Interpreting Essay Questions

So, you’ve been assigned an essay question and you’re not sure where to start?

This guide will help you understand how to gain a better understanding of your essay question.

The first step with an essay question is to identify what exactly you are being asked to do. Most essay questions contain directives as to what is required, and the most common ones are defined below:

Common essay questions:

  • Account for: Explain, clarify, give reasons.
  • Analyse: Resolve into component parts. Examine critically and minutely.
  • Assess: Determine the value of, weigh up (similar to evaluate).
  • Compare: Look for similarities and differences between, perhaps reach conclusions about which is preferable Contrast Set in opposition in order to bring out the differences.
  • Criticise: Make judgments (backed by the discussion of the evidence or reasoning involved).
  • Define: State the exact meaning of a word or phrase. In some cases it may be necessary or desirable to examine different possible meanings or often used definitions.
  • Describe: Give a detailed or graphic account.
  • Discuss: Explain, then give two or more sides of the issue and any implications.
  • Evaluate: Make an appraisal of the worth or validity or effectiveness of something in the light of its truth or usefulness (similar to assess).
  • Explain: Make plain, interpret and account for, give reasons.
  • How far..?: Determine to what extent - usually this requires looking at evidence or arguments for or against, and weighing them up.
  • Illustrate: Make clear and explicit. Use carefully chosen examples.
  • Interpret: Explain the meaning of, make clear and explicit, usually giving judgment.
  • Justify: Show adequate grounds for decisions or conclusions, answer the main objection likely to be made about them.
  • Outline: Give the main features or general principles of the subject, omitting minor details and emphasising structure and argument (similar to summarise).
  • State: Present in a brief, clear form.
  • Summarise: Give a concise, clear explanation or account of - present the chief factors and omit minor details and examples (similar to outline).

(Source: Open University : Assessment Guide 1, W100)

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