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Choosing the correct structure for your essay question

Understanding essay questions and deciding on appropriate structures.
© University of Reading

In this Step you are going to look at essay questions and how responses to these questions can be structured.

Essays are written for different purposes, and the particular purpose will often determine the structure of the essay. For example, sometimes an essay question will ask you to describe something:

“Describe how human activities have caused a worldwide decline in biodiversity.”

In this situation you will still need to think carefully about the structure of your essay, how you organise your ideas, and which ideas you give priority to. The decisions you make will require an element of evaluation.

Another essay structure is that of situation, problem, solution and evaluation (SPSE). Here is an example question which would suggest a response following this structure:

“The population of the city of Dublin has grown dramatically in the past five years, and the number of cars on the road is causing serious traffic jams. What can the government do to alleviate this situation?”

You could use the SPSE structure in this case to write about a situation where a city is growing rapidly (situation), leading to an increased number of cars on the road (problem). Some solutions need to be proposed, and then evaluated. The structure of your essay would follow this order:

Situation: Describing the situation, Problem: outlining the problem, Solutions: considering some solutions, Evaluation: evaluating the solutions.

Compare and contrast is another essay structure, where you consider similarities and differences in a particular situation:

“Compare and contrast three measures that have been taken and used in storing