Key Words for Essays

The following words are commonly found in essay tests. Understanding them is essential to success on these tests.

Analyze – Break into separate parts and discuss, examine, or interpret each part.


Compare – Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences.

Contrast – Show differences. Set in opposition.

Criticize – Make judgments. Evaluate comparative worth. This often involves analysis.

Define – Give the meaning, usually a meaning specific to a subject. Definitions are usually short.

Describe – Give a detailed account. Make a picture with words. List characteristics, qualities, and parts.

Discuss – Consider and debate the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and contrast.

Enumerate – List several ideas, aspects, events, things, qualities, reasons, etc.

Evaluate – Give your opinion or cite the opinions of experts. Include evidence to support the evaluation..

Explain – Make an idea clear. Show logically how an idea is developed.

Illustrate – Give concrete examples. Explain with word pictures.

Interpret – Comment upon, give examples, and describe relationships. Explain the meaning, and then evaluate.

Outline – Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events. (not necessarily with Roman numerals and/or letters).

Prove – Support with facts (especially those from class or the text).

State – Explain precisely.

Summarize – Give a brief, condensed account. Avoid unnecessary details. Include conclusions.

Trace – Show the order of events or progress of a subject or event.

Adapted from Becoming A Master Student by David B. Ellis.


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