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Teaching & Advising > Grading & Assessment of Students

How to Answer an Essay Question

With the renewed interest in writing in all disciplines, more and more instructors are using the essay question.  To help my students get through the sometimes formidable task of composing an essay, I've compiled a list of helpful hints.  I usually hand it out the period before an essay test as I consider it part of my review (in nearly all my classes, I spend the period before the test reviewing format, past tests, points of emphasis, etc.).  While my students are taking the actual essay test, I allow them to keep this handout beside them as a constant guide.  For courses in which lots of writing is required, I give students the "tip sheet" the first day of class.

Tips for Answering an Essay Question

I.     Avoid these Pitfalls:

  1. Cliches

  2. Jargon

  3. Stilted Language

  4. Failure to be Selective and Specific

  5. Glittering Generalities

  6. Memory, not Mastery

  7. Superlatives Instead of Insightful Comments

  8. Failure to Read the Question Carefully

  9. No Thesis

  10. Lack of Mechanics

II.     Remember these Rules:

  1. Language must clarify rather than cloud meaning.

  2. Always deliberately and specifically confront the question.

  3. Be selective in using materials.

  4. Always organize around a thesis.

III.    Follow these Six Steps:

  1. Read and thoroughly understand the question.

  2. Jot down random, relevant thoughts.

  3. Derive a comprehensive statement (your Thesis) from these notes that answers the question.

  4. Structure the essay to support the thesis.

  5. Construct support paragraphs using the reasons listed in the outline/thesis statement.

  6. Proofread.

Hal Blythe
Eastern Kentucky University

SOURCE:  Blythe, Hal & Sweet, Charlie, It Works for Me!  Shared Tips for Teaching. New Forums Press, Inc., Stillwater, OK, 1998.

"Only the devil has an answer for our moral difficulties, and he says: 'Keep on posing problems, and you will escape the necessity of obedience.' But Jesus is not interested in the young man's problems; he is interested in the young man himself."
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer; The Cost of Discipleship