Writing@CSU Guide

Exam Questions

Like any other kind of writing, answering essay test questions requires practice before it becomes easier. If you find yourself struggling with exam questions, ask your professor well in advance if you can have sample questions to practice on at home. Then set a timer and practice! Several practice sessions will give you better results than a single, long session, so give yourself plenty of time to prepare for this kind of writing under time pressure.

Several other strategies can also help you write better responses on essay tests.

  1. Read through the entire exam to plan an overall strategy.
  2. Look at each exam question to identify key words.
  3. Think about what kind of writing the key word or words call for.
  4. Make notes to yourself of the points you want to cover in the response.
  5. Begin your response by echoing the question.
  6. Leave yourself 10 minutes at the end of the test period to re-read both the questions and your responses.
  7. Final advice

Read through the entire exam to plan an overall strategy

An old story has it that a prof got tired of giving this advice to students, so he made up a long and complex set of questions for a final exam. The first instruction was to read the entire test and follow the instructions on the last page. The last page had one instruction: Sign your name and turn in the test. Only one student followed the instructions and passed; the rest failed the test because they tried to answer all the questions.

Not many profs will go to these extremes, but reading through the entire test does help you plan your approach to the test.

  • As you go through the exam, note which sections call for short answers, even single sentences, and which sections call for longer responses.
  • Pay special attention to the items that give you choices; many students have found themselves out of time when they answer every question instead of reading carefully to see that the test called for one response in section A and one response in section B.
  • If the test indicates how many points are attached to each question, plan to answer the heavily weighted questions first so that you have the most time to spend on those responses.
  • If you blank out on what you know about a question, plan to tackle that one late in the test session because answering other questions may help you remember the material.

Look at each exam question to identify key words

Once you've set up an overall plan about which questions to answer first and how much time you have for each response, read each question carefully. Perhaps the biggest problem teachers report is that students don't answer the question asked. You can't respond appropriately if you don't take the time to see what the question asks you to do, and key words typically tell you what to focus on. These are some of the most common key words in exam questions:

  • Describe
  • Analyze
  • Compare
  • Evaluate
  • Argue
  • Explain
  • Define
  • Generalize
  • List
  • Reflect
  • Discuss

Warning: Teachers don't always use the most precise key word for the kind of writing that will best answer the question. Use your best judgment based on the content to decide if the question really wants you to analyze when it says "describe." If you're in doubt, ASK.

Think about what kind of writing the key word or words call for

Here's another reason to practice this kind of writing: you'll identify the key words and click onto the kinds of writing you should do more and more automatically.

  • Describe
  • Analyze
  • Compare
  • Evaluate
  • Argue
  • Explain
  • Define
  • Generalize
  • List
  • Reflect
  • Discuss


When we describe, we note physical and sometimes chronological details. Descriptions generally rely on sensory perceptions (compared to "analysis" that typically gets at mental abstractions). Because vision is usually our dominant sense, most of our descriptions rely heavily on visual details. For many essay questions, being asked to "describe" means writing about what you've seen.

Writing tip: Although our field of vision takes in lots of details, we organize those to help remember them. As writers, we need to make our organizational pattern obvious to readers. That's why most descriptions follow a top-to-bottom, right-to-left, etc., consistent pattern of moving over a visual scene. Sometimes, the pattern is most-to-least important, and this pattern works especially well if your description is building to a particular point.

Depending on the situation in which you are asked to "describe," you may want to organize the details of your writing according to a chronological pattern. Particularly when you are recording observations that take place over a long time, you may want to capture the sense of passing time by using time markers (e.g., first, later, finally) to organize the details in your writing.

Specific advice for OT students: You are working with models of assessment that ask you to note certain kinds of physical movement or reactions in a certain order. When the model of assessment has a built-in order, you can use that to organize the details of your description.

Substitute key words: observe or notice


Analyze in a test question usually means "take this concept apart and look at the relationships among parts." Sometimes the analysis focuses on causes and effects, as, for example, if you were to write about media coverage and election turnout. Sometimes the analysis will focus on a time sequence, as it might in tracking the progress of a degenerative disease.

Writing tip: Because we can look at relationships among parts in several different ways, be sure to signal your reader how you're "slicing the pie." If you're writing about cause-effect relationships among parts, use key transitional words and phrases such as "because" and "as a result" to show the causal relationship. If your analysis is based on a process, use transitions that indicate an appropriate time or developmental sequence. If your analysis looks at functional relationships, clearly indicate the functions and their interactions. In short, make clear not just the parts you're looking at but why you're looking at them the ways you are in your response.

