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
In most subjects, understanding and answering essay questions is a key academic skill.
At an advanced level of study, this requires not merely the description or repetition of knowledge itself, but the analysis, evaluation and interpretation of knowledge.
If you do not fully understand the question however, you cannot make a full and appropriate response to it and so will not achieve the highest marks.
Therefore, interpreting questions correctly is extremely important.
Use this list of question types as a starting point to help you understand and answer questions that you encounter in exams and assessed coursework.
Top tip: whenever possible talk to tutors and fellow students to help clarify your understanding.
Give reasons for/explain the cause of
Reach an understanding by closely examining the different
Make a value judgement about one or more factors
Simplify or make clear
Comment (upon critically)
Give your point of view
Compare (and contrast)
Identify similarities and differences
Think carefully about a particular matter
Comparison of unlike or opposite qualities
Judge, analyse or evaluate (with disapproval)
State the precise meaning
Give an account of
Examine by argument (debate the pros and cons)
Highlight the differences
Judge or assess the worth of
Scrutinise carefully or in detail; investigate
Give a clear and detailed account
In what way (to what extent?)
Give reasons for/prove
Give the main features
Present briefly and clearly
State the main points