Reading and understanding essay
questions is crucial to a student's success in answering
them. If you fail to do so, you are likely to give answers that do
not satisfy the marker, which may cause you to miss points allotted
for that particular question.
Often the instructions in the essay question will
reveal how you will apply your knowledge on the topic or issue, and
what rules or theories will help shape your answer. For example,
when asked to describe, explain, summarise or illustrate you are
expected to show how you will apply the knowledge you have acquired
from readings and lectures. When asked to analyse, compare,
contrast or relate, you are expected to choose from the knowledge
you have acquired those which are important to answering the
Below are key words used and what they will
require of you to address the question:
- Discuss. Talk about in
depth or argue for or against a certain topic or issue. Create a
strategy on how you will approach it and what it is you want to say
about this issue or topic, then build your arguments around
supporting and validating this approach.
- Define. Write the
exact meaning of something that is specific to the course or
subject you are studying.
- Examine. Observe the
features of an object or aspects of an issue.
- Compare. State the
similarities and differences of the materials you are being asked
- Contrast. Similar to
drawing comparisons, except you will only find the differences and
analyse them in the context of the question.
- Describe. Paint a
picture of something on the reader's mind using characteristics,
parts and qualities of the thing you are asked to describe.
- Explain. Give details
and address the "how" and the "why" in order to make something
clear to the reader. When applicable, show the logical development
of a concept or give the reason why an event happened.
- Interpret. Translate
your understanding about something in your own words.
- Relate. Show the
larger context of how concepts or events influence one
- Summarise. Write a
brief and condensed version of an event or idea. Include key dates,
figures, and significant events, and avoid giving unnecessary
- Trace. Explain to the
reader how something has evolved or the historical background of an
event or idea
- Analyse. Break the
issue or idea into its separate components and discuss or examine
- Criticise. Make your
own judgements by evaluating the comparative value of something.
Criticism is often done with analysis.
Should you still find some terms unclear, consult
an unabridged dictionary or your tutor or professor. It is
important to have an exact idea of how you are expected to write
your answers as essay questions often cover a broad range and will
have you work with, or around, abstract terminologies and concepts
or sweeping ideas or events.
In times when you are in need of guidance on how
to better address the essay questions you are given, expert
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