» Essay Prompt Definitions and Steps in Answering

When different words are used, different thinking is required.  Below is a list of terms commonly used in essay prompts and a few suggestions on how you might go about answering these types of essays.

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Find the main ideas and show how they are related and why they are important.

  1. Find the main ideas and how they are organized.
  2. Tell how the main ideas are related to each other.
  3. Tell what happens if the main ideas are in cause/effect relationships.


Show similarities and differences, emphasize similarities.

  1. State similarities.  You may point out differences, but emphasize similarities.
  2. Should say “they both are (or have)…”.
  3. Statements of similarities are abstract, i.e. not “this is red and that is red” but instead “they are both the same color”. 


Show differences.

  1. State differences.  Find abstract categories (i.e. color, method, content, etc) 
  2. Should say “the differ in…” not “one is red and one is black”.
  3. Objects or ideas may be similar and difference on the same dimension or continuum, i.e. may both be green but vary in degree or shade of green.


Give your judgment or reasoned opinion of something showing its good and bad points.

  1. Make the goal statement, e.g. “I want to show that…”
  2. Select a criterion or a standard to use to make the judgment.  Ask yourself “what am I using as a basis for comparison?”
  3. Make the comparison.  Follow steps for compare and contrast.  But, state the similarities and differences in judgment terms, i.e. “how does this measure up to the standard or criteria?”
  4. Judge how well the criteria are met and state your opinion based on how closely the criteria are met.
  5. One criterion may be critical.  If so, state this.
  6. Usually, rank the criteria in terms of importance.


Give the technical (formal) meaning of a word distinguishing it from related terms.

  1. Write the definition you have memorized.
  2. If you don’t have a prepared definition and have to make one up, do the following:
    1. Think of an abstract category word that classifies the object, i.e. a pen is a writing instrument.
    2. Write “A is a…” not “A is to…”
    3. Finally, enrich by writing descriptive phrases giving uses, functions, structures, appearances, setting, etc.


Write a detailed account or verbal picture of something.

  1. Write down what you see, hear, and touch.  Facts and details are important here.  Write as if your reader could not see, hear or touch a thing.
  2. Use words in a way that will create a picture in the reader’s mind.
  3. For complete descriptions write statements from each sense.  For example, write what you see, what you hear, how it smells, how it touches.  Also state how it makes you feel and what it means to you.


Describe giving the details and explaining the pros and cons of it.

  1. Select or think of relevant factors or issues (main ideas) related to the topic.  State them.  Perhaps state also causes, influences, effects, etc.
  2. State the pros and cons.  If there are different points of view (several authorities) state each point of view.  Follow steps for define and describe, then compare and contrast.
  3. Support your statements by referring to authority and/or reason.

*Note that the word “comment” is a more general term and so gives you the freedom to do any number of things.  Because of this you need to make sure to tell your reader early in your answer what you plan to do.



Tell how to do it or how it happens.  Also can mean to tell why it happens.

  1. State how to do it or how it happens and/or why.
  2. Use verbs, i.e. “do this”, “do that”, or “this happened and that cause this and that…”
  3. Usually organize chronologically.  Write the steps, i.e. first…next…and finally…


Give examples to make clear what you are trying to say.

  1. Write a concrete example.  It is important to find an example that clearly shows the point you are making.
  2. Use sensory categories – see “describe”


Show by argument or logic that it is true.

  1. Write a series of statements (reasons) that logically support your point (main idea).
  2. Put the statements in an “if…then” causal sequence. 




Produce a numbered list of words, sentences or comments.

  1. Write a “shopping list.”  Produce a numbered list of words, sentences or comments.
  2. The term “enumerate” means the same thing as a list.


Give a brief, condensed account of the main ideas.  Omit details and examples.

  1. Pick out the main ideas.
  2. State them in less words than the original ideas were stated.
  3. The key to this task is “simplify”.


Follow the progress or history of the subject.

  1. Write a statement similar to the ones written for “summarize”.
  2. Put the statements in chronological order.  Say “first…second…third…”
  3. Trace usually means to be thorough or complete – leaving out no important steps or events.
  4. Sketch usually means to be brief and giving only highlights.  Think of an art sketch where a complete picture is made with just a few well placed lines.