Interpreting Essay Questions

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. For those we have missed, try looking up the actual word in the dictionary (www.m-w.com).

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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