First, read the question carefully. If you misunderstand or misinterpret the question, your entire answer may miss the mark. Notice what the question requires you to do. Notice whether it asks you to explain, discuss, summarize, define, evaluate, compare, analyze, or synthesize. These key words help you to understand the question.
Essay questions are often broad questions that ask you to work with abstract terms, concepts, tendencies, or sweeping events or trends. They differ from short-answer questions in the level of specificity required in their answers. Short-answer questions usually ask that you recall information by providing facts, definitions, or examples.
Another way to understand essay questions is by understanding how they ask you to apply your knowledge, what rules and concepts you are being asked to use. If you are asked to list, describe, explain, summarize, classify, apply, illustrate, use, calculate, sketch, or perform an operation, you are being asked to apply particular knowledge you have acquired. If you are asked to analyze, compare, contrast, evaluate, predict, determine cause and effect, synthesize, or evaluate, you are being asked to select from the knowledge you have gained.
Essay questions usually call for some sort of application, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation of information, or some combination of these. Many students mistakenly summarize a plot or recapitulate the topic from the texts or class lectures in place of doing an analysis. If you are asked to analyze a key concept in relation to a specific situation, simply summarizing it, describing it, or paraphrasing it won't work. If you are asked to compare and contrast two systems, describing each of them and their characteristics alone won't develop the comparison. Always try to understand clearly what kind of answer you are expected to write.
The following essay assignment calls for a broad understanding of literary concepts, a specific period of literature, and some history, in addition to the ability to cite from the works of several writers of the period. The short-answer question, on the other hand, requires specific knowledge of a particular kind of programming language.
Example of a Long-Answer Essay Question
Harold Bloom, in his book, The American Religion, asserts that the American religion is an expression of individualism. Discuss this concept as it pertains to the transcendentalist literature of Emerson and Thoreau.
Example of a Short-Answer Question
Define fourth-generation language and give an example.