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The Essay Question

Professors choose essay questions as the most effective way to stimulate students’ abilities to conduct research, analyze the information found and sum it up, expressing their own point of view on the matter. Thus, to understand what you need to do and to write a good essay, first of all you need to understand the essay question.


Parts of the Essay Question

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Each essay question consists of three main parts: topic or content words, task words, and limiting words.

  • Content words indicate the topic area or subject matter that you are being asked to write about.
  • Task words tell you the approach to take to cover the topic area as required.


  • The final part of the essay question is the wording that tells you the area of the subject matter to focus on. Limiting words help further narrow your topic and may even indicate areas that can be excluded.


How to Understand the Essay Question Properly?

The key to being able to write a good essay is to first thoroughly understand the essay question.

  • In the case of a vague question, it may help to read the question very slowly, absorbing each word as you read.
  • Underline content words and circle or otherwise indicate task words.
  • Do not guess or assume you know what a word means. Make use of a dictionary to look up the definitions of any words that you do not fully understand. Taking time to look up and fully understand each of the key words in the essay question will save you valuable time later and will prevent you from writing an essay that does not adequately address the question.

Part of the skill of writing an essay is to demonstrate that you can properly understand the question and respond in full by following all directions given or implied.
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The essay question must be clear, precise and understandable, thus if you find yourself in a predicament trying to understand the essay questions, the best way to find out is to ask your professor. Don’t be afraid to ask for details and further explanations. Understanding of the essay question is the first step to writing a near-perfect essay.

Four Types of Essay Questions

The four main types of essay questions are descriptive, discussion, evaluative and comparative.

  • A descriptive essay question asks for information about the topic without expecting your opinion or any comment from you. This type of question will use keywords like trace, define, and explain.
  • A discussion essay question asks a little more than the descriptive essay question in that it requires that you look at the major parts of the topic, discuss these points and in some cases talk about the impact within a certain area of focus. Any comments you make about each of the points should be backed up by evidence.
  • An evaluative essay question is believed to be the toughest type of essay question because it emphasizes the application of your opinion on the analysis. In this type of essay question you are required to select information and facts and develop an argument. In the academic arena, this frequently means presenting each side of the argument initially, followed by an analysis. For most evaluative essay questions you will be required to then formulate your conclusion and support it with evidence. Evaluative essay questions are used for persuasive, argumentative and reflective essays.
  • A comparative essay question involves identifying similarities and/or differences between one or more sources of information, facts, evidence or perspective. Comparative essay questions can also require discussion, evaluation, or description depending on what you’ve been asked to do. Comparative essay questions can include task words such as cause and effect, compare, or compare and contrast.

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