Essays - Knowing what is expected

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Advice Leaflets

Advice leaflets originally produced for the Study Advice Service in the University of Hull, which holds the copyright:

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1. Understand the task Be clear about what you have to do before you begin, regarding the length, the content and the format of the essay. Check with your tutor or department if you are unsure. They may also produce guidance of their own or even the criteria used for assessment, either of which may be valuable to you.


2. Understand the question It is vital that you spend some time looking carefully at the question in order to understand its implications. Often, a clue to how it could or should be answered is in the question itself. This process should help you to decide what is relevant. This is important because otherwise you will waste your time along with that of the tutor who marks it and you will fail to gain credit for anything you write which is irrelevant. You might like to adopt the "TFI" principle:

Topic - what the question is generally about. Focus - what specific aspect, if any, you have to concentrate on. Instruction - what you are required to do.

Here are some examples

Question Topic Focus Instruction - implicit or explicit
"Discuss the causes of war in [play] by [author]" The play The causes of war Discuss
"How important was the rôle of Bismarck in the formation of the German state?" Formation of the German state The rôle of Bismarck Analyse
"What are the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative methods of evaluation in [subject]?" Methods of evaluation Qualitative and quantitative types Compare and contrast


Unless you are specifically instructed to do so, do not concentrate on one particular aspect at the expense of others which should also be described, discussed or explained. In other words, get the proportions right so as to avoid imbalance and bias. Don't concentrate on one aspect of the question to the neglect of another - give each the amount of consideration it deserves. You will gain no credit (and waste time) if you write about something not relevant to the question.


3. Understand the preparation

  1. - Lecture notes and hand-outs in themselves are not usually enough.
  2. - You need to show evidence of further reading.
  3. - Ask yourself if there are any specific 'musts', for example, must you include/describe/discuss certain ideas or a minimum number of them? What is to be the number of words and how close should it be to the number stipulated? Must something be done or read beforehand?
  4. - Is your personal experience relevant?
  5. - How much is each skill weighted: understanding of content, use of language, organisation of material, presentation of argument, depth of analysis? This will be indicated in the criteria for assessment given by your department.


4. Understand the instruction Important: it may be blindingly obvious, but ANSWER THE QUESTION. It is amazing how many people do not read the question carefully and understand all its implications. Very often a clue to how it should be answered can be found by reading it very carefully.

Here is a list of key words and phrases which will tell you what kind of essay is required or, in other words, what you need to do:

Key word Common implication
Analyse Break into component parts and show how they relate to one another
Assess Estimate the value or importance of
Compare Examine similarities and differences
Contrast Concentrate on differences
Define Explain the precise meaning of
Describe Give a description of (relatively easy)
Discuss Explain the meaning or significance of something and explore all its implications
Evaluate/To what extent?/ How far? Judge the importance, success, value, merits or otherwise of, using evidence or argument to support your view
Examine Give a detailed account of something, questioning and exploring issues
Explain Give a precise account of something with reasons for why or how it is as it is
Illustrate Use examples from a range of sources to demonstrate something
State Write the main points relating to something
Summarise Give the main points of something, preserving the overall coherence of the original