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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