Substitute key words: examine


Compare is probably the easiest of the key terms to recognize and respond to. Fortunately, comparisons are also common on essay tests, so they're easy to practice. Compare basically asks the writer to take two or more objects, theories, events, concepts, applications, or explanations and show the similarities between them. One warning, though: when teachers use compare on a test question, they also often mean contrast, so don't forget to point out differences after you write out the similarities between items you're comparing.

Writing tip: Depending on the length and complexity of your response, you may find it easier to write everything about item A first and then to use that same sequence to write about item B. If you're not sure you can follow the same sequence in this block approach to comparison, then use a point-by-point method that allows you to make a point about A followed immediately by a point about B. Use clear transitions whether you adopt the block or point-by-point method so that your reader can clearly see how the similarities and differences relate to each item in your comparison.

Specific advice for OT students: The comparisons you're likely to focus on will be of theories or applications. Because theories are more general and applications are more specific, your comparisons may have to deal with both the abstract (theoretical level) and the concrete (specific client treatment). Practicing these complex comparisons will definitely make them easier to write.

Substitute key words: distinguish between (among), show similarities and differences


Evaluate often gets misunderstood by students as compare. They're not the same. Comparing just points out similarities and differences; evaluation requires a judgment about which theory, application, approach, etc., is superior and why. Students working under time pressure are most likely to forget to write out their criteria for making the judgment in the first place. This rationale is often crucial for understanding the overall judgment.

Writing tip: Especially when you're pressed for time, keep the criteria obvious and straightforward. If one approach is cheaper and faster, and those are the two criteria anyone would use to evaluate the approaches in question, then talk about what makes one cheaper and faster. Don't forget, though, to also show what makes the alternative approaches more expensive and slower. Thoroughness does count when writing out evaluations.

If the obvious criteria are not appropriate in a specific context, though, be sure to explain why you're adopting not-so-obvious criteria for evaluating. So long as you can justify the criteria you choose and the final judgment you make, you're meeting the goals of the essay question that calls for evaluation.

Substitute key words: rank, order, justify your selection, explain your rationale for choosing


Argue, as a key word, asks you specifically to take a position and defend it. The best arguments have a narrowly focused position statement, reasons to support the overall position, and then evidence to support each reason. If you have time, you can also look at other possible positions and support (again with evidence) why your position is better.

Writing tip: Most students have little trouble stating their overall position, but in the heat of writing under pressure students do often forget to give adequate evidence to support that position. Be sure to include not just general reasons why you hold the position but also the evidence--the details, examples, analysis--that supports your reasons. If you think of a solid argument like a house, you can't hold up the roof (overall position) with a frame (reasons for the position). And you surely can't keep out the rain without the substance (details) that covers the frame.

Specific advice for OT students: Not all arguments need to take a long time to develop. If you need to justify a particular intervention, sometimes a few details and a reference to a pertinent theoretical framework will suffice.

Substitute key words: defend, take a stand or position, justify


Explain, like analyze, often points in the direction of cause-effect or process reasoning. But explaining isn't always limited to analysis. Like discuss, explain sometimes appears in a test question when the teacher is asking you to write everything you know about a concept or when the teacher is focusing on a specific set of relationships. Treat explain, then, as a key word that calls for more exploration of the rest of the question to see if there is additional focus elsewhere in the question.

Writing tip: Because explaining can include any of the strategies noted for analyzing, defining, or comparing, be prepared to use a combination of techniques as well as transitional devices to create coherence in these responses. And because explaining leads toward longer responses, be sure to make a list of key points to include before you begin these responses; check your list for completeness of your response at the end of the test time.

Substitute key words: tell how, discuss


Define is another of the more straightforward of the key terms. Typically, a teacher asking you to define a term is asking for a translation of a technical term into language anyone could understand. Defining a concept calls for more elaboration, but it still builds on strategies for definition.

Writing tip: Standard definitions use a variety of strategies including synonyms, antonyms, analogies, comparisons, and explanations of where a term came from or the contexts in which it is used. If you've studied dictionary definitions for the terms, you can also build on those. Teachers are usually interested in seeing that you understand key terms, though, so when they ask you to define a term they sometimes also want you to show that you can apply it to a particular context. You can get a better sense of how long and detailed you should make the definitions based on the points allotted to the definitions and the number of words/concepts you're expected to define.


Some essay test questions are meant to gauge critical thinking. Generalize is one of those terms. When teachers ask you to generalize, they want to see you move from the particular to the general or from the concrete to the abstract.

