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Online Guide to Writing and Research

Thinking Strategies and Writing Patterns

Writing Essay Examinations

Read and Understand the Question

Imagine you have received an essay exam. If there is more than one prompt from which to choose, you have chosen it. Now you are ready to begin the writing process. What do you do first? The title of this page suggests that you should read closely, and you definitely should do that. However, you must understand your prompt, too. 

Understanding an essay exam prompt can be difficult. In order to understand your assignment, there is one thing you should do first.

Remember that you will be writing an essay.

Strangely, forgetting this one basic fact is remarkably easy. Essay exams throw a lot of requirements at you, and correctly sorting them is part of the test. Keeping the nature of the test in mind is important for reading and understanding your essay prompt.

Most essay prompts require a number of tasks. Not all of them are central to essay-writing. In fact, professors will mix in other activities to see if you can sort out the central essay-writing task from peripheral tasks you should perform in the course of writing your essay.

There are two types of tasks you will encounter in an essay prompt:

You will want to sort the “application” tasks from the central “analysis” tasks. 

You might find it helpful to create two columns on a piece of paper: one for application tasks, the other for analysis tasks. 

In the first column list tasks associated with “application.” These are tasks that provide an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge.  If you are asked to list, describe, explain, summarize, classify, apply, illustrate, use, calculate, sketch, or perform an operation, you are expected to apply the particular knowledge you have acquired.

In the next column, list the key words for tasks associated with “analysis.” Analysis is central to essay-writing. Because these comprise the main task of your essay, there will be fewer of these key words, probably just one. Some prompts will simply ask you to analyze. Other prompts will use general terms like “discuss” or “reflect on.” A professor will use these to give you the freedom to pick a particular analytical strategy in your essay. 

In most instances, a professor will identify a particular analytical writing strategy (one associated with analysis) for you to use. You can see these listed below. As we have explained on the pages devoted to these terms, these are all types of analysis. The pages devoted to each term can help you understand what to do when you encounter them in an essay-exam prompt.

Key Words Associated with Analysis

Formal Writing Habits

Key Takeaways

  • Once you have sorted out the analytical task (or tasks) from the application tasks, it will be time to begin organizing your thinking about how to answer your exam prompt.
  • Always look for keywords in order to know what is expected of you in your essay answer.


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Table of Contents: Online Guide to Writing