How to understand the essay question
As your ﬁrst step in preparing for the essay, take some time to think about what the question means and what you are being asked to do. You may think that the question looks straightforward and want to charge straight in and begin reading, or even writing a ﬁrst draft of your essay.
Although some people take this approach, it is likely that they will fail to grasp the full implications of the question and not produce a good essay. If you work in the way suggested below, your essay should take the right approach to the topic from the outset.
Essay questions are usually worded in one of a number of standard ways: they often start with words and phrases such as discuss, analyse, assess, and to what extent? which give you a hint as to how to deal with the question. Here are some typical instructions and what they mean:
|analyse / examine / investigate||break down an issue into its main features and look at them in detail|
|assess / evaluate / how far? / to what extent?||present your judgement as to how far something is the case, supported by evidence|
|compare||identify the similarities between the stated items|
|contrast||identify the differences between the stated items|
|define||give the exact meaning of; explain in detail|
|describe / give an account of / state||present a detailed account of|
|discuss / do you agree?||present the arguments for and against something|
|explain / what? / why? / how?||show that you understand something fully; display your factual knowledge of an issue|
|explore||look at the issue from different points of view|
|illustrate||present the main features, giving relevant examples|
|outline / trace||present the main aspects of an issue|
|summarize||sum up the main aspects of an issue|
One way to get to grips with a question is to write it out and highlight or underline these instructions and any other words which seem important. Make sure you understand all the words you have highlighted: look them up in a dictionary or your lecture notes or ask your tutor if you are not sure what they mean.
For instance, if answering an essay question which asked you to ‘Assess the risks of global war during the Cuban missile crisis’, you might highlight the key words as follows:
Assess the risks of global war during the Cuban missile crisis
Once you have thought about or investigated each highlighted word, then you should be able to make sense of the question and understand exactly what is expected in your essay. In addition to thinking about the key words, another useful strategy is to write in your own words what you think the question is asking you to do.
Read more about essay preparation in:
How to plan time for essay writing
How to do research for an essay
How to organize material for your essay
Back toWriting essays.
See more from Writing essays
Most university essay questions include an instructional word in the question. These are the words that tell you what your essay should do. It is important that you understand exactly what these words mean so that you don't misinterpret a question. Below is a list of terms describing actions you may be asked to undertake in your assessment tasks.
You should print this page for future reference because it will help you to analyse the key instruction terms in your future essay questions.
Printable version of the list of instructional words
|Analyse||Separate or break up something into its component parts so that you discover its nature proportion, function, relationship, etc.|
|Comment||Make critical observations, even if they are fairly open-ended. Your texts, learning guide, lecture and discussion notes should provide sufficient guidelines and your own commonsense should prevail.|
|Compare||Find similarities and differences between two or more ideas, events, interpretations, etc. Ensure you understand exactly what you are being asked to compare.|
|Contrast||Find similarities and differences between two or more ideas, events, interpretations etc. Focus on the differences.|
|Examine the topic or argument in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.|
|Criticise||Express your judgements regarding the correctness or merit of the factors being considered. Discuss both strong and weak points and give the results of your own analysis. Student insights are expected and arguments must be justified.|
|Define||Provide concise, clear, authoritative meanings. In such statements, details are not necessarily required, but briefly cite the boundaries or limitations of the definition. Remeber the 'class' to which a things belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in that class.|
|Describe||Recall facts, processes or events. You are not asked to explain or interpret. Try to provide a thorough description, emphasising the most important points.|
|Diagram||Present a drawing, chart, plan or graphic representation in your answer. Generally, you are also expected to label the diagram and a brief explanation or description may be required.|
|Discuss||Present a point of view. This is likely to need both description and interpretation. Your opinion must be supported by carefully chosen and authoritative evidence.|
|Enumerate||Provide a list or outline form of reply. In such questions you should recount, one by one, but concisely, the points required.|
|Evaluate||Present a judgement of an issue by stressing both strengths and advantages, and weaknesses and limitations. The emphasis is on assessing the value, worth or relevance of the matter under scrutinty.|
|Explain||Your main focus should be on the 'why' of a particular issue, or on the 'how' with the aim of clarifying reasons, causes and effects. You are being tested on your capacity to think critically, to exercise perception and discernment.|
|Illustrate||This asks for an explanation; you may clarify your answer to a problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram or concrete example.|
|Interpret||Explain the meaning of something and give your own judgement of the situation.|
|List||Give an itemised series or tabulation; such answers should be concise.|
|Outline||This asks for an organised description. Give the main points and essential supplementary materials, but omit minor details. Present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.|
|Prove||To conform or verify. You should establish something with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence, or by logical reasoning.|
|Relate||When showing relationships, your answer should emphasise connection and associations in a descriptive manner.|
|Review||Re-examine, analyse and comment briefly (in an organised sequence) on the major points of an issue.|
|State||Express the high points in brief and clear narrative form. Details, and usually illustrations or examples, may be omitted.|
|Summarise||Provide a brief statement or an account covering the main points; omit details.|
|Trace||Give the development, process or history of a thing, event or idea, especially by proceeding from the latest to the earliest evidence.|
Source: Adapted from Bate, D. 1979, Essay Method and English Expression, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Group, Sydney.
These are very important words and you must be clear about their meaning. For example, an essay that asks you to describe a topic is very different to an essay that asks you analyse a topic. Use this table to help you analyse the instructional words in your essay questions.
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