A Quick Guide to Answering Different Types of Essay Questions I Oxford Open Learning
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A Quick Guide to Answering Different Types of Essay Questions

There are many acronyms, such as PPE (Point, Evidence and Explanation), that can help you craft the perfect essay. And whilst it is not always suitable to take a strict formulaic approach, they are certainly useful to help ensure you meet all of your assessment objectives.

However, acronyms are useless if you do not understand the exam question in the first place!

Here is a quick guide to some of the common types of essay questions.

The first thing you should do is…

A strategy I suggest all of my students is to underline the key words in a question.

This not only helps you understand the question, but also ensures you stay focused on answering it. It is especially useful when you have two questions disguised as one.

Here is an example:

Starting with this speech, explain how far you think Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as a powerful woman.

What are the key words here?  I would identify them as:

  • Explain
  • How far
  • You think
  • Lady Macbeth
  • Powerful woman

This helps you break down the question.  You need to:

  • Explain – make detailed points that are backed up by evidence (quotations)
  • How far – are there any ways in which he doesn’t present her as a powerful woman?  Or is her character used to represent power?  Are there any other characters who are powerful?  How do they compare?
  • You think – avoid absolute statements like “This means that…”.  Instead, explore alternative interpretations and ideas using words like “I think”, “This suggests”, “Perhaps”, and so on.
  • Lady Macbeth – this character should be the focus of your essay but, you should use your understanding of the plot, themes and other characters to frame your analysis of her.
  • Powerful woman – this is the character trait you must focus on. Even if you digress, bring  your point back to this.

Different types of questions

Essays typically have a few key words that they stick to. Let’s look at them and what they mean.


Many find this the hardest. It requires you to discuss the similarities and differences between the two sources that the essay question refers to.

A good strategy is to formulate paragraphs that start talking about one source, followed by the other. Your concluding sentences can be used to tie them together. Or, you can start with words like ‘both’ to explain a similarity’, followed by ‘having said that’ to describe a difference.

When planning a ‘compare’ essay, it is helpful to create a similarity and difference table.


These questions can feel quite open ended. To ensure that you don’t digress away from the main focus of the question, use my strategy to underline keywords.

‘Discuss’ questions require you to explore and analyse with a focus.

Usually they want you to explore different theories, interpretations and opinions such as, “I think that…because…”; “…however, some may interpret this as…”.


This is usually followed by words like ‘how’ or ‘the ways in which’.  So, although they are quite open-ended like ‘discuss’ questions, you will find that the wording of the question will guide you.

‘Explain’ questions require an in-depth exploration of a topic or theme. Although you may demonstrate your understanding and analytical skills by including other topics or themes, the focus of your essay should be threaded throughout it.


These questions are not much different to the other types of questions. This is because the other types still require you to describe the ‘how’ – for instance, writer’s methods, language choices etc. They also require you to provide evidence from the text and apply your understanding to answer the question.

All in all, whatever the type of essay question, you will need to apply the same skills. They all involve an exploration of a topic or theme and need you to analyse different interpretations. The only difference between them is the wording and structure you choose for your essay.

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Sumantha is an education and training specialist with over ten years' experience in developing and delivering adult and secondary level education. Her professional journey includes a six-year stint as a secondary school teacher. She is currently a freelance content writer and learning and development consultant. Sumantha also has a portfolio of private students who she teaches up to GCSE level.

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