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Tips on how to interpret and answer that essay question (HINT: it’s all in the wording)!

What are clue words?

In exams featuring essay or short-answer questions, most questions contain a clue word.

Clue words are the words that the lecturer uses to indicate the angle to take when you answer the question. Clue words tell you exactly what to do in an essay, so they are extremely important in essay exams.

Many students do poorly on their essays because they do not respond to the task correctly (i.e. they do not respond t the clue word). When writing essays during exams, it is important to recognise the specific clue word/s in the question and understand exactly what information that word is asking for, particularly as individual terms require a particular type of response.

Finding clue words in exam questions:

An exam is like a game in which the lecturers tell you what they want and your role is to give them this! To play the game successfully, you need to be aware of the precise wording of questions and the precise meanings of the clue word/s. Once you have found the clue word/s and worked out exactly what they mean, you can answer the question as clearly as possible.

For example;

Exam question: Compare the goals of liberal and socialist feminism

Clue word: Compare

If the question asked you to “Evaluate the goals of…”, a completely different answer would be required.

Below is a list of the most common clue words and their meanings in exam questions:

1. To find the main ideas, how they are related and why they are important
2. Carefully examine the parts of a subject/topic to determine the significance of the whole

Build a convincing case for your point of view. Use persuasion, logic, reasoning, facts, and statistics

Comment on
To discuss, criticise, or explain its meaning as completely as possible

1. To show both the differences and the similarities
2. Show the similarities between objects or concepts

1. To compare by showing the differences
2. Focus on the differences between objects or concepts

1. To give your judgement or reasoned opinion of something, showing its good and bad points. However, it is not necessary to attack
2. Closely examine strengths and weaknesses of one or several points. Use analysis and evaluation

1. To give the formal meaning by distinguishing it from related terms. This is often a matter of giving a memorised definition
2. Discuss the meaning, characteristics, and qualities that separate an object or concept from all others

1. To write a detailed account or verbal picture in a logical sequence or story form
2. Use sensory information to illustrate a person, place, or thing

To make a graph, chart or drawing. Be sure to label it and add a brief explanation if necessary

1. To present arguments for and against a point of view and reach a conclusion. The arguments must be supported with appropriate evidence
2. Use multiple modes such as definition, description, examples, and evaluations to thoroughly cover the topic

1. To list
2. Name and list the main ideas one by one

1. To give an opinion, supported by some expert opinions, of the truth or importance of a concept. Show the advantages and disadvantages
2. Examine different aspects of a topic carefully. Include opinion and judgment supported with facts

Make understandable by detailing background information, reasons, examples, processes, etc

To explain or make clear by concrete examples, comparisons or analogies

1. To give the meaning using examples and personal comments to make something clear
2. Find meaning or significance using subjective (personal) knowledge and experiences

1. To give a statement of why you think something is so. Give reasons for your statement or conclusion
2. Show or prove the validity of an idea by providing solid reasons

1. To produce a list of words, sentences or comments, Same as enumerate
2. Organize the factual material item by item until the topic is thoroughly covered

1. To give a general summary. It should contain a series of main ideas supported by secondary facts. Show the organisation of the idea
2. Cover a topic by moving from a general idea into its specifics. Provide the main ideas and supporting details briefly in logical order

1. To show by argument or logic that something is true. However, the word ‘prove’ has a very specific meaning in maths and physics
2. Verify or explain through argumentation and evidence

1. To show the connection between things, telling how one causes or is like another
2. Demonstrate how separate ideas, concepts, time periods, people, principles, etc. are connected

To give a survey or summary in which you look at the important parts and criticise if necessary. Cover the important main ideas of a topic

To describe the main points in precise terms. Use brief, clear sentences. Omit details or examples

1. To give a brief, condensed account of the main ideas
2. Briefly restate the main ideas of a larger work. Be concise. Eliminate supporting details

Bring together separate elements or ideas to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of how they interrelate as a whole

1. To follow the progress or history of the subject
2. Chronologically document the successive stages, development, progress, origins or history of a topic

Hot Tips:

Circle the cue word before beginning to write the essay to help you determine and stay focused on the purpose of the essay.

Read through past exam papers to familiarise yourself with the most commonly used clue words in your discipline. Many universities have past exam papers in the library.

This article gives reference to the online information provided on the University of New South Wales website:


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