Define Essay Questions

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
identify the similarities between the stated items
identify the differences between the stated items
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
look at the issue from different points of view
present the main features, giving relevant examples
outline / trace
present the main aspects of an issue
sum up the main aspects of an issue

Key words

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.

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