Cohesion plays an important role in ensuring clarity, appropriateness, and comprehensibility in text. This study compares L1-Chinese and L1-English university students’ use of cohesion in English essays and examines the cohesive features in academic writing of L2 students from three perspectives: density of cohesion, distribution of cohesive devices, and distance of cohesive ties. Data consist of 126 student-produced essays in two corpora: 63 by L1-Chinese students from the TECCL corpus and 63 by L1-English students from the BAWE corpus. Findings indicate that L2 students have a lower density of cohesion in their academic writing. Their essays are marked by underuse of lexical cohesion and demonstrative reference, initial positioning of conjunctions, and heavy use of temporal conjunction. In addition, L2 students use significantly fewer immediate and remote cohesive ties, and the length of the material between ties is found to be inadequate compared to L1 students’ writing. The study has important implications for L2 writing pedagogy in China.