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 order to write an essay that answers the essay question effectively, you first must be able to analyse the essay question. Firstly, you should know the kind of essay you are expected to write. There are two main types of essays: explanatory essays and argumentative essays.
An explanatory essay, as its name implies, is an essay that explains or presents a certain topic in a descriptive way conveying the information in detail. This type of essay does not require the writer’s opinion, argument, ideas or criticism.
In an argumentative essay, the writer’s opinions are needed. In this type of essay, you must include information about the topic and your own argument, personal ideas or viewpoints on the topic. When writing an argumentative essay, you need to demonstrate both the knowledge you have regarding the topic, and your analytical skills.
In order to know what kind of essay you are going to write, you must be able to understand what the essay question is asking you to write about. There are usually task words in an essay question, for example, ‘explain’, ‘discuss’, ‘argue’, ‘analyse’ or ‘compare’. The essay questions will also contain key words that will help you understand more about your essay question. For example, the essay question ‘Explain the state of world politics between World War I and World War II’ is asking you to write an explanatory essay with descriptive details on world politics during that time. If the essay question asks you ‘Are there feminist aspects in Renaissance art?’, answering this question will require you to express your opinion and argue a viewpoint on the topic.
In cases when you are not given an essay question and must write your own question, you should consider which type of essay you are going to write or are being asked to write. If you will write an argumentative essay, your essay question should be one that allows you to express a point of view, i.e. it should invite or allow you to make an argument on the topic. For an explanatory essay, your question should ask you to describe or explain something, for example, ‘What are the main characteristics of Renaissance art?’
If you do not understand what the essay question is asking you to do, it is advisable to check your course information booklet or website. Textbooks, lecture notes and recommended books may help you to get some ideas of the answer for your essay question. Your tutor or lecturer can help you if you really do not understand what the question is asking you to do. Do not hesitate to consult with them right away to address the problem before you can begin researching and writing your essay.