Essay question words. What are they? What do they mean? How should you answer them? If you've come here in search of answers to these questions, you've come to the right place.

Now, we may be experts in essay writing, but we’re also the first to admit that tackling essay questions can be, well, a bit of a challenge. Essays first require copious amounts of background reading and research so you can include accurate facts in your writing. You then have to figure out how to present those facts in a convincing and systematic argument. No mean feat.

But the silver lining here is that presenting your argument doesn’t have to be stressful. This goes even if you’re a new student without much experience and ability. To write a coherent and well-structured essay, you just have to really understand the requirements of the question. And to understand the requirements of the question, you need to have a good hold on all the different question words. For example, 'justify', 'examine', and 'discuss', to name a few.

Lacking this understanding is a pitfall many students tumble into. But our guide on essay question words below should keep you firmly above on safe, essay-acing ground.

Question words – what are they?

Words such as ‘explain’, ‘evaluate’ or ‘analyse’ – typical question words used in essay titles – provide a useful indication of how your essay should be structured. They often require varying degrees of critical responses. Sometimes, they may simply require a descriptive answer.

No matter their nature, question words are key and must always be adhered to. And yet, many students often overlook them and therefore answer their essay questions incorrectly. You may be a font of all knowledge in your subject area, but if you misinterpret the question words in your essay title, your essay writing could be completely irrelevant and score poorly.

For example, if you are asked to compare the French and British upper houses of parliament, you won’t get many points by simply highlighting the differences between the two parliamentary systems.

So, what should you do? We advise you start by reading this guide – we’ve divided the question words either by ‘critical’ or ‘descriptive’ depending on their nature, which should help you identify the type of response your essay requires.

These are the question words we will cover in this blog:

Critical question words Descriptive question words
Analyse Define
Evaluate Demonstrate
Justify Describe
Critically evaluate Elaborate
Review Explain
Assess Explore
Discuss Identify
Examine Illustrate
To what extent Outline
Summarise
Clarify
Compare
Contrast

Question words that require a critical approach

Some question words require a critical answer and there are varying degrees of how critical your answers must be according to the requirements of the question. We’ve broken these down for you below:

1. Analyse

Essay questions that ask you to ‘analyse’ a particular topic or argument expect a thorough deconstruction of the essay subject. In other words, this word requires you to break the essay topic down into its fundamental parts.

Once you have done this, it’s also important that you critically (more on this word later) examine each part. You need to use important debates and evidence to look in depth at the arguments for and against, as well as how the parts interconnect. What does the evidence suggest? Use it to adopt a stance in your essay, ensuring you don’t simply give a narration on the key debates in the literature. Make your position known and tie this to the literature.

2. Evaluate

When answering this essay question word, the key is to provide your opinion or verdict concerning the extent to which an argument or set of research findings is accurate. You may also be required to demonstrate the extent to which you agree with a particular argument or hypothesis.

It is essential to provide information on both sides of the debate using evidence from a wide range of academic sources. Then you must state your position basing your arguments on the evidence that informed you in arriving at your position.

3. Justify

With ‘justify’ question words, you need to explain the basis of your argument by presenting the evidence that informed your outlook. In such answers, you need to present your evidence in a convincing way, demonstrating good reasons for adopting your position.

Also, you may want to consider arguments that are contrary to your position before stating a conclusion to your arguments. This will help present a balanced argument and demonstrate wide knowledge of the literature. Here, a critical approach becomes crucial. You need to explain why other possible arguments are unsatisfactory as well as why your own particular argument is preferable.

4. Critically evaluate

To ‘critically evaluate’, you must provide your opinion or verdict on whether an argument, or set of research findings, is accurate. This should be done in as critical a manner as possible. Provide your opinion on the extent to which a statement or research finding is true. A critical evaluation of a subject will warrant an assertive essay response that details the extent to which you agree with a set of findings, a theory, or an argument.

The key to tackling these question words is providing ample evidence to support your claims. Ensure that your analysis is balanced by shedding light on, and presenting a critique of, alternative perspectives. It is also important that you present extensive evidence taken from a varying range of sources.

