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Essay Tips
by L

When I told my class that the essay section of an English test is the most difficult part to fail, I saw a sea of disbelieving faces. I can understand why. Many of them have had to repeat their level because they had failed their essay sections despite getting strong marks in the other sections. 

So, why have so many otherwise able students floundered in the essay section? I suspect it is because they have not understood the basic requirements of an American school essay. What follows is a brief coverage of the main steps required for writing a successful essay:

STEP ONE: Understand the question. 

Figure out exactly what the question is asking you to do. Underline key words (usually verbs or action words) and think clearly about what the question is asking you to do. 

If it says to choose a topic and write an essay, you choose only one topic and write only one essay. If it says to write a paragraph, do not write an essay!

Each question will also contain key words that require you to approach the topic in specific ways. The following are some key words you might see:

ANALYZE: Break into parts. Discuss, examine, or interpret each part. 
COMPARE: Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. 
CONTRAST: Show difference. Set in opposition.
CRITICIZE: Make judgments. Evaluate comparative worth. Criticism involves analysis and evaluation. 
DEFINE: Explain the exact meaning of the term in relation to the course or subject. Determine the precise limits of the term being defined. 
DESCRIBE: Give a detailed account. Make a picture with words. List characteristics, qualities and parts. 
DISCUSS: Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Evaluate and justify. 
EVALUATE: Give your opinion or judgement or cite the opinions of experts. Include evidence to support the evaluation. 
EXPLAIN: Make an idea clear. Show logically how a concept is developed. Give the reasons for an event. 
ILLUSTRATE: Explain, clarify, or support using examples and/or diagrams. 
INTERPRET: Explain the meaning. Describe, show relation- ships, comment on, and evaluate. 
JUSTIFY: To argue in support of some decision/conclusion to show sufficient evidence/reason in favor of something. Support your argument with facts, logical reasoning, and examples. 
LABEL: To point out and name specific parts of a figure/illustration. 
LIST: List several ideas, aspects, events, things, qualities, reasons, etc. (Enumerate means the same thing.) 
OUTLINE: Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events.
PROVE: Means the same as justify. Often used in the context of mathematical or scientific formula derivations. 
RELATE: Show the connections between ideas or events. Provide a larger context. 
REVIEW: To summarize and comment on the main parts of a problem/series of statements/events in an appropriate order. Evaluate/criticize some aspect of the material. 
STATE: Explain precisely. (Also see explain) 
SUMMARIZE: Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions, and justify. Focus on the issue and avoid unnecessary details. 
TRACE: Show the order of events or the progress of a subject/event. 

STEP TWO: Brainstorm for ideas. 

To keep the ideas flowing, do not stop now to evaluate your ideas. Just jot down the main points for later recall. Do not try to write in complete sentences.

STEP THREE: Evaluate your ideas. 

If you do not yet know your overall view of the topic, now is a good time to look through your notes to see if there is a controlling opinion regarding the topic. 

Once you have clarified your controlling idea, go through your notes again to cross out the points that do not help to support your controlling idea. Have you missed out anything important? 

Try to collect similar ideas into broader headings. You will have an easier time organizing your essay if you can get your ideas into two to four main groups. If you have more than 4 groups, you probably need to further limit your topic or controlling idea.

STEP FOUR: Write an outline. 

Making an outline will help you organize your thoughts and allow you to see graphically if you have included all the key points from step three (above).

Check again to see if the ideas make sense and that they flow in a logical order. Your outline should contain the following elements: 

The controlling idea for the essay. This is your overall opinion of the topic. For example, if the topic is your home, and you think it's wonderful, your controlling idea/thesis statement could be: "I have a wonderful home" or "I love my home." 

Two to four main ideas that support your controlling idea.Continuing with our "home" example above, the main reasons for thinking that your home is wonderful might be its comfort, convenient location and affordability. 

Supporting details that illustrate or explain each of your main ideas. Calming colours, comfy couches, easy access to facilities and work, and low rent might be some details you could use to support our earlier main ideas. 

A conclusion that restates your controlling idea.

STEP FIVE: Write your essay answer. 

Your outline gives you a "skeleton" that just needs to be fleshed out. In the American school essay, a long introduction is neither required nor recommended. Get to the point. Do not drag out the introduction with a lot of background information. 

Start with the thesis statement containing your controlling idea for the essay. Each new body paragraph should start with a topic sentence containing the single main idea for the paragraph. 

Support your main idea with relevant details and write a concluding sentence for the longer paragraphs to restate your main idea. Keep on track by following your notes/outline. 

Finally, you need to proofread and edit your essay for grammar, appropriate vocabulary usage, sentence variety, and flow. 

Make sure that the average reader will be able to follow what you are trying to say. Foreign idioms often do not translate easily, and cultural events that you take for granted might need to be expanded upon for the general reader.

If you have carefully followed the five steps outlined above, you should end up with a well-organized, properly structured essay. Combined with a final edit for grammar and vocabulary usage, you should easily and comfortably pass your essay test. Trust me.

Key word information adapted from: Ellis, D (1995) Becoming a master student (Canadian Edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Gardner, J. et al. (1995). Your first-year experience: Success strategies for Canadian students. Toronto: Nelson.

If you need more essay writing help, check out the sites below:

Guide to Writing a Basic Essay
This site provides more detailed information about the process of writing an essay.

Checklist for Essay Tests 
The site above provides a good checklist of what to look for when proofreading an essay.



(March 10, 2002)

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