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Understand the assignment

Before you can start thinking about the process of organizing, researching, and writing an essay, the first thing to ask is this: Do you understand the assignment? It will be extremely difficult for you to achieve the objectives of the assignment if you don't understand what those objectives are.

Assignment descriptions usually contain a lot of information. Often, there is a preamble that establishes the context for the assignment, the actual directions, and then suggested areas of consideration or additional information. As you write more essays, you will develop the skill of understanding what is being asked of you, but when you're first writing papers, deciphering the instructions can sometimes be challenging. To help you break the assignment down, please try the following steps:

1. Identify the verbs in the instructions.

What are you being asked to do? For example, are you supposed to analyze, consider, compare, reflect, argue, or explain? Recognizing the verbs will help you to determine the type of paper you have to write, such as a personal reflective piece or an analytical or argumentative essay. For more information on how to identify the type of essay your professor expects, as well as information on four essay types, please see Types of essays.

2. Identify the key terms.

You have identified the verbs, but now you need to know what you're going to do with those action words. For example, are you supposed to analyze a theory? Apply a philosophy? Compare ideas? Reflect on an experience? Argue a stance? Explain a position?

The assignment description will provide keywords as cues for the direction you should take. Focus on those key words to assist you with developing the framework of what you need to deliver.

3. Consider the practical instructions for the assignment:

How many words/pages are expected?

Are there specific expectations regarding formatting and referencing sources, as laid out in a style guide such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th edition) and/or as per school expectations (e.g., School of Business formatting standards for written assignments)?

How many resources should you refer to in your paper? Should they be course texts, or should you be using other research? Are you restricted to scholarly literature, or can you also use popular sources?

What is the deadline for your assignment? For help with budgeting your time to complete the assignment, check out the assignment calculator.

Has your instructor provided the learning outcomes for the assignment? Use the description(s) of the outcomes to give you direction in your writing process.

4. Consider all this information within the framework of the expectations for academic writing.

If you're new to academic writing, or it's been a while since you've been in school, please avail yourself of the resources on the general characteristics of academic writing.

Want more information?

Please click on LEAD personal leadership challenge essay (personal reflective essay) and/or DEMN linking research with practice to see two practical examples of how these steps can help to break down an assignment question to its essential elements.

If you're still unclear about the assignment expectations, please speak with your professor.

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