Essay writing tips: Understanding the question

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Understanding the question is often the hardest bit of any essay, but it doesn't have to be.

Before you can even start researching a topic, knowing exactly what it is you need to find out is your top priority.

Essay questions are unfortunately often worded to the point that many students some times just can't get going, so hopefully this guide will help you start off.

Account for, Explain

The terms account for and explain generally have the same meaning which is to go into depth behind why something happens. You were usually be expected to give reasons, backing these up with evidence and interpretation.

Example: Explain why the Challenger 2 disaster occurred
Answer summary: Introduction, description of the disaster, description and explanation of causes of the disaster, quantify those causes with respect to their significance in causing the disaster, conclude giving the main cause(s).

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Justify questions require you to explain a certain argument or idea, providing reasons and evidence for those reasons. You should consider opposing view points and ideas, and propose counter arguments to those.

Example: Justify the ruling of Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police
Answer summary: Introduction, background of the case, arguments for the ruling, counter-arguments for arguments against the ruling, conclusion.

Analyse, Investigate

These terms are rather vague and that is perhaps why they are often seen in essay questions. Analyse or investigate questions want you to delve deep into the subject topic, breaking it into parts and interpreting why or how it is. Your own critical analysis of the topic and personal remarks are almost certainly to be expected.

Example: Analyse the arguments for and against creationism
Answer summary: Introduction, background to creationism, give the arguments for and against, with your interpretation and critque, conclusion

Compare, Contrast

These two are pretty straightforward: compare and contrast questions wants you to look at the similarities and/or differences between two or more subjects or objects. Critical analysis may include demonstrating whether or not any differences are significance or negligible, why or how those differences or similarities are or came about. You may also want to remark which is the most preferable if applicable to the question, but be sure to justify your comments.

Example: Compare any two plays written by Shakespeare
Answer summary: Introduction, background and overview of the two chosen plays, similarities (e.g. themes, language, plot devices), differences, conclusion.


Evaluate questions wants you to give a judgement on something. Often you will be required to weigh up the benefits and disadvantages from both sides, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Give your own opinion, making sure to justify it with evidence

Example: Critically evaluate the effectiveness of the speed limits in reducing road deaths
Answer summary: Introduction, background and overview of speed limits, arguments for with critical comment, arguments against with critical comment, a critical conclusion.

Discuss, Explore, Examine

These three questions starters all require you to look a bit wider at a subject topic, although still thoroughly studying its parts, ideas or arguments. You will be expected to show you understand the subject, possibly showing how ideas or arguments may relate or differ, and consider a variety of viewpoints or ways of interpretation.

Example: Discuss four ways in which a business can improve its profit margin
Answer summary: Introduction, description of the four ways, perhaps with the pros and cons of each, and/or how significant their impact would be to profit margins, understanding of how the methods may relate or clash, conclusion.

Describe, Narrate, Outline, State

These types of questions are all about picking out the key points in what will usually be a very detailed topic. You will be expected to extract the main characteristics, features, principles or ideas of the subject subjects, perhaps showing how they may relate or the effects they may have or had. Generally, you will want to omit precise details or examples, instead simply outlining the facts.

Example: Describe how the case of Donoghue v Stevenson impacted the tort law on negligence.
Answer summary: Introduction, describe the Donoghue v Stevenson case and its rulings, describe the immediate impact on those involved with the case, describe the wider impact of the ruling (such as other cases which reference it), perhaps describe future or modern day implications, conclude with an summary of the ruling's impact.

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To what extent

A favourite starter from essay question setters, 'To What Extent' essay questions mean to analyse (see above) how much a statement is true or to consider the impact of something, quantifying your ideas.

You will be expected to show an understanding of the subject area describing the key points that both support the go against the topic.

Example: To what extent was the Treaty of Versailles successful?
Answer summary: Introduction and explanation to the Treaty of Versailles, it's impact ways in which it was successful, ways in which it was not, a conclusion weighing up the two sides.

About the author: Thomas Brella

Thomas Brella is the founder of Student Hacks, starting the website in 2013 while studying at the University of Brighton to share tips and tricks on life as a cash-strapped student. He's now spent over 10 years scoping out the best ways to live on a budget

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