Clue Words in Exams

What are clue words?

In exams featuring essay or short-answer questions, most questions contain a clue word.

Clue words are the words that the lecturer uses to indicate the angle to take when you answer the question. Clue words tell you exactly what to do in an essay, so they are extremely important in essay exams.

Finding clue words in exam questions

An exam is like a mental game in which the lecturers tell you what they want. To play the game successfully, you need to be aware of the precise wording of questions and the precise meanings of the clue words. Once you have found the clue words and worked out exactly what they mean, you can answer the question correctly.

Exam question: Compare the goals of liberal and socialist feminism

Clue word: The clue word in this question is compare.

If the question asked you to "Evaluate the goals of...", a completely different answer would be required.

Below is a list of the most common clue words and their meanings in exam questions to help you prepare for essay exams. Because the list is long, it is a good idea to read through past exam papers to familiarise yourself with the most commonly used clue words in your discipline. Many schools have past exam papers in the library.

Table of clue words for exams 

Clue word  Meaning
Analyse To find the main ideas, how they are related and why they are important. 
Comment on To discuss, criticise, or explain its meaning as completely as possible.
Compare To show both the differences and the similarities. 
Contrast To compare by showing the differences. 
Criticise To give your judgement or reasoned opinion of something, showing its good and bad points.  However, it is not necessary to attack. 
Define To give the formal meaning by distinguishing it from related terms. This is often a matter of giving a memorised definition. 
Describe To write a detailed account or verbal picture in a logical sequence or story form. 
Diagram To make a graph, chart or drawing. Be sure to label it and add a brief explanation if necessary. 
Discuss To present arguments for and against a point of view and reach a conclusion. The arguments must be supported with appropriate evidence. 
Enumerate To list—name and list the main ideas one by one. 
Evaluate To give an opinion, supported by some expert opinions, of the truth or importance of a concept. Show the advantages and disadvantages. 
Illustrate To explain or make clear by concrete examples, comparisons or analogies. 
Interpret To give the meaning using examples and personal comments to make something clear. 
Justify To give a statement of why you think something is so. Give reasons for your statement or conclusion. 
List To produce a list of words, sentences or comments; same meaning as enumerate. 
Outline To give a general summary. It should contain a series of main ideas supported by secondary facts. Show the organisation of the idea. 
Prove To show by argument or logic that something is true. However, the word 'prove' has a very specific meaning in maths and physics. 
Relate To show the connection between things, telling how one causes or is like another. 
Review To give a survey or summary in which you look at the important parts and criticise if necessary.
State To describe the main points in precise terms. Use brief, clear sentences. Omit details or examples.  
Summarise To give a brief, condensed account of the main ideas. 
Trace To follow the progress or history of the subject.
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