State your conclusion clearly and state the reasons for this conclusion, drawing on factors and evidence that informed your perspective. Also try to justify your position in order to present a convincing argument to the reader.

5. Review

An answer to a ‘review’ question word should demonstrate critical examination of a subject or argument. This is done by recapping or summarising the major themes or points in question, and critically discussing them while giving your opinion.

Put another way, ‘review’ questions entail offering your opinion on the validity of the essay question. For example, you may be asked to review the literature on electoral reform in Great Britain. You'll need to give an overview of the literature. and any major arguments or issues that arose from it. You then need to comment logically and analytically on this material. What do you agree or disagree with? What have other scholars said about the subject? Are there any views that contrast with yours? What evidence are you using to support your assessment? Don’t forget to state your position clearly.

Review answers should not be purely descriptive; they must demonstrate a high level of analytical skill. The aim is not simply to regurgitate the works of other scholars, but rather to critically analyse these works.

6. Assess

In the case of ‘assess’ question words, you are expected to consider or make an informed judgement about the value, strengths or weakness of an argument, claim or topic. ‘Assess’ questions place particular emphasis on weighing all views concerning the essay subject, as opposed to your opinion only.

However, when assessing a particular argument or topic, it is important that your thoughts on its significance are made clear. This must be supported by evidence, and secondary sources in the literature are a great start. Essentially, you need to convince the reader about the strength of your argument, using research to back up your assessment of the topic is essential. Highlight any limitations to your argument and remember to mention any counterarguments to your position.

7. Discuss

‘Discuss’ question words typically require an in-depth answer that takes into account all aspects of the debate concerning a research topic or argument. You must demonstrate reasoning skills with this type of question, by using evidence to make a case for or against a research topic/argument.

Give a detailed examination of the topic by including knowledge of the various perspectives put forward by other scholars in relation to it. What are your thoughts on the subject based on the general debates in the literature? Remember to clearly state your position based on all the evidence you present.

8. Examine

A close examination of a research topic or argument requires that you establish the key facts and important issues concerning the topic or argument by looking at them in close detail. This means that you must adopt a very critical approach with 'examine' question words.

You should also try to provide some context on why the issues and facts that you have closely examined are important. Have these issues and facts been examined differently by other scholars? If so, make a note of this. How did they differ in their approach and what are the factors that account for these alternative approaches?

‘Examine’ questions are less exploratory and discursive than some other types of question. They focus instead on asking you to critically examine particular pieces of evidence or facts to inform your analysis.

9. To what extent

In essence, this asks how far you agree with a proposition put forward in the question. This requires a very in-depth assessment of the topic, and especially of the evidence used to present your argument.

Such questions require that you display the extent of your knowledge on a given subject and that you also adopt an analytical style in stating your position. This means that you must consider both sides of the argument, by present contrasting pieces of evidence. But ultimately, you must show why a particular set of evidence, or piece of information, is more valid for supporting your answer.

Question words that require a descriptive response

In some instances, question words require mostly a descriptive response as is the case with the words below:

1. Define

Here, you must outline the precise meaning of the subject of the question. If the definition you provide is a contested one then make sure you mention this. How do other scholars define the subject? Why is its meaning contested and why have you chosen to use one meaning instead of the other if this is the case?

It is important that you provide more than one meaning if there are several of them as it shows that you are very familiar with the literature.

2. Demonstrate

The key to tackling ‘demonstrate’ questions is to use several examples, evidence, and logical arguments. Essentially, you are required to show how a particular research topic or argument is valid by using evidence and arguments to support your claim.

Make sure you assert your position with these types of questions. It's even more important that you support your arguments with valid evidence in order to establish a strong case.

3. Describe

When describing something, you must provide thorough insight into the main characteristics of a research subject in an objective manner. As answers to such questions will be inherently descriptive, it is important that you recount or characterise in narrative form.

