Thesis

After finishing your research, it is time to formulate a thesis. A thesis statement introduces your academic essay’s main argument and provides a roadmap of the supporting points for your readers. Good thesis statements show your interpretation of the subject, convey the central idea of your argument, and hook readers into learning more. 

There are three types of thesis statements:

  1. Argumentative - presents a disputable claim and defends it.  

  2. Expository - presents a claim and explains what the reader should learn.  

  3. Analytical - compares and contrasts themes. 

To decide which type of thesis statement best fits your academic writing assignment, it is important to learn more about your topic, also known as your essay prompt.

Understanding the Essay Prompt

The first step toward writing your international student essay is making sure you understand your essay prompt. An essay prompt is the topic or subject you need to write your essay on. The prompt you receive can be written in different formats, such as a statement, a question, or a set of data. The following is just one example of an essay prompt: “Reading more books improves your skill as a writer. Explore this statement.” 

With the above example, your next step would be to break down this prompt and understand the different areas involved in the topic. Ask yourself questions about the prompt which helps to define the topic in your essay, for example: How does reading books improve one’s writing skills? Do certain books help improve writing more than others? Is this true for all kinds of writers and writing? 

By asking yourself these types of questions, you can gain a better understanding of which components your college essay should include. As you usually have a limited word count and/or page length for your essay, as well as a specific due date to turn it in, it is important to plan out how you want to structure your essay to make it easy to read while still containing a compelling argument supported by thorough research. 

Intro Paragraph

The introduction is the first paragraph of your international student essay and gives the reader a brief overview of the topic you are writing about. This is one of the most important elements of your essay, as many readers use an introduction to get a first impression of your content. 

Your introduction should immediately get the reader’s attention and encourage them to take an interest in what you have written. The essay introduction should contain a valuable or interesting piece of information to the reader, such as a statistic, an unexpected fact, a relatable scenario, or a compelling quote. 

Additionally, the introduction should have a clear and brief outline of what is discussed in your essay, such as the sections to follow, questions to be answered, and even the intended audience. 

Finally, the introduction to academic essays typically has a clear thesis statement: a central argument to be defended with supporting research in the pages to come. 

How to Write a Strong Thesis

For a typical college essay or academic paper, the first part of writing a strong thesis is to present a clear thesis statement. This statement presents your argument to your reader and gives a glimpse into what you cover over the course of the essay. With your thesis statement, explain how your argument joins the conversation of the overall topic it relates to, and how it contributes to this discussion.

Your thesis should be specific and focused. Avoid deviating too far from your central idea and make sure your supporting evidence is relevant and helps the reader understand your most important points. To better support your argument, your essay should go into deep detail and define what your argument is, the importance of your argument and why you are presenting it, and the approach you have taken to explain it.

A strong thesis is also unique, and your supporting points should emphasize your argument and its validity in larger discussions and contexts. Analyze your argument impartially by exploring multiple angles. By including counterarguments from different perspectives, you can highlight the depth of your research — and better make your case to your reader. 

Body Paragraphs

The body of your essay will have multiple sections which break down your central argument with supporting evidence. Your goal is to present your thesis and research in a way that is easy to understand, while also covering critical information. 

Here is a good sample structure for the body of a college essay:

  • Begin with a definition—Explain what your topic is and its most important aspects. Give your readers context and the basic knowledge they need to understand the more advanced information that comes next.

  • Go into detail—As you dive deeper into your topic, describe its simpler components first and move on to more advanced sections as necessary. Make sure each section comes under its own heading and paragraphs are short and easy to read.

  • Focus your content—Avoid generalized information and make sure all information is relevant. Focus only on one major concept in each paragraph. Your paragraphs should transition naturally and create a logical journey through your essay. This helps the reader understand your main points in a structured way.

  • Explain your point—After helping the reader learn more about the topic and giving clear context, you can start presenting your thesis statement. Your argument should tie in all the information you presented before and use it as a basis to explain the validity of your argument. Use references, data sources, examples, and other supporting evidence from reputable sources to emphasize your claims and add credibility.

