Responding Effectively to Essay Assignments

Learning Objectives:

  • Select an appropriate essay structure and format to effectively respond to college-level writing assignments.
  • Develop a thesis statement in response to an essay question to show understanding of a reading or class lecture.

It is possible to develop a well-written essayA short piece of writing that focuses on at least one main idea. Some essays are also focused on the author's unique point of view, making them personal or autobiographical, while others are focused on a particular literary, scientific, or political subject. for a college class and still make a poor grade if the essay does not properly respond to the promptInstructions for a writing assignment given by an instructor. that you were given. To make sure that you do not waste time and effort, you need to be able to translate the essay questions that you will encounter in any college writing assignments.

In this lesson, you will learn the four steps to properly respond to college writing assignments and how to develop effective thesis statementsA brief statement that identifies a writer's thoughts, opinions, or conclusions about a topic. Thesis statements bring unity to a piece of writing, giving it a focus and a purpose. You can use three questions to help form a thesis statement: What is my topic? What am I trying to say about that topic? Why is this important to me or my reader? in response to those assignments.

Step 1: Understand the question type.

It is important to recognize what an essay question is asking. It is helpful to recognize the four major categories of essay questions: summarizingTo give a short version of the main points of a text., explaining relationships, applying previously learned principlesA fundamental belief that guides a person's behavior, or a law that describes the occurrence of natural phenomena., and expressing your opinionPoint of view that shows a personal belief or bias and cannot be proven to be completely true..

Here are examples of each major category of essay questions.

Summarizing essay question:

In your own words, summarize the plot of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Explaining relationships essay question:

What is/are the relationship(s) between human personalities and their choice of pet? For example, what are the commonalities among people who adopt dogs versus cats or birds?

Applying learned principles essay question:

Applying the previously learned principles of bioethics—beneficence (of benefit to the patient), nonmaleficence (doing no harm), justice (fairness), and autonomy (the right to make one's own decisions)—is it ethical for people to refuse vaccinations?

Expressing your opinion essay question:

In your opinion, should all cities provide varied forms of public transportation systems? Why or why not?

Step 2: Identify the keywords.

If you can look closely at the language used in the essay question, you will know what your instructor is asking of you. KeywordsWords that are important to understanding the meaning of a passage or reading. like state and list indicate that you should summarize material while criticize or thoughts suggest that you should express your opinion.

Step 3: Identify the essay structure.

Once you have identified the question type and keywords, you will understand how to identify the type of essay you need to write. For example, if you are asked to discuss the consequences of a situation, you should write an essay that looks into the effects of that situation, so you might choose to write a cause and effect essayAn examination of the relationship between why and/or how something happened. Causes, which are usually events or actions, lead to effects, or the consequences of those causes.. Other types of essay structures include definitionA writing that explains a term or concept using a variety of techniques such as research, statistics, historical and popular references, comparisons, abstractions, and other ideas., compare and contrastA written discussion of both the similarities and differences between people, objects, or ideas. This type of essay shows how things are alike in some ways (compare) as well as how they are different in other ways (contrast)., analysisTo analyze is to make a thoughtful and detailed study of something. An analysis is the end result of analyzing., and argument/persuasionA writing that takes a position for or against something and tries to convince the reader to accept the same view. Also called a persuasion essay..

Step 4: Develop your thesis statement.

Finally, develop your thesis statement. Consider using wording from the question in your thesis. For example, if the essay question reads, "Outline the stages of mitosis," your thesis might begin, "There are six stages in mitosis..."

Below is a chart that outlines the four major question types, the possible keywords used in the prompts, the corresponding organizational structure, and sample prompts and thesis statements.

Question Type


Essay structure

Sample Prompt

Sample thesis statement


trace, state, review, outline, list, enumerate

Summarize/ restate the material


Definition and example


List the major steps in the rock cycle.

There are three major steps in the rock cycle—metamorphic, igneous, and sedimentary.

Explain relationships

compare, contrast, relate, explain, discuss

Compare/ contrast




Discuss the relationship between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Senate and the House of Representatives have a symbiotic relationship—one could not exist without the other as evidenced in four particular situations.

Apply previously learned principles.


Transfer principles learned in the course to another situation.

explain, prove, illustrate, justify, show, analyze, evaluate


In 2011, a Cezanne painting, The Card Players, sold for more than $250 million. Explain why the painting sold for more than any other painting, even accounting for inflation.

The age, complexity, and provenance of Cezanne's The Card Players justifies the high price it fetched in 2011.

Express your opinion

criticize, opinion, think, feel


What time do you think the school day should begin?

There are three reasons why the school day should not start before nine o'clock in the morning.