‘Describe’ question words focus less on the basic meaning of something, therefore, and more on its particular characteristics. These characteristics should form the building blocks of your answer.

4. Elaborate

Here, you are required to provide a lot of detail and information on a research topic or argument. ‘Elaborate’ questions tend to elicit descriptive responses. Therefore. it's important to demonstrate that you have done significant research on the topic to support the information you provide.

5. Explain

‘Explain’ questions expect you to basically clarify a topic. When answering such questions, it helps to imagine you are writing for someone who knows absolutely nothing of the subject. And remember two things. To provide as much detail as possible, and to give definitions for any jargon or key terms when used.

In addition, always remember to back any claims with academic research. In explanatory answers it is important that you demonstrate a clear understanding of a research topic or argument. This comes across most convincingly if you present a clear interpretation of the subject or argument to the reader. Keep in mind any ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions as this will help you to structure a clear and logically coherent response. Coherence is extremely important in providing explanatory answers.

6. Explore

Needless to say, your answer must be exploratory and thus it is imperative that you adopt a questioning approach when answering such questions. Because of the exploratory nature of such essays, objectivity is key. That is, you should give an overview of all viewpoints before providing any of your own arguments.

A somewhat detached, dispassionate tone can be particularly effective, in contrast to the more assertive, argumentative tone you might adopt for other types of essay question. Just remember that the key objective here is to give a nuanced account of a research topic or argument by examining its composite parts.

7. Identify

Essay questions that require you to ‘identify’ something in relation to a research topic or argument require you to simply point out and describe the main ideas in a short and coherent way. A little like this paragraph.

8. Illustrate

Such an answer will generally involve the use of many examples, such as tables, figures, graphs, or concrete research statistics and evidence. The aim is to use these examples to demonstrate knowledge of the subject of the question and to further explain or clarify your answer.

9. Outline

outline answer requires you present an organised description of a research topic or argument. It is imperative that you provide the main points only (and any important supplementary information) as opposed to focusing on the minor details. Remember to present your answer in a systematic and coherent way.

10. Summarise

When you are asked to summarise or present a summary of a research topic, you should give a condensed form of its main points or facts. You must omit all minor details and focus mainly on the key facts. As a result, summaries are typically brief and straight to the point. The key is to get all the main facts across to the reader in as punchy and succinct a manner as possible.

11. Clarify

This means to provide insight into a subject, and quite literally, provide clarification. For example, this could be done by making an argument or topic more clear by explaining it in simpler terms.

Such questions require you to shed light on a topic or, in some instances, break down a complex subject into simple parts. Coherence is very important for acing such questions, remembering to present your answer in a systematic manner.

12. Compare

When asked to ‘compare’, you must identify any similarities between two or more subjects of discussion. You can go beyond making a basic comparison by trying to understand the roots of the similarities you identify, as well as their significance.

Furthermore, you may also want to emphasise any differences, although the focus of your essay should be on establishing similarities.

13. Contrast

A ‘contrast’ question expects you to identify differences, not similarities, between subjects. What are the main dissimilarities between two or more subjects? What sets them apart? These are the general questions that you must keep in mind when addressing ‘contrast’ questions.

In summary...

Hopefully, by examining and explaining essay question words, we have helped clarify their meanings and how you should approach them in your own essay writing.

Here are a few more handy tips to bear in mind when addressing your essay questions:

When you first get your essay question, always try to understand exactly what the question means and what it is asking you to do. Look at the question word(s) and think about their meaning before you launch into planning what to write. Hopefully, our guide has shown you how to do this expertly.

Remember to read the question several times and consider any underlying assumptions behind the question. Highlight the key words and if possible, make a very basic draft outline of your response. This outline does not have to be detailed. But if you follow it as you write, it will help keep your response coherent and systematic.

Finally, remember to read through your essay at the end to check for any inconsistencies and grammatical or spelling errors. Or, if you're in search of the perfect finishing touch, have a professional apply an edit to your final essay. It always helps to have a second set of fresh eyes to assess your work for any errors or omissions.

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