  • Evaluate counter arguments—If relevant, present the positive and negative sides of the topic you are arguing. This shows you have conducted a deep analysis and you aim to avoid bias, which improves the authority of your essay. You can also use this section to emphasize why the positives of your argument outweigh the negatives.

Once you are satisfied with the content and structure of the body of your essay, it is time to end your essay with a strong conclusion.

Conclusion Paragraph

The conclusion is the final segment of your international student essay and should wrap up your main points. This section should not introduce any new information; instead, it should summarize what you have discussed while emphasizing the importance of your point or argument. 

Your conclusion should connect back to your introduction and how the points you have discussed contribute to your central argument. The challenge in this section is summarizing your most important points without sounding repetitive. 

To present an effective conclusion, rather than repeating your introduction statement, try rephrasing it:  Since your introduction or thesis statement presented the topic before the reader had context, your conclusion should now speak to the reader as one newly informed and familiar with your research and point of view. 

Your conclusion should end with a positive note which promotes your central argument, provides your reader with a sense of closure, and presents broader implications encouraging the reader to learn more, like a final suggestion, course of action, solution, or a question. 

Top 3 Tips for Essay Writing

Become Familiar with Different Citation Styles

The referencing style you use depends on your major, course, and university. Typically, your professor’s preferred citation style will be listed on your syllabus. Understanding different citation styles helps you follow your assignment, correctly attribute your sources, and avoid possible issues with plagiarism. 

Some of the most common referencing styles used in the US are 

  • American Psychological Association, or APA

  • Chicago Manual of Style

  • Council of Science Editors, or CSE (Common for biology, physics, chemistry, and geology)

  • Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE (Common for engineering, computer science, and information technology majors)

  • Modern Language Association, or MLA

You will not be expected to get familiar with an entire style guide right away: There are many resources available for academic writing. If you have any questions about using style guides, speak to your professor, university writing center staff, or your Shorelight advisor for citation assistance. 

Utilize Online Writing Resources

Some online guides for specific citation styles include the Purdue Online Writing Lab and the official APA and MLA websites. Many offer subscriptions, where you pay a fee for unlimited access over a specific period of time (e.g., one year).

Using free online tools such as Grammarly and Turnitin can also improve the quality of your writing, catch errors and mistakes, and check for plagiarism. Since most online writing aids are operated by artificial intelligence (AI), use caution: It is important to remember these programs may not pick up on every error and might misunderstand certain sentences, depending on your writing structure and/or tone. While using these tools can be very helpful, try not to rely on them entirely and use them more as tips or clues for areas to improve in your essay.

You may want a peer or advisor to take the last look at your essay before you submit your work. 

Start Early!

Giving yourself plenty of time before your essay deadline takes the stress out of the essay writing process. Don’t rush your brainstorming, researching, writing, or revising. More time means you’ll be more intentional, improving the overall quality of your essay because you won’t need to rush. You will also have more time to ask and integrate any feedback from your friends and mentors into your writing. 

Revise Your First Draft

After completing the conclusion, the first draft of your international student essay is now complete! The first draft of your essay is the first version and contains all your raw ideas and unedited writing. The next step in writing a good essay is to revise your draft to bring it closer to the final version.

Why should you revise your first draft? Think of it as a newly constructed house — with the overall structure completed, it is time for you to do a thorough inspection and spot possible faults or areas for improvements. This can take two or even three more draft revisions, but the most important part is to ensure your essay is improving in quality each time so you can put your best work forward.

During your revisions, you may notice your first draft is very long. As you write down your ideas and research findings, it is very easy to repeat information or get sidetracked into topics outside your focus. As you revise, read each segment carefully to spot any repeated information and excessively long paragraphs or sentences and shorten these as needed.

Remember also to look for areas where you may need to add more detail — a first draft is often written quickly as ideas come to your mind, and some sections could benefit from additional information or evidence you had not initially considered. At the same time, check that your sentences flow in a logical sequence and order: Read paragraphs out loud to see if they sound right to you — if they do not, readers would notice this as well.

