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Home > Resources > Test > Essay Exams / Tests

Essay Exams / Tests

Essay tests, unlike most tests you are probably accustomed to, do not employ a straightforward “question and answer” format. Essays test usually provide you with a paragraph that includes a direction word or statement. The direction word indicates what you should write about in your essay answer. Remember, when taking an essay test make sure to identify the direction word and that you understand what it is telling you before you start writing your essay response.

The following is a list of the most common direction words used by teachers when writing essay tests. We’ve provided the meaning of each word as well as an example of how the word is used so that when you see it again you’ll understand what it means and how to use it.

Analyze – This action word asks you to break something down into its component parts and then shows how each part relates to each other to make the whole.

Example: Analyze how the human body works.

Insight: In this example you would address each major system (part) in the human body and discuss how each part works with the other parts to make up the whole body.

Compare – The word tells you to show how two or more things are both similar and different. Remember when comparing you must show both similarities and differences.

Example: Compare the state of California to the state of Utah.

Insight: You would want to show how California and Utah are both similar to each other and different to each other. Your answer could address their sizes, shapes, types of people, land forms, etc.

Contrast – When asked to contrast you are being asked to show how two or more things are different.

Example: Contrast the Civil War and Vietnam War.

Insight: To contract the Civil War and Vietnam War you would show how the two wars were different.

Define – Define indicates that you need to explain the meaning of something briefly.

Example: Define what is meant by “can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Describe – The direction word “describe” tells you to present a full and detailed explanation of something. Your explanation may include relevant characteristics, properties, functions or other important attributes.

Example: Describe what it was like to live during the Great Depression.

Diagram – Diagram tells you to illustrate something by drawing a picture of it and labeling its parts.

Example: Diagram the executive branch of the American government.

Evaluate – When you told to evaluate something you are being asked to present both its positive and negative characteristics and attributes.

Example: Evaluate the affect of alcohol in the home.

Explain – This word tells you to provide facts, information and reasons to show how something works or to make something clear and understandable.

Example: Explain the balance of powers as set forth by the United States constitution.

Justify – When asked to justify you should provide reasons and facts in support of something.

Example: Justify the need for stricter driving laws.

List – List tells you to present information or facts about something as a series of numbered points.

Example: List the steps require to get into college.

Insight: Here you would number each step required to get into college. Each step would be number according to where it fits into the process.

Outline – When you are asked to outline something you are being told to present in the most important information about something in a carefully organized manner. An outline does not require you to write complete paragraphs. You simply put information about a subject into sequential, categorical order.

Example: Outline what is required to graduate from high school.

Summarize – This tells you to present the main points about something briefly. A summary should only contain those points required to communicate the message and should not include a lot of supporting detail.

Example: Summarize how the human body works.

Trace – This direction word indicates to present the order in which something happened.

Example: Trace the events that preceded the Boston Tea Party.

Being able to recognize and understand direction words is essential to doing well on essay test

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