Essay Test Keywords
Empowering Academic, College, and Career Success



Top 10 Key Words Used in Essay Exam Questions


One way to improve your performance on essay exams is to have a better understanding of what the professor is seeking.


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by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.


What is it that college professors seek from students when they test your knowledge of course materials with essay exams? Professors are seeking a comprehensive analysis when they use essay questions, not simply a brain dump on the subject at hand.


Your goal is to seek out and understand the key words that frame each question -- and which will help you better answer the question more successfully (in relation to what answer the professor seeks).


While there are certainly many more than the 10 key words outlined in this article, use the definitions of these key words -- some of the most common key words found on essay exams -- as a guideline as you prepare for your next essay test.


Here is one top 10 list of essay test key words: analyze, compare, contrast, describe, discuss, explain, illustrate, review, summarize, and trace.


Key WordYour Task
Analyze Break down the subject into smaller pieces, examining the interrelationships and hierarchy of each as they relate to the whole. Example: Analyze the role of the Federal Reserve on the average consumer's ability to borrow money.
Compare Examine similarities and differences among objects, concepts, people, or ideas and come to a conclusion. Example: Compare the artistic style of Picasso and Renoir.
Contrast Explain the key points of difference -- or unique and distinguishing characteristics -- between two objects, concepts, people, or ideas. Example: Contrast the theories of evolution and creationalism.
Describe Provide a detailed account, including significant characteristics, traits -- that tell a story about the issue in question. Example: Describe the Industrial Revolution.
Discuss Present opposing arguments, analyze advantages and disadvantages, and present pros and cons. Example: Discuss the use of Agent Orange as a weapon during the Vietnam war.
Explain State reasons or justifications for something, or how and why something occurred. Focus on interpretation of results and causes. Example: Explain why racism still exists in the United States.
Illustrate Provide examples to demonstrate or prove the subject of the question, sometimes with visual element, such as a picture, drawing, figure, graph, or diagram. Example: Illustrate the process of making wine.
Review Report on the important ideas and major points, briefly analyzing each and commenting on them. Example: Review the key marketing tasks implemented in each stage of marketing development.
Summarize Present the main points, ideas, concepts, or consequences in a concise manner. Similar to developing an abstract. Example: Summarize the key points in the Declaration of Independence.
Trace Discuss the development, history, development, process, or trail of an event from point of origin, typically in chronological order. Example: Trace the development of telecommunications, from origin to present day.


Final Thoughts on Essay Exam Success

A key to success in writing essay exam responses is knowing exactly what the professor is seeking -- and developing a plan to best respond.


Here's one easy-to-remember process for answering essay questions -- the ROW Method:
  • Read the question several times to make certain you thoroughly understand what is being asked of you. Some essay questions have multiple parts.
  • Outline the main points you want to cover in your answer in the margins, on the back of the test, or on a piece of scrap paper.
  • Write your essay, confidently answering the question(s) with the outline you developed. Remember to include a broad opening paragraph and a concluding closing paragraph.



Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.



Dr. Randall S. Hansen is an educator, author, and blogger, as well as founder and CEO of, a network of empowering and transformative Websites, including Dr. Hansen has been helping empower people to achieving success his entire adult life. He is also founder of,, and He is a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles. Dr. Hansen is also an educator, teaching business and marketing at the college level for more than 25 years. Learn more by visiting his personal Website, You can also check out Dr. Hansen on Google+, as well as Dr. Randall Hansen on LinkedIn.






The following words are commonly found in essay tests.Understanding them is essential to success on these tests.A sample essay question for each key word is also provided.

Analyze – Break into separate parts and discuss, examine, or interpret each part.

Analyze the effects of acid rain on a freshwater lake.

Compare – Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences.

Compare the political systems of and .

Contrast – Show differences.Set in opposition.

Contrast the music of Beethoven and Bach.

Criticize – Make judgments. Evaluate comparative worth.This often involves analysis.

Criticize the efforts of law enforcement to catch the sniper.

Define – Give the meaning, usually a meaning specific to a subject.Definitions are usually short.

Define serendipity.

Describe – Give a detailed account.Make a picture with words. List characteristics, qualities, and parts.

Describe a favorite restaurant.

Discuss – Consider and debate the pros and cons of an issue.Write about any conflict.Compare and contrast.

Discuss the ethical issues of cloning.

Enumerate – List several ideas, aspects, events, things, qualities, reasons, etc.

Enumerate the steps to prepare for a test.

Evaluate – Give your opinion or cite the opinions of experts.Include evidence to support the evaluation.

Evaluate the argument for the legalization of marijuana.

Explain – Make an idea clear. Show logically how an idea is developed.

Explain the forces that shaped the Constitution.

Illustrate – Give concrete examples.Explain with word pictures.

Illustrate how the aided ’s becoming a world power after World War II.

Interpret – Comment upon, give examples, and describe relationships.Explain the meaning, and then evaluate.

Interpret Marx’s statement that “religion is the opiate of the people.”

Outline – Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events. (not necessarily with Roman numerals and/or letters).

Outline the causes of the Civil War.

Prove – Support with facts (especially those from class or the text).

Prove that man descended from apes.

State – Explain precisely.

State the reasons for the separation of church and state.

Summarize – Give a brief, condensed account.Avoid unnecessary details.Include conclusions.

Summarize Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay “In Defense of Talk Shows.”

Trace – Show the order of events or progress of a subject or event.

Trace the rise of the Taliban to power.

After reviewing this list, practice developing essay questions in preparation for your exams.Doing so will help you anticipate possible test questions.Next practice answering the questions you developed.

After your essay exams are returned compare your instructor’s questions with those you developed.What types of questions does your instructor tend to ask?Were you able to anticipate the types of test questions asked on your most recent exam?Keep a list of the types of questions your instructor asks (compare, define, evaluate, trace, etc.).

Adapted from Becoming A Master Student by David B. Ellis

Return to Test Taking Strategies Home Page .

Maintained by Joan Monroe, Associate Professor, Learning Lab · Last updated: Sept 2004

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