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Certain Keywords Used in Essay Tests

There are certain key words that commonly appear in essay questions. You should make sure that you understand the intent of these words or phrases.

Compare and contrast. The first key word, compare, means to indicate the similarities between two concepts or things. For example, "compare a passenger car to a pickup truck" means how is a passenger car like a pickup truck? You might write that both are types of transportation. Both require gasoline. Both are operated on public roads ...

When asked to contrast two concepts, you should write how two items are dissimilar. For example, a car is more comfortable than a truck. A car is more economical than a truck. A car carries more passengers than a truck. A car carries less cargo than a truck...

List or classify. These terms usually require that you identify, list or enumerate points or items. For example, "Identify the principal elements of a legal, binding contract," would probably cause you to enumerate several items, usually in some type of numerical order.

Generally, this type of essay question simply asks for recall of specific items. It's as if you're making a shopping list. No explanations or descriptions are necessary -- just provide the required list of items.

Describe or discuss. These words tell you that you are to provide specific or detailed information about the topic. For example, "Discuss the impact of third-party candidates on presidential elections." Here, your job is not to list items or compare or contrast, but rather to describe and discuss in detail the effects of third-party candidates on the presidential electoral process.

This type of question could require you to write several paragraphs or pages on the subject. For example, you might write a paragraph on the effects of third-party candidates on the Democrats, the Republicans, the Electoral College, the polls, the general public, voters in large industrial areas and voters in rural areas.