As you revise your first draft of your essay, keep the following tips in mind.

Do’s and Don’ts of Essay Writing

1. Don’t write more than you need to. Do make sure your words matter. 

“Multilingual writers (aka international students) tend to be focused more on the quantity rather than the quality of writing,” says El-Gali at the University of the Pacific. “They believe that writing more means having a higher grade on writing assignments, which is not necessarily true.” In fact, adding too many extra words can result in a paragraph structure that is difficult for the reader to follow.

2. Don’t forget about your reader. Do find clear, clever ways to make your point.

Keep your reader in mind as you write and try to make your writing interesting, engaging, and relatable. Remember: Different languages have different writing rules and phrases. While writing, be aware of your readers’ perspectives and always aim to communicate clearly so your words are understood.

3. Don’t just run spell check. Do edit and proofread essays thoroughly.

“This is crucial so that the English-speaking reader will understand the writer’s intention,” El-Gali says.

If you want more advice on improving your writing or general writing tips, reach out to a Shorelight advisor! They are always ready to provide essay tips and academic support for international students. (They also provide dedicated international student services such as helping you improve your English skills, evaluate graduate programs, prepare for visa interviews, and much more.)

Check out Shorelight’s international student guidebook >

Common Mistakes of a First Draft

Your first draft is the blueprint for your final essay and should be considered the first of several drafts. As a blueprint, your first draft should focus on including key information and building the overall structure of your final essay. Some students make the mistake of not revising and turning in their first draft as the final (which is often not their best work and can lead to a lower grade). 

Here are common mistakes of a first draft to watch out for:

  • Focusing on grammar, style, vocabulary, or particular word choices—In the first draft, ideas come first. (You can worry about style in a later draft!) Your main priority is to ensure all the critical points of your argument are covered.

  • Adding too many details—Adding too much detail to each of your points in your first draft can make it difficult to effectively structure the essay’s overall flow. Your first draft only needs the most important points determined and mapped out.

  • Starting late—The earlier you start, the better! You want plenty of time to research, write, and revise. If you are forced to rush, the quality of your essay may not be as high compared to starting early and being able to take your time.

  • Editing while writing—Since you are likely to go through several drafts before your final essay, it is not important to edit your spelling and sentence structure in these initial stages. You may even replace certain sections as you revise, which makes editing early unnecessary.

Once you have written a well-structured first draft as a guide, you can proceed to your next draft. Refine your research and supporting details, while also addressing grammar and style, as you work toward your final draft.

Finalizing Your Essay

The final draft is what you submit to your professors for grading, so it is important for it to be comprehensive, detailed, and polished. Your final draft is the last one, the product of your many rounds of feedback, changes, and revisions. It should reflect everything you have learned about your essay prompt throughout the time you have spent researching, writing, and revising your essay.

Here are some tips for finalizing your essay:

Final Checks 

  1. Read your essay out loud. It is easy to miss details during multiple revisions. By reading out loud, you can spot errors in both content and grammar. You can also use Text to Speech software to hear your essay out loud.

  2. Check for inconsistencies in logic in your arguments, gaps in knowledge, and anything you might have missed from your outline. Remove or restructure arguments that interrupt your essay’s flow.

  3. Ensure your essay covers the prompt and matches university standards and style guide requirements. This includes checking your document’s margins, heading structure, citation style, and other specific areas your professor has requested. 

  4. Ask a friend or mentor for feedback. A new reader may spot issues you might have missed after working with the essay for a long period of time. 

Essay Writing Help 

For many international students, college-level essay writing is a new skill. If you have outlined, written, and edited your essay and are still not sure whether it is ready to turn in, do not be afraid to ask for help. 

ESL students can get assistance with how to write an essay and receive general writing tips from a writing coach at the writing center on campus, or check with your Shorelight academic advisor to find relevant resources and support services.

Remember, the more college-level essays you write, the more familiar and comfortable you will be with the student essay writing process. 

Follow these essay writing steps to develop strong writing skills. Keep up the good work!

Ask a Shorelight advisor about academic support for international students >