Writing tip: If you haven't already noted some specific details elsewhere in the test, you'll find it easier to generalize if you start with some details and work your way to a higher level of abstraction.

Specific advice for OT students: Often you are asked to generalize from a theory to a particular person

Substitute key words: draw conclusions


List suggests that you can jot down single words or phrases quickly without taking the time to describe or explain in any detail. If your teacher has made a point of asking for complete sentences on essay tests, though, be sure to ask if list means a short-item list or an extended description list.

List also often gets combined with other key words. List and explain, for instance, tells you that you don't need to spend much time labeling the items but that you do need to elaborate on their importance or their relationships.

Writing tip: If your teacher is saving your time by allowing you to list short-item answers, consider using bullets to give a visual clue about how many items you have in your final list. Especially on handwritten tests, visual clarity becomes increasingly important to teachers as they read dozens of pages.

Substitute key words: identify, note, label


Reflect doesn't appear often as a key word on exam questions, but when it does it typically asks you to express how the ideas or applications you've been studying have affected your personal point of view. Reflection is one of the more personal kinds of writing because it invites self-exploration. Of course, taking a personal perspective doesn't mean giving up any connection to outside reality. The idea is to connect your own "take" on the idea with what you've heard in class, studied in the text, or practiced in the lab.

Writing tip: Because reflection is more personal, don't try to write this response without using an "I" point of view. And don't forget to make explicit connections between your personal critical thinking and the idea or concept you've been thinking about.


Discuss is the trickiest of the key words in essay-test questions because it doesn't give you much guidance about how to structure your response. When a teacher says discuss, it might be most appropriate to describe, analyze, or explain. If you can't get other clues from the question, your best bet is probably to ask for clarification from the teacher.

Substitute key words: consider, speculate about, write about

Make notes to yourself of the points you want to cover in the response

Especially for long responses, jot down a quick list of key points you need to cover. It's easy when writing a paragraph or two under time pressure to forget key ideas as you get involved in writing out your response. The list or notes will help you remember to include items, and you can use your notes as a checklist for completeness as you review your response at the end of the test period.

Begin your response by echoing the question

If you echo the question, you are more likely to write a response that answers the question because the question will usually spark your thinking along the right lines. For example, assume the test question asks, "If the reaction had been present, what would we have observed?" If you start your response with, "If the reaction had been present, we would have observed…," you are more likely to get right to descriptive details based on what you saw. Similarly, a test question such as, "Why would the key point you chose be the most effective?" calls for an answer that begins, "This key point is the most effective because…." The "because" sets you up immediately to get at the rationale behind your thinking.

Many teachers also prefer to have students write complete sentences when they answer essay questions on tests, so echoing the question gives you a head start on a complete sentence in your response.

Leave yourself 10 minutes at the end of the test period to re-read

Sometimes students feel too pressed for time to review anything. Generally, teachers will tell you that you're better served by writing the more important responses clearly and completely than by finishing every last question. So take some time to re-read and revise parts of your responses. (Teachers are generally willing to follow arrows to inserted points or read sentences in a certain order if you number them; these revision strategies can help you fill in detail and order the sentences in your responses for maximum clarity.)

However, it's a tactical mistake to re-read responses just after you write them. Sometimes, the ideas are still too fresh in your mind to see if the response is clear. Finishing the test and coming back to re-read gives you several advantages:

  • If you've misunderstood the question, you're more likely to see that after you work through the entire test because the test questions as a whole typically have a logic that connects them in some way.
  • Re-reading the questions carefully will help you see if you've misinterpreted the question and, thus, misdirected your response.
  • Re-reading the questions carefully will remind you of other points you might need to include in the response.

Re-reading your responses carefully will help you see

  • where you need to include points or details to answer the question thoroughly,
  • where you need to add transitions and other connectors to make your ideas coherent,
  • where you might have left out words that make sentences unclear or confusing.

Final advice

Much of the success on an essay test comes not during the test time but in the preparation time. If you know the material, you'll be able to generate your lists and notes quickly to help you write complete answers. If you fully understand the theory that a test question asks you to apply, then you'll be able to make coherent connections between theory and application. If you understand the specialized terminology being covered on a test, you will not only understand the questions more quickly, but you'll be able to use the jargon appropriately to write professional responses. Teachers know when students are padding responses to avoid answering a question, so writing skills can't carry you through a testing situation if you don't know the content.

Citation: Please adapt for your documentation style.

Kiefer, Kate, & Anita Bundy. (1997). Answering Exam Questions. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=50