Answering the essay question: identifying and focusing on the topic

A colleague from the Business School at my university came to me the other day with a pile of essays that his students had written under exam conditions. Unfortunately, some  overseas students had scored quite low marks.  Many students had written quite a lot, but had not answered the question. There are lots of factors involved in answering the question, but one essential first step is IDENTIFYING THE TOPIC correctly.

Let’s take a look at an example essay question

Has the use of target costing in the car industry contributed to its collapse?

Now, stop! Don’t go away because you don’t know anything about target costing or the car industry! Neither do I. This post is useful anyway!

One way of identifying the topic of the essay question is to unpack the question. In order to answer this essay question what smaller questions do you need to ask? You can use the strategy of writing as many ‘mini questions’ as you can about the big essay question. Let’s try it with the question above:

1. What is target costing?

2. Is it used in the car industry?

3. How is it used in the car industry?

4. How serious are the problems in the car industry?

5. Is it fair to say there is a collapse in the car industry?

6. Did target costing help to cause the collapse?

7. What else has caused the collapse of the car industry?

Now look at all those questions! Now we’re getting towards a better understanding of the question. However, many students did not tackle many of these points. Guess which points most students wrote about? Yes, most of the students wrote all about TARGET COSTING. OK, that’s an important part of the question, but you need to think about target costing IN THE CAR INDUSTRY. This means relating what you know about target costing TO THE CAR INDUSTRY! This means giving real life examples of target costing IN THE CAR INDUSTRY.  What many students tended to do was give good theoretical information about target costing, without putting it in the context of the car industry. When you look at the questions 1 – 7 above lots of students answered the questions 1 – 3, and then stopped. It’s only doing half the job, you haven’t finished unpacking and you’ve left half your clothes in your suitcase! If you finish unpacking properly you will see all the smaller questions that your essay should address. After unpacking your essay title it is essential to take time to plan your essay and I’ll say some things about that in my next post.

I’ll leave you with these ideas about understanding essay titles from Andy Gillett’s UEFAP site. Follow the link and go to QUESTIONS in the left hand menu. This is the most comprehensive look at essay question vocabulary (examine, account for, explain, assess etc) that I have seen. It’s here.