Top 10 Key Words Used in Essay Exam Questions

One way to improve your performance on essay exams is to have a better understanding of what the professor is seeking.

What is it that college professors seek from students when they test your knowledge of course materials with essay exams? Professors are seeking a comprehensive analysis when they use essay questions, not simply a brain dump on the subject at hand.

Your goal is to seek out and understand the keywords that frame each question -- and which will help you better answer the question more successfully (in relation to what answer the professor seeks).

While there are certainly many more than the 10 keywords outlined in this article, use the definitions of these keywords -- some of the most common key words found on essay exams -- as a guideline as you prepare for your next essay test.

Here is one top 10 list of essay test keywords: analyze, compare, contrast, describe, discuss, explain, illustrate, review, summarize, and trace.

Keyword: Analyze

Your Task: Break down the subject into smaller pieces, examining the interrelationships and hierarchy of each as they relate to the whole.

Example: Analyze the role of the Federal Reserve on the average consumer's ability to borrow money.

Keyword: Compare

Your Task: Examine similarities and differences among objects, concepts, people, or ideas and come to a conclusion.

Example: Compare the artistic style of Picasso and Renoir.

Keyword: Contrast

Your Task: Explain the key points of difference -- or unique and distinguishing characteristics -- between two objects, concepts, people, or ideas.

Example: Contrast the theories of evolution and creationism.

Keyword: Describe

Your Task: Provide a detailed account, including significant characteristics, traits -- that tell a story about the issue in question.

Example: Describe the Industrial Revolution.

Keyword: Discuss

Your Task: Present opposing arguments, analyze advantages and disadvantages, and present pros and cons.

Example: Discuss the use of Agent Orange as a weapon during the Vietnam War.

Keyword: Explain

Your Task: State reasons or justifications for something, or how and why something occurred. Focus on interpretation of results and causes.

Example: Explain why racism still exists in the United States.

Keyword: Illustrate

Your Task: Provide examples to demonstrate or prove the subject of the question, sometimes with visual element, such as a picture, drawing, figure, graph, or diagram.

Example: Illustrate the process of making wine.

Keyword: Review

Your Task: Report on the important ideas and major points, briefly analyzing each and commenting on them.

Example: Review the key marketing tasks implemented in each stage of marketing development.

Keyword: Summarize

Your Task: Present the main points, ideas, concepts, or consequences in a concise manner. Similar to developing an abstract.

Example: Summarize the key points in the Declaration of Independence.

Keyword: Trace

Your Task: Discuss the development, history, development, process, or trail of an event from point of origin, typically in chronological order.

Example: Trace the development of telecommunications, from its origin to the present day.

Final Thoughts on Essay Exam Success

A key to success in writing essay exam responses is knowing exactly what the professor is seeking -- and developing a plan to best respond.

Here's one easy-to-remember process for answering essay questions -- the ROW Method:

  • Read the question several times to make certain you thoroughly understand what is being asked of you. Some essay questions have multiple parts.

  • Outline the main points you want to cover in your answer in the margins, on the back of the test, or on a piece of scrap paper.

  • Write your essay, confidently answering the question(s) with the outline you developed. Remember to include a broad opening paragraph and a concluding closing paragraph.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary

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