Answering Essay Questions Made Easier

Instructors frequently remark that a major reason that students don’t receive higher grades on essay exams is because they do not follow directions even when these directions are included in the question.  These instructors add that many students don’t seem to know how to recognize words in ques-tions that give directions on how to construct an essay answer and what to include. 
A list of important words in essay questions is given below to help students answer essay questions with the kinds of responses that instructors seek.  These words are calledKEY WORDS. 
One suggestion many students have found helpful is to mark all the KEY WORDS in all test directions and questions before beginning to answers. This makes it easier to organize an answer, know what to say, and know when enough has been written.  If there is ever doubt about the clarity of a test question, ask the professor for clarification beforebeginning your answer. 

Key Words

Analyze Explain, step by step or point by point while writing.  Pay attention to who, what, where, when, why, and how in the answer.  Include strengths, weaknesses, pros and cons, research for and against.
Compare Stress similarities and differences between objects, concepts, or ideas.  (For example: "Compare Operant and Classical Conditioning)
Contrast Emphasize the dissimilarities, differences, or unique and distinguishing characteristics in the response.
Define Clearly state the meaning, list qualities, traits, or characteristics.
Describe Include traits, characteristics, or retell a story including those facts that summarize the essential features.
Discuss Present significant characteristics, pros and cons, pertinent research, and the significance of each.  Develop the arguments for and against or analyze the advan-tages, disadvantages, or problems.
Evaluate Emphasize positive and negative aspects.  Include opinions and support these with some kind of proof, information, or examples.  Normally, instructors don't like unsup-ported opinions from college students.
Examples Use brief stories, analogies, relevant events, or similar instances to support general statements and main ideas.
Explain Give reasons or justifications for something, or present causes, rationalizations, or how or why something occurred.
Interpret Cover existing understandings of a topic.  Paraphrase, translate, condense, simplify, and/or diagnose as you write.
Justify Present rationale, reasons for conclusions, recommendations, or results.  Use proof, research, examples, or quotes to support justifications.
List Record topics in numerical, developmental, or chronological order.  Many times a brief description or explanation is expected but the questions will usually request it if desired.  If in doubt, ask your instructor.
Outline Present your answer in terms of major points followed by clarifying details or facts.  No elaboration is usually necessary.  It is wise to find out if your instructors wishes for you to outline by listing only main and subordinate points in short numbered phrases or if they want you to use the narrative format with complete sentences and paragraphs.
Prove Include factual evidence, research, logic, and/or scientific proof that substantiates a case, a specific position, or a set of hypotheses
Relate Clearly point out connections or relationships between 2 or more ideas.
Review Mention important ideas, major points, and/or list topics from lecture or the textbook.  Sometimes review means critically evaluate and/or give your opinion.
Summarize List major ideas, concepts, and consequences in a short paragraph or a sentence.  Could also mean present a brief abstract of main ideas, compose a concise resume covering only the highlights and relevant details.  Little elaboration is necessary.
Trace Discuss according to a pattern such as chronological order, according to a definite sequence, or by presenting phases or stages in order.

The 4 most important points to remember in answering essay questions are to: 

1. Read Questions Carefully. 
2. Mark All Key Words In Questions Before Answering. 
3. Do What The Questions Ask Or What The Statements Say. 
4. If Uncertain About A Question, Check With The Instructor Before Answering.

A helpful tip for taking exams in general is to look at the exam as an opportunity to succeed and not as an opportunity to fail.  Being positive will help with recall whether there has been sufficient study or not.  Negative attitudes will not only make vague material difficult to remember they will reduce chances of recalling ideas and facts that were learned. 
A final point is that the number 1 technique for taking any test is to be prepared and know the facts cold.  There is no substitute for knowing the material.


Dennis Congo, Certified Supplemental Instruction trainer, University of Central Florida