How to Answer Essay Questions

Our academics share their profound experience with you
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How to answer an essay question is a question every student asks themselves and one that never seems to go away. There are a few key concepts that you can undertake at the start of the essay writing process that will help you to answer your essay questions. The forward planning and thought processes that go into writing the essay are almost as important as the writing process so here we break it down for you.

Getting started

First of all, research your topic and delve into background reading; it is really important to have a sound background and a clear understanding of the subject you wish to write on. If you’re going to wing it and try to breeze through without sound knowledge, your tutor will see straight through you and you won’t be getting those top grades.

Think how you want to answer the question and what points you want to cover, go back to your lecture material as well as marking down some relevant papers and books to read on the topic. From there, you can make a list of ideas you want to cover to help answer the essay question and form something of a table of contents. This will develop as you write but even a loose idea is better than no idea.

What is the question asking me to do?

One of the most important parts of answering the essay question is the question word. The word asking the question in the title of the essay can be easy to overlook, it’s useful to get into the habit of underlining the keywords in your essay title. These words will look something like these:

  • evaluate
  • discuss
  • justify
  • analyse
  • define
  • demonstrate
  • describe
  • explain
  • explore
  • review
  • assess
  • to what extent
  • illustrate
  • outline
  • summarise
  • clarify
  • review
  • critically evaluate
  • compare
  • contrast
  • examine

Assess the question word. Each one of these words will require you to answer the essay in a slightly different way and has been chosen specifically for your topic and the resulting answer your tutor wishes to see. For example, critical evaluation requires in depth study into existing literature and for you to critique it and evaluate how it relates to your question. You must form an opinion on the topic and then evaluate how that opinion relates to theory and concepts surrounding the subject.

Whereas a question asking you to demonstrate wants you to display your understanding of a theory, concept or practice, you must show examples and give evidence to back up your points, often in the form of existing literature on the subject. Wider reading should be demonstrated and by the end of the paper you should have demonstrated you have a thorough understanding of the topic and shown that you can put that into practice.

Keep focus

The key point here is to answer the question. It may seem obvious and simple, but it is one of the most common areas where marks are lost. The answers you are writing must relate to the essay question. They must contribute in some way to answering what the tutor has asked you to answer. There is no point writing a brilliant and original essay with perfect academic English and flawless referencing if it doesn’t relate to the essay question, it must stay on track.

Whilst demonstrating a wide understanding of the subject, as well as the background and areas relating to it is good and beneficial in terms of demonstrating your in-depth knowledge, you need to keep it brief and keep in mind your word count. Think whether the words you writing are a constructive use of the limited words you have to play with or whether those words could be better used explaining something else.


A final important stage of answering essay questions is to take time out of the writing and read through your paper from an objective viewpoint. Read each paragraph and try to imagine you haven’t written it yourself. Think about whether it helps in answering the essay question. Does it describe? Does it evaluate? Does it contribute to background knowledge? Is it relevant?

Think about whether it could fit into a different category if the question had been asked in a different way, and if it can, think about how you could rewrite it to fit into your category more. For example, if you feel your essay asks you to discuss a topic and you find you are more explaining or describing a topic, perhaps think how you could give it more of a discussive tone and what would help it to be presented as such.

The main point we want you to take away from this short guide is to READ – PLAN – ASSESS – PROOF. If you follow these, we believe you can’t go far wrong when writing answers to your essay questions.


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