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Essay Terms

  • Before writing an essay response, it is important to understand exactly what is being asked.

    There are certain key words in every question that tell you what information the professor is asking for and how to format your response.

    This list of common key words and their definitions may help answer that common question, “So what am I really supposed to do?”

    analyze
    Take apart and examine closely.
    compare
    Look for similarities and differences; stress similarities.
    contrast
    Look for differences and similarities; stress differences.
    critique
    Point out both positive and negative aspects.
    define
    Explain what something means.
    describe
    Show what something looks like, including physical features. It can also mean to give an account or narrate.
    discuss
    Argue for and against. Mention different groups or individuals involved and the viewpoint of each. State evidence supporting a viewpoint, as well as evidence contrary to it.
    evaluate
    Make a value judgment according to some clear criteria.
    explain
    Clarify or interpret how something works or happens.
    illustrate
    Show by means of example, picture, or diagram.
    interpret
    Explain how or why; implies some subjective judgments.
    justify
    Argue in support of something to find positive reasons.
    list
    Order facts, attributes, or items in sequence. This usually means to arrange certain facts in 1, 2, 3 or bulleted order.
    outline
    Organize according to hierarchy and/or category.
    prove
    Demonstrate by use of logic, fact, or example.
    review
    Reexamine the main points or highlights of something.
    state
    Reiterate a point or series of points from the text.
    summarize
    Present the main points.
    synthesize
    Combine or pull together pieces or concepts.
    trace
    Present an outline; show a sequence of how or why something occurs or happens.
    Updated by Elizabeth Guiden
    January 2005
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