How She Can Tackle an Essay Question

photo-1444201716572-c60ec66d0494Essay questions for English and history class essays come in different flavors – level of complexity, type, etc. Here are some tips to help her get through the prompt effectively so she can devote the most time to the actual writing part.

Trying to write an essay with a prompt that confuses her is a very bad way to go. She should try to figure out words she doesn’t know. Some prompts are worded in a challenging way. In that case she could actually rewrite the question so that she has a clear sense of what’s being asking.

Example: Assess the effectiveness of socialism, anti-trust and unionism at the turn of the 20th century in America and how they each reflected central ideologies of the progressive movement.

Translated: Talk about the extent to which it is true that socialism (getting rid of poverty and injustice by fixing struggles between the classes), anti-trust (getting rid of big monopolies and corporate trusts) and unionism (improving conditions for workers) reached their goals. Also talk about how the key ideas of all three movements were lined up with getting rid of corruption through social and political change.

To help remember to hit all the parts, particularly in a time crunch for an in-class essay, it helps to number or underline each part he needs to answer.

Example of underlining: In a well organized essay, discuss how A Raisin in the Sun reexamines the American Dream. Consider issues like the systemic racism the Younger family faces and the ways their difficulties reflect the struggles of many African Americans to secure a safe home. Make sure to include at least two characters in your discussion, as well as a minimum of five quotes from the play.


It can help if he has a sense of how to organize and step through writing a particular kind of essay question. The list below is not complete, but it does have some common prompts that pop up.

1. Compare and contrast

Talk about the similarities and differences between characters, plot events, historical figures, cultural or philosophical movements, etc.

Example: Compare and contrast the areas of influence and leadership styles of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement.

This link to a printable PDF lays out the two types of compare and contrast essays, looking at how to outline and brainstorm for them.

2. Analyze several items

Choose 2 or 3 events or people from history or literary texts and discuss them.

Example: Discuss how Nathaniel Hawthorne uses symbolism to address issues of morality in three of his works.

Very helpful, detailed (but not overwhelming) link to a printable PDF about how to lay out an analytical essay prompt.

3. Critical lense

Discuss history or an English text from the perspective of a particular quote. Sometimes the prompt asks to agree or disagree with the quote, using the historical event or lit text.

Example: According to critic Northup Frye, “Tragic heroes are so much the high points in their human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power around them, great trees more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass. Conductors may of course be instruments as well as victims of the divisive lightning.” Select a novel or play in which a tragic figure functions as an instrument of the suffering of others. Then write an essay in which you explain how the suffering brought upon others by that figure contributes to the tragic vision of the work as a whole. (prompt source)

Try this link for how to lay out an “agree or disagree” critical lense essay.

More Useful sites
Essay terms explained – defines the key words used in essay prompts
Short list of literary terms – includes a short list of typical literary terms with examples
Long list of literary terms – defines all of them, also with examples

How He Can Study for an In-Class Essay
Pacing Herself When Writing In-Class


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