To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay. This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant. You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.
To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay.
This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant.
You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.
|Analyse||Break an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.|
|Assess||Weigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.|
|Clarify||Literally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.|
|Comment upon||Pick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.|
|Compare||Identify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.|
|Consider||Say what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.|
|Contrast||Similar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.|
|Critically evaluate||Give your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.|
|Define||To give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.|
|Demonstrate||Show how, with examples to illustrate.|
|Describe||Provide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.|
|Discuss||Essentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.|
|Elaborate||To give in more detail, provide more information on.|
|Evaluate||See the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.|
|Examine||Look in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be construed.|
|Explain||Clarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.|
|Explore||Adopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.|
|Give an account of||Means give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.|
|Identify||Determine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.|
|Illustrate||A similar instruction to ‘explain’ whereby you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.|
|Interpret||Demonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.|
|Justify||Make a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.|
|Outline||Convey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.|
|Review||Look thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.|
|Show how||Present, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something.|
|State||To specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.|
|Summarise||Give a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.|
|To what extent||Evokes a similar response to questions containing 'How far...'. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.|
Dhann, S., (2001) How to ... 'Answer assignment questions'. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.education.ex.ac.uk/dll/studyskills/answering_questions.htm
The following resources have also been consulted in writing this guide:
Johnson, R., (1996) Essay instruction terms. Accessed 12/09/11. http://www.mantex.co.uk/samples/inst.htm
Student Study Support Unit Canterbury Christchurch College (no date) Common terms in essay questions. Accessed 22/02/08. http://www.wmin.ac.uk/page-2714
Taylor, A.M. and Turner, J., (2004) Key words used in examination questions and essay titles. Accessed 12/09/11 http://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/studyadvice/StudyResources/Essays/sta-planningessay.aspx#answering
How to Answer Essay Questions – The Ultimate Guide
“I hate essays!” This battle cry is famous to most students. That’s because essay questions are either easy or difficult. Either way, there’s no certain formula. Even if you think you know the answer – don’t be overconfident – the critical part is how you make your essay worth reading. So how do you do it? Here are some tips:
Read the question more than once. Some questions can be tricky so make sure you understand it to the letter. A lot of students commit error by simply not reading instructions very well. They read and then write a long essay, only to realize very late that they did not understand the question correctly.
Familiarize yourself with your professor or teacher’s style of organization, if you can. As students, it’s your role to know how your teachers want their essays answered.
Know what is required of you. Usually essays ask you to define, compare, enumerate, describe, illustrate, and discuss. Whatever it is, don’t go beyond what is asked of you.
Don’t be shy to ask your professor if you have some clarifications.
Mentally go through your lecture notes before writing anything on your paper.
Create an outline of thoughts and related topics in connection with the essay question. By doing this you are helping yourself create a more organized answer.
Construct an idea in each paragraph. Go back to your essay outline if you think you are repeating yourself or not making sense at all.
Use the terminology of the course. Be professional in knowing what type of words to use in a particular topic or subject.
Read and go back to your previous paragraphs after you are finished with one paragraph. This will help you determine your flow of thought and if you are really making a point or giving an answer.
Don’t include ideas that are off-topic.
If there are too many ideas in your outline, cut out the least important ones. As much as possible, make your idea concrete and pointed, with arguments or statements that is easy to understand.
The body of your essay should have a summary or statement.
Support your summary or statement with adequate details and specifics. If you do not know how to add details, just expand on your generic idea.
Avoid jumping from one point to another.
Avoid vague descriptions if necessary. Include specifics to get your message across.
Review the question again and again so you will not lose your thread of thinking.
If you have time to make revisions, do so.
Use all the time you have to complete your essay. Review and re-check your answers before submitting your paper.
If you have nothing to write and don’t know what to write, don’t leave your paper blank. Write something at least.
That covers most of the important areas – See also the Writing Center which has a comprehensive list of resources for writing papers – most of these also apply to writing essays.
Here is a great Checklist for answering Essay Questions from Tennessee State University:
Use the following as a guide when writing answers to discussion questions and as a checklist after you have written your answer.
1. Do I understand the question? What am I being asked to do?
2. Do I have a plan? What are my major points and how am I going to present them?
3. Does the reader know, just from reading the first sentence of my essay, both the question and how I will answer it?
4. Are my major points clear and do they stand out?
5. Do I support my argument with facts and examples?
6. Do I make clear and sensible transitions between major points?
7. Is my answer clear to someone who knows nothing about this?
8. Have I answered the question completely? Have I fully covered all of the major points required to completely answer the question?
9. Is there irrelevant material?
10. Do I have a conclusion and summary statement?
11. Have I proofed my essay for common spelling and grammatical errors?
12. Is my handwriting legible? Is there room for comments or additions?
Glossary of Essay Exam Terms
When taking an exam the first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with all instructions. At times this can be confusing especially if you do not understand the terms. Below you will find some common terms used on essay exams. Learning these terms is a key step in successful completion of most essay exams.
- Compare (also Compare with): Discuss the similarities between two or more given subjects.
- Contrast: Discuss the differences in two or more given subjects.
- Criticize: Explain the value of a finding or theory. Include both negative and positive aspects based on implementation. This could be the ease of which it is applied, examples of false findings, etc…
- Define: Describe precisely a term’s meaning as it applies specifically to a given subject.
- Describe: Use exact detail to explain a given term. This may call for the use of examples, definitions, or discussion of the term.
- Diagram: Use a visual representation of relevant information to explain implementation of a term. This usually calls for an explicit chart or graph which is thoroughly labelled. In some cases it may call for a detailed plan as well.
- Discuss: The literal meaning of discuss is talk about. To do this in an exam you must thoroughly explain your subject with words.
- Enumerate: Form a list of relevant points and explain each point. This may result in an outline like answer.
- Evaluate: Discuss the pros and cons of the application of your given subject from a professional point of view. This differs from criticize because personal opinion should be avoided unless instructions specify otherwise.
- Explain: Define the given material and give examples of how and why it is important to the subject.
- Illustrate: Use a visual aid or a clearly defined example to explain a given subject.
- Interpret: Explain the given question, include you personal feelings on the subject as well as a solution.
- Justify: Use factual information to argue you view of the situation presented in a given problem.
- List: Brief but thorough list of information that explains the given topic.
- Outline: much like writing an outline for a paper. Answer the question by creating an outline that highlights the main ideas and key points of those ideas.
- Prove: Discuss the topic in a way that readers are convinced to support or reject the idea discussed. This is done through presentation of facts or the step by step illustration of logical thinking.
- Relate: Discuss the connection between two or more events, people, problems, etc…
- Review: Close examination of a problem accompanied by brief comments that explain the main points.
- State (also Give, Specify, or Present): Explain the major points of a subject in brief for. There is typically no need for further explanation.
- Summarize: Create a brief description that highlights the major points of your subject.
- Trace: Explain the progress of the given subject from conception to current date. Highlight anything that is considered a major topic as well as the reason for any changes.
More Info on Essay Exams
How to Study for an Essay Exam
How to Answer Essay Questions – The Ultimate Guide
How to Answer Different Types of Exam Questions
All about Essay Exams
Written by: Brian Stocker MA, Complete Test Preparation Inc.
Modified: September 26th, 2017
Published: November 30th, 2007