The Writing Center

Understanding Your Instructor’s Prompt

Most essay prompts include key words. Learning to “decode” these key words can clarify your writing goals for any particular assignment. Key words can also suggest the details your essay should include and strategies for how you might organize your paper. It is helpful to read your assignment prompt carefully, underline key words, and refer back to the assignment prompt as you outline, draft, and finish your essay to keep yourself on track. Finally, before turning in your assignment, be sure to check that your assignment is fulfilling all of the prompt’s requirements. Note: After you have read your prompt carefully, underlining key words, if you still feel uncertain or have questions be sure to have a conversation with your professor to clarify.

Keyword Writing Goal What does it mean?
Similarities, Differences Compare and/or contrast  Look for similar and dissimilar ideas in your material. Why is each point important? What do these similarities and differences tell you about the subject’s ideas? 
Evaluate Rate or make a judgment  Use evidence and logic to prove whether your subject or material is strong or weak, valuable or invaluable, significant or insignificant. How does this evaluation change one’s understanding?
Summarize Describe, Explain Write about the most important aspects of the topic. Optional: give background information, content information, and analysis as necessary. 
Discuss Provide an extended description, explanation or analysis, including illustrations or details Your prompt is asking you to observe, unpack, and talk about a certain topic or aspect of the topic. Begin by deciding how you will approach the topic, or what exactly you want to say about the topic. Once you have your "angle," focus your argument on validating this angle while still keeping other opinions in the mix as counterarguments.
Interpret Decode, decipher, convey the meaning of Translate what something means. What do you understand the material’s message to be? What details helped you come to that conclusion? Why is it important to understand it in that way?
Argue Persuade, convince Take a stance towards an issue and write to convince your audience of your viewpoint.

*What you will need to do for analysis depends on the discipline
Examine, Think critically   Critically consider the material by looking closely at all elements of the text you are writing about. Provide a detailed discussion of the material. This might be where a professional and logical critique comes into your writing. 
Reflect Connect to personal experience Write about the material and connect it back to a personal experience so that a general audience can relate and understand.

Example prompts and explanations 

Reflect on Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

  • What does the speech mean to you? What personal experiences have you had that connect you to the speech? 

Analyze the characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the context of modern feminism.

  • How do the characters represent the different ideals of modern feminism? How does that relate to the male characters? What evidence from the text leads you to these conclusions?

Describe photosynthesis.

  • What is photosynthesis? Why is it important? If necessary, describe how the process was discovered (and by whom). 

Argue against the recent Supreme Court decision that reversed DC’s ban on handguns.

  • Why was the Supreme Court wrong in their decision? What evidence – from texts, the Constitution, current events, and prior legal cases – prove that the Court should have made the opposite decision?

Contrast Freud’s views on dreams with Jung’s.

  • How are Freud’s and Jung’s ideas different? 

Interpret J.K. Rowling’s decision to end the Harry Potter series by writing about the characters 19 years into the future.

  • Why do you think the author ended the series by writing into the future? If she had remained in the present, what effect would that have had on the series? What questions raised by the series are answered by the author’s decision?
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