Nov 29 2021

What is a Prompt in Writing an Essay

Adela Belin photo Adela Belin Content strategist and writer
Knowledge Cell

Essay prompts are typically a trigger for ideas regarding a topic or issue. It is something professors give students to get them to respond by writing an essay paper.

They are usually made up of 1 to 3 sentences giving some background on the topic, followed by a question. But the truth is that there are no rules or formats to a writing prompt, and it can be made up of anything.

Original: SourceIt can be a single word or even an image, and it is all up to the student’s interpretation of what they should write about. However, students are still expected to give well-formulated opinions supported by logical reasoning and facts from texts.

After all, the reason behind a college-level essay prompt is to test a student’s writing, reasoning, and critical thinking skills. That’s why to get an excellent score for your essay, you need to start by understanding the essay prompt.

How Do you Analyze a Writing Prompt

While great writing skills depend on time and practice to develop, how to analyze your writing prompt is an easy skill you can learn by the end of this guide.

All too often, good students receive a poor writing grade because they misunderstood the task and cannot successfully respond to the essay prompt.

Knowing what to write is not just a matter of comprehension, but instead dissecting the prompt quickly to formulate the answer needed to address the question.

X Questions to Ask Yourself while Reading

1. What is the purpose of the prompt

Why are you writing? When reading through your prompt, it’s essential to understand your subject and overall goal. Does the prompt want you to take a stand on an issue, or does it require you to compare two concepts?

Only after you’ve identified the purpose of the prompt do you start brainstorming what kind of details or arguments your essay needs and the points that would make a strong paragraph.

2. Highlight important keywords

Sometimes your prompt may have more than one requirement. When reading your prompt, highlight directive words in the statement like analyze, describe, argue, etc.

Each of these keywords has a different meaning and call for writing different types of essays.

For example, if your prompt asks you to analyze. Then, the idea is to write an analytical essay where you will need to break down the topic into its component parts and discuss each element and its relationship.

In fact, here are some of the most common keywords you should watch out for:

  • Argue - Present facts and reasonings that support your opinion;
  • Compare - Identify the similarities and differences between two or more ideas;
  • Contrast - Show the differences between two or more ideas;
  • Criticize - Make judgments and evaluations with analytical support;
  • Define - Give meaning to a specific concept or subject (may provide multiple definitions or an explanation of how it differs from others in the same category);
  • Describe - Give a detailed account of an event or characteristics of a specific person, place, or item (include sensory details to make it more engaging);
  • Discuss - Explain the various aspects of a topic or issue, and come to a conclusion;
  • Explain - Show cause and effect relationship by providing relevant details;
  • Prove - Show the truth of a statement using logic or experimentation;
  • Predict - Tell what you think will happen in the future with supporting evidence.

There are many more, and you can see more directive keywords and their explanations here.

Besides, there are times when the assignment does not explicitly state the task or use these keywords. In such cases, you need to look at the overall prompt to find the intention.

Take this essay prompt, for example:

Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton have differing views on the study of social systems. Discuss.

Here, instead of just explaining the various aspects of Parsons and Merton’s views, the word differing would also suggest the need to compare their two views.

3. Who is the audience of the essay

Who will read your writing? Some prompts will identify a specific audience, like asking you to write an essay for a parenting magazine or pretend you are telling the story to your friend.

When addressing a specific audience, always keep them in mind to inform your writing tone and style. In the scenario where a prompt does not identify an audience, assume that you are writing to your professor.

4. Are there any limits in the prompt

When analyzing your essay prompt, watch out for any limiting words that keep you focused on a particular aspect.

Some essay questions may give you special instructions, like asking you to discuss how the pandemic is affecting people from low socio-economic backgrounds. Follow these restrictions when formulating your arguments and evidence.

In some instances, you may even want to create your own limits. Because let’s say if you were to write an essay on the state of gender equality in Southeast Asia. It may be better to focus on one country, given that the situation can be very different between two countries like Singapore and Indonesia.

How to Answer an Essay Prompt

After you have analyzed your prompt, it’s time to brainstorm and plan for your essay writing.

First, develop a thesis statement to answer the overall question. Your thesis statement is your stance on the topic and should be the central idea of your whole essay.

Next, develop simple topic sentences to other aspects in your essay prompt, like reasons and examples, to make sure you cover all the requirements. Now organize them into an outline, and add facts, elaborations, and evidence to support your opinion to build a more substantial essay.

Once you are done, you can expand your writing and connect each sentence and paragraph with smooth transitions. Make sure you use an engaging hook in your introductory paragraph and summarize your ideas and thesis statement as a conclusion.

A quick tip if you are writing a timed essay --- you can practice writing against time by regularly answering different essay prompts. It will hone your analytical and writing skills while getting you comfortable with completing an essay within the time limit.

Often, essay questions are inspired by current events. So keeping up with mainstream news and happenings will let you know what is going around in the world and give you better ideas to discuss in your essay.

3 Examples of Writing Prompts

To truly help you understand what is a prompt in writing an essay, here’re some quick examples of college essay topics and how you should tackle them:

1. Identity is a set of qualities, beliefs, and expressions that make a person or group. Describe a facet of your identity, background, or story that is essential to who you are.

For this essay, you need to approach it with a combination of expository and narrative writing. While the only directive keyword here is “describe”, the essay prompt also has a statement talking about the concept of identity.

So set forth to explore the meaning of both personal and group identity. Use your personal narrative to investigate the concept of identity and explain clearly how qualities, beliefs, and expressions have shaped an essential part of who you are.

2. Recreational marijuana should be legal in all 50 states.

For this essay prompt, you need to take a stand. Do you support the legalization of recreational marijuana nationwide, or do you think it should be up to the state jurisdiction?

Whether you are for or against the cause, you need to build the strongest argument possible to win your readers over. Do some research on the topic and try to understand both sides of the issue. Because while you want to showcase your specific passions and reasonings behind your stance, a good persuasive essay shows why the writer’s opinion is correct and the problem with the opposing view.

3. Describe a problem you’ve solved in the past. It can be a challenging event, ethical dilemma, or anything of personal importance. Explain its significance to you and what are the steps you took to identify a solution.

For college application essays, the goal is to show admission officers who you are apart from your grades and test score. That’s why your answer to this question should focus on standing out from the crowd.

While choosing your challenging event may be a defining factor, it is never about how big a problem you overcame. Instead, colleges are looking at how the situation has shaped you. So demonstrate introspection and reflection in your college essay; show the thought process of how you realize the problem and find a solution to solve it.

Conclusion

If there is one takeaway, you should always start with analyzing your writing prompt before you begin writing.

And with that, we hope you have a better understanding of what is a prompt in writing an essay and the proper ways to analyze and answer them.

Next, let’s move on to learning about how to write a good introduction.

last edit at Jan 13 2022