Understanding the Question

Deciphering the complex code in your essay topic

Many essay questions are worded in a very confusing way and leave students struggling to figure out exactly what they’re supposed to write about. For example, does anyone really understand what “Evaluate the possible methods for determining the practical functionality of a communist system of economics and governance in contemporary Africa” means? Didn’t think so.

Before you begin writing your essay, make sure you understand the question you’re supposed to answer. If it will help, ask your instructor for clarification. There’s no sense spending hours researching and writing an essay that doesn’t even answer the question you were assigned.

Directive Words

If your essay question asks you to analyze something, you can’t simply explain it. If you’re asked to contrast two ideas, don’t just compare them. If your instructor wants you to interpret some data, don’t merely summarize it. Confused yet?

To help clear this up, here’s a list of directive words commonly found in essay questions, along with an explanation of what each one means:

  • Analyze. Break an idea down into pieces and closely examine and critique each piece.
  • Argue. Take one side of a debate and support it with evidence. Show why the other side is wrong.
  • Compare. Point out and discuss the similarities between two or more things.
  • Contrast. Point out and discuss the differences between two or more things.
  • Criticize. Give your opinion about something. Evaluate its merit. Give reasons for why you have deemed it worthy or unworthy.
  • Define. Provide the reader with a clear and authoritative description of a concept or phenomenon.
  • Describe. Paint a picture using words. Often, it’s best to use a narrative structure.
  • Discuss. Write about all sides of an issue. Mention the pros and cons. Take a stance for and against it.
  • Evaluate. Give your opinion about the merit of something. Support your argument with lots of evidence.
  • Illustrate. Give a detailed description of something. If you can, use specific examples.
  • Interpret. State your view of a concept or issue. Give examples and make connections to other concepts.
  • Justify. Provide ample evidence in support of (or against) a claim. Be as persuasive as possible.
  • List. Create an itemized catalog of evidence in support of your thesis.
  • Narrate. Tell the story of an event or experience.
  • Relate. Demonstrate the connections between two distinct things.
  • Summarize. Briefly mention all of the important ideas surrounding a concept or event..
  • Trace. Show how something has developed over time, specifically referencing the point of origin and where it stands currently.
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