Homework Hack: How To Answer These Common Essay Prompts

An important part of being a superstar student is knowing how to convincingly answer the kinds of short answer and essay questions that teachers and professors love to ask. Quality answers depend on your understanding of the question and your ability to write a clear, straightforward response.

Whether you're in AP US Government, Psychology 101, or Intro to Shakespeare, there are some homework prompts that come up over and over again. To help you answer these questions, we've analyzed the common language you will find in these prompts. We've also given you some methods for answering them effectively (you're welcome).

cause and effect

Many homework prompts ask you to describe the cause or the effect of something—an event, an idea, or even a writing approach. These questions look something like:

  • What were the causes of the American Civil War?
  • What is the effect created by the tone of the dialogue?
  • What was the effect of studying on good grades?

When you're faced with a homework prompt about cause or effect, start by listing the relevant causes or effects that you know of. There can be just one, or more than one. Something like:

"Students who study often get better grades than those who don't study, though they also report being more tired from schoolwork."

Then, you have to give evidence to back up each of your claims. For example, you might describe a research study on this topic, quote a textbook or article, or even add a personal anecdote to back up your ideas. If you're working on an essay, we recommend giving each of those claims and its evidence its own paragraph.

Speaking of evidence and examples …

evidence, examples, and reasons

A claim without something to back it up doesn't show what you know. Even if you're writing an opinion essay, you have to make sure you use details to support what you're saying.

There are a lot of different ways that teachers or professors try to get you to explain yourself. They might use language like:

  • Provide evidence to back up your claim.
  • Give at least three examples.
  • Be sure to explain your reasons in detail.

Giving examples isn't optional if you want to have a strong answer. We recommend going back to the source materials—whether it’s a historical document, a piece of literature, or a scientific study—to pick out details that support your claims. If you can't come up with at least one detail to back up each claim, go back to the drawing board and come up with something else.

To present your evidence, you can use transition words or phrases like:

  • For example,
  • In fact,
  • According to experts,

A complete sentence backing up your idea might look something like:

"According to experts, you should use the dictionary to look up words you're unfamiliar with."

position, perspective, and opinion

Sometimes, you might not even realize a short answer or essay question is asking you to give your educated opinion or perspective. Particularly when writing an opinion or persuasive essay, a prompt might say something like:

  • What is your position concerning pet ownership?
  • State your position.

For the record, state your position isn't a prompt asking you for your physical location. You're being asked to state what you think about a particular topic or issue. But don't be deceived—even though a position on something can be an opinion, it doesn't mean you can get out of giving evidence, examples, or reasoning to back up your argument. You can't just write "My position on pets is that everyone should have one." You have to back it up, like so:

"Everyone should have a pet, because they provide comfort, teach responsibility, and are a good way to learn about animal science."

Pro tip: it's a bit awkward to say "My position is___." Since you're the one writing the response, the fact that it's your position is implied.

analyze

At the heart of many homework prompts is the word analyze. But what does analyze really mean?

When you analyze an idea, an argument, or anything else, you have to complete a few different steps, depending on the context:

  • separate and explain distinct parts of something
  • identify the essential elements of something
  • examine something in detail to reveal its causes, key factors, and other important elements

This might seem daunting, but it's actually something you do all the time in daily life. For example, if you're analyzing Kylie Jenner's Instagram, you might do something like:

  • explain who Kylie Jenner is and what Instagram is
  • identify what is important about Kylie Jenner's Instagram
  • give details explaining what the common themes of her Instagram posts are and what they tell you about her

Oh, you didn't get an assignment on Kylie Jenner's Instagram? Good news! You can use the same three-step analysis process for many things, from Wordsworth's poetry to the American Revolution to B. F. Skinner's experiments.

compare and contrast

Another common short answer or essay prompt is known as compare and contrast. This is a slightly fancier way of saying similarities and differences.

Any number of topics, subjects, or ideas can be compared and contrasted. Some sample prompts you might come across are:

  • Compare and contrast pizza and hot dogs.
  • What are the similarities and differences between Facebook and TikTok?
  • How are chimpanzees and bonobos similar? How are they different?

Before you get started writing an answer to this question, you might want to take a minute to create a Venn diagram. This can help you clarify what is similar and different about each of the topics and will help you organize your essay.

to what extent

Oftentimes the best writing is not a matter of outlining the broad ideas or notions on a topic. An advanced student is able to weigh different ideas against one another and consider the nuances of different arguments. To get to that kind of argument, teachers or professors will use the prompt to what extent. For example:

  • To what extent did Americans support the war in Vietnam?
  • To what extent is Falstaff a comic figure in Shakespeare?
  • To what extent has psychology moved away from using Freudian theory?

When you come across a to what extent question, you're being asked not only about whether you agree with the claim but to what degree the claim is accurate. In other words, how important is this factor? You might want to use a formula similar to these to frame your thesis statement(s):

  • ____ was important because … but its effect was limited because …
  • ____ had a large degree of influence on ____. However, …
  • ____ impacted ____ to a great/small extent because …

Whether you use these sentence starters or not, the most important thing to remember about the to what extent question is that it's not asking you to compare or contrast or whether you agree or disagree. It's asking you to analyze something with more nuance than that.

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