What Is Academic English? Top 3 Features All Students Should Recognize

You’re sitting in class, listening to your professor.

Everything seems to make sense.

You’re nodding along and writing your notes.

But things change when you get back home.

Suddenly, your notes aren’t so clear.

You glance at your next reading assignment and have no idea where to start.

What are all these confusing vocabulary words? Why are the sentences so long? Why doesn’t the author just write the way people speak?

You’re looking at a special type of English—academic English, which is used in universities, research papers and scholarly books.

If you’re already learning English as a second language, academic English can seem like yet another language to master.

But what is academic English, anyways?

We’ll show the features of academic English so you can stop stressing over your homework and start earning an A.

How to Get Familiar with the Features of Academic English

Before we explore all the characteristics of academic English, it’s helpful to know where you can practice your new skills. The online resources below are perfect for exercising your academic English independently.

One of the good things about academic English is that it’s used in a school environment, where everyone is learning. When you practice, don’t be too self-conscious and don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

Complete the Exercises at ESLgo.com

This site gives you free resources that are especially useful for academic English writing. Check out the free English writing help, including a lesson on essay writing grammar. The homepage also points you to several other sites to help improve your English essay writing.

How to Improve Your Academic English as a Student

Already enrolled in an English-speaking academic program, or thinking about applying? If so, you’re probably already an advanced learner of English. Still, there’s always room for improvement. Here’s how to make the most of your time in and outside of the classroom for maximum academic English improvement.

Take Courses Specifically for Academic English

Many college students, even native English speakers, take courses that’ll help them understand how to write, format and reference their research in academic papers. If you’re already enrolled in a university, ask your advisor or the English department whether you can take a class like that.

Many universities also have English as a second language courses or even academic English courses for their international students, so be sure to look for those as well.

If you’re not enrolled in a university yet, you may still be able to take or audit (follow for free or a low fee without receiving a grade) a course on academic English.

Record and Review Your Lectures

Don’t just listen to your lectures and take notes—try recording them and listening to them later, too.

This won’t just help you remember the lessons, but it’ll also help you pick up on academic English terms you may’ve missed in class. You’ll notice the words your professor uses repeatedly, or unfamiliar words whose definitions you need to look up.

You can even try comparing your class notes to the lectures to ensure that you understood everything correctly the first time.

Just don’t use your recording as an excuse to listen poorly during class! The whole point is to listen carefully during and after the lecture.

Remember that you should ask your professor’s permission to record lectures beforehand. Alternatively, many university departments record lectures for their students and post them online, so that can make things even easier.

Get a Learning Partner

Use your classmates. They’re learning with you and you can work together to help one another. Research has even shown that students who work together learn better.

Studying with someone else can help you understand the lecture better or even see a point of view that you might not have considered otherwise. When it comes to writing, having a classmate proofread your work helps because they can find mistakes that you didn’t see.

What Is Academic English? Top 3 Features All Students Should Recognize

Alright, now the big question: what is academic English? We’ll walk through three main characteristics of academic English that will help clear up all your questions.

1. Academic English Uses a Formal Tone and Word Usage

Individual style doesn’t really have a place in academic English. Instead, academic English uses an established, formal tone.

Think of the academic environment like the professional environment. You wouldn’t talk to your boss the same way you talk to your best friend. Even in academic writing, your topic will dictate what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Simply use discretion. If in doubt, keep it formal.

That means you won’t use any slang or casual expressions. It also means you’ll use proper grammar—and in some cases, your professors might even ask you to avoid contractions (e.g. do not instead of don’t).

Not sure how to express your ideas in this manner? Oxford Royale Academy has a great list of English terms and phrases that can help you connect your ideas in a formal, professional-sounding way.

In addition, students must master technical vocabulary specific to their course of studies. One of the easiest ways to do this is to search for a glossary (comprehensive vocabulary list) for your field. For example, a biology major or pre-med student might enjoy this online glossary of biology terms.

2. There Are Specific Academic Formatting and Style Rules

Academic English has strict rules when it comes to writing. It’s not just a matter of using correct grammar and spelling. You also have to make sure that you format your essays according to specific writing styles. Formatting refers to how you present words on a page—it can involve everything from the use of italics or bold font, to the margins on your page, to capitalization.

Maybe you’ve heard of writing styles such as APA, MLA, AMA and Chicago. Each writing style is used in different settings or academic fields. Two very common writing styles that you’ll encounter at the college level are APA and MLA.

APA (American Psychological Association) format is typically used in the social sciences. MLA (Modern Language Association) format is often used in the liberal arts and humanities. The differences in these writing styles include specific rules in formatting, citations and more.

For example, let’s say you used this New Yorker article when researching an academic paper. You’ll need to create a citation to give credit to the article and its author. Here’s how a citation for that article would look in MLA style:

Gawande, Atul. “The Cost Conundrum.” The New Yorker, 1 June 2009, pp. 36–44.

An APA citation for the same article looks like this:

Gawande, A. (2009, June 1). The Cost Conundrum. The New Yorker, 36-44.

Generally, your professors will tell you which writing styles they want you to use in academic papers. Keep in mind that your instructors will have high expectations and will be very strict about you following the rules of your assigned format.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab provides comprehensive explanations of different academic writing styles. You can also automatically get citations in the correct style with an online tool called Citation Machine.

3. Academic English Writing Has Lots of References and Quotations

If you’ve ever read an academic paper, you may’ve noticed that there were a lot of quotes. You’ll find that academic English often references other writers. Your professors will often reference others in their lectures, as well.

Academic English is all about supporting your ideas with evidence. You can’t just state your own opinion—for a persuasive, strong academic paper, you need to provide research findings and/or quotations that show why your opinion matters.

This means that academic English involves a lot of research, which you have to demonstrate in your papers. You’ll incorporate quotations from other texts or speakers in your writing. You can use direct quotes (someone else’s exact words, inside quotation marks) or paraphrase (explaining what someone else said in your own words).

Either way, you need to give a proper citation to the person whose ideas you’re referencing, per the style rules discussed above.

Remember that if you don’t explicitly reference the people whose research you’re using, your professor may think you’re trying to steal the ideas! Always give credit to others’ work to avoid being accused of plagiarism.

To do all of this right, you’ll have to read a lot about topics that you’re studying. These topics may or may not always interest you. However, if you keep in mind the end result or the reason you started studying in the first place, you may find that you’ll have a lot of fun.


To sum things up, if you want to be a student, you’ll need to know the characteristics of academic English. For English language learners, academic English is hard because we don’t use it every day. You need to learn new words and concepts to truly understand it.

Still, whether you’re a student or not, understanding the features of academic English will increase your knowledge of English overall. While you may find it challenging, academic English will broaden your horizons as far as your abilities in reading and writing English.

We hope you can now answer the question “what is academic English?” and succeed in all your future classes!

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