Archived (essays)

Understanding essay questions

Once you understand your question

Step 1: Ask yourself questions about the topic

What do you not understand? What controversies are there? What issues need discussing?

Throughout your research and reading, keep asking questions. You will find the answers in other people’s ideas and your own evaluation of them.

Example Question: 'Discuss British Imperialism in the South Asia up to World War II.'

Compile a list of questions for investigation such as:

  • What was the British Empire in South Asia prior to WWII?
  • What negative impact did this imperialism have in the region?
  • What positive impact did this imperialism have?
  • Were there noticeable differences in impact in different countries or areas?
  • For how long prior to WWII was there a British Empire in this region?
  • Are there any more specific time periods that would be better to focus on in terms of the impact of imperialism in this region?

Where can you find the answers? In your lecture notes? In particular books?

Step 2: Decide on a thesis statement

Form a thesis statement if your essay topic is two-sided, discursive, or argumentative, – a thesis statement is your own preferred opinion or position on the argument. You do not have to stay with this decision, but it will help give you focus in your reading.

Develop your own argument through a process like this:

Example Question: 'Evaluate James Smith’s essay writing strategies in the context of the British university system.'

  • The question asks you to ‘evaluate’ - are these 'writing strategies' useful or not?
  • pick out a thesis statement:
Position 1: Smith’s strategies allow for an elementary or Level 0 process for essay writing, but are not sufficient for the full academic standard required for success in British university assessment up to Level 3.

Position 2: Smith’s strategies allow a university student to start develop writing processes that allow them to write at the standard required for success in a British university.


Be prepared to change your opinion and thesis statement if your research leads you to believe otherwise.