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Understanding Essay Question: A Student Survival Guide

Student survival guide

Before you even start writing your essay, developing arguments or taking your stand regarding some subject, you have to understand the title. In most cases, essay titles are in form of questions. Your task is to answer question from the title and show your understanding of the subject, demonstrate your knowledge, and elaborate your point of view. Based on my own experience, it’s not enough to read the title and think you know what’s going on. In fact, understanding essay question requires more time than you think, but it’s one of the most important aspects of essay writing process. Analyzing the question makes it easier for you to finish remaining steps faster. On the other hand, if you don’t understand the title and everything the client or professor expects from you, then quality of your work will be jeopardized. Throughout this article I’m going to provide useful tips you can use to understand essay question.

Components of essay questions

The very first step towards understanding essay question is defining its components. In most cases, these components are:

  • Subject or topic – indicates what is the question about in general terms
  • Focus or aspect – angle or point of view that you’re going to use to discuss the topic
  • Comment or instruction – indicates instruction word or a phrase that tell you what to do.

In some cases, essay question can contain the following components as well:

  • Expansion or restriction of subject matter – detailed limitation of the topic i.e. indicates what question is about in specific terms
  • Viewpoint – requirement in the question that you have to evaluate or analyze.

Example: Discuss the impact of economy crisis upon the political affairs in the United States.

In this essay title, we can determine that:

  • Topic is “economy crisis”
  • Focus or aspect are “impact” and “political affairs”
  • Instruction is “discuss”
  • Restriction is “in the United States”.

Therefore, what we can understand after determining components of the title is that our job is to discuss effects of economy crisis on political situation in the US only. Now, you know exactly what to research and how to write an outline for your essay.

Read more College essay tips articles:

Tips for analyzing the title

Now that you know components of essay titles, here are a few tips you can use to analyze it successfully:

  • Identify the topic – take the economy crisis title for example. To some people, political affairs would be the topic but that’s incorrect. Always bear in mind that topic or subject of your essay is the term or word which you have to explore or analyze or whose effects you have to evaluate onto different socioeconomic or political aspects of certain society.
  • Identify restriction or expansion –shows you what to research and makes this step significantly faster.
  • Search for the aspect and identify it – in some cases, aspect is a phrase ending in of e.g. the significance of or the contribution of. Here, you have to pay attention to how the aspect or focus relates to the topic. It can be the cause, effects, solutions to the problem etc.
  • Identify the instruction or command; determine what it means and what you are supposed to do. For example, if the instruction word is discuss you shouldn’t compare or describe the problem.
  • Look for viewpoint and see whether it matches your own. Remember, not all essay questions and titles contain viewpoint. You will usually find it in titles that require essay writers to express their point of view or whether you agree with a certain notion or not.

Consider concepts and methods

Essays always require analysis or discussion of a certain subject. Frankly, that’s why I love them. There’s something liberating in writing essays and putting your thoughts onto paper. When analyzing the essay question you should also note what concepts or methods the topic wants you to use. Do you have to argue a certain point with others? Are you supposed to develop your own argument? Do you have to evaluate a theory based on provided example or you have to go in-depth about material already covered in class e.g. Crime and Punishment in literature class?

Essays don’t only require sticking to course concepts, but they also encourage you to break new grounds and think “outside the box”. For example, you might get essay with title that refers to Crime and Punishment book but asks you to analyze it bearing modern society in mind.

Example: Crime rate, in most countries, is often higher in urban areas than in rural areas. Why do you think that is? What can be done to reduce the crime rate?

Based on what we have learned so far, this essay question wants you to discuss crime rate in urban areas. You’re supposed to give your own opinion or possible reasons why that is. Here, you can use the book as an example and draw a parallel with modern society. This shows understanding of course concept as well as your ability to break new grounds.


I have already mentioned instructions above. Their primary purpose is to tell you what to do regarding certain essay topic. There are numerous instructional verbs that essays contain and I’m going to list the most common ones with explanations in table below:



Account for

Requires an answer which gives the reasons for the subject of the question.


Break an issue into smaller constituent parts and look in depth at each part using arguments and evidence for and against. Essay should be logically and methodically organized.


Weigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade readers of your argument by including credible sources, quotes and conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with subject.


Self-explanatory; to make something clearer or simplify it. This usually involves explaining in simpler terms a complex theory or process.

Comment (upon)

Choose main parts of the subject and provide your own opinion. Reinforce your point of view using logic and relevant evidence.


Show similarities and differences of two or more aspects of your topic. Essay should be objective, fair, and balanced.


State your opinion or observations about certain subject. Back up your claims with evidence and/or your experience. Include views that are different from yours and how they relate to your original thoughts.


Similar to compare, but here you have to concentrate on differences.

Criticize or critically evaluate

Point out at mistakes and weaknesses as well as favorable aspects of the subject. Give a balanced answer, provide evidence, and come to a final conclusion basing decision on what you assume to be the most important factor and justify how you reached that conclusion.


Explain precise meaning of the topic, term, or concept. Include problems about definition or different interpretations.


Show how to find a solution for something, effects of something on various aspects of life (depending on the subjects) and provide examples to illustrate.


Provide detailed explanation of the subject.


This is a written debate where you have to make a face for and against argument using evidence, examples, logic and reasoning skills. Give both sides of an argument, implications of, and arrive at conclusion.

Elaborate or elucidate

Give more detail or more information.


Similar to critically evaluate and assess – asses the worth, importance and usefulness of subject using evidence.


Put the subject “under microscope” and look into the detail.


Detailed and exact explanation of an idea or principle. Include relevant research and write in a manner that is easy to understand.


Examine the subject thoroughly and consider it from various viewpoints. When possible, reconcile opposing views by presenting final lines of argument.

Give an account of

It’s usually identified with account for which is incorrect. Here, you have to give detailed description of subject while account for focuses on reasons to why something happens.


Determine the keypoints that should be addressed regarding the topic and its implications.


Similar to explain and demonstrate. Explain the subject thoroughly and use relevant sources to cite.


Demonstrate your understanding of certain subject. It can refer to explaining terminology from a literary work or findings from some research and what they suggest.


Connect your ideas and arguments and give evidence which supports this. Show why conclusions or decisions are made and consider objections readers might make e.g. Justify the abolition of monarchy in the United Kingdom.

Outline (Summarize)

Convey main points and place emphasis on global structures or implications of the subject. Use brief or general examples.


Critical assessment of the subject, not just its description.

Show how

Use logical order to present stages and combinations of factors that give rise or demise to something. Use evidence, cite credible sources.


Express relevant points of subject briefly and clearly without focusing onto minor details.

To what extent

Requires thorough assessment of the evidence. Present your argument with alternative explanations, references, reliable information.

Essays can be quite demanding and the best way to finish your assignment successfully is to analyze the essay question thoroughly to create a plan for research and writing. Throughout this article I showed you how to analyze the title, determine different components, and I also included the most common instructions that essays contain. Follow these tips for better understanding of the subject to finish your essay sooner than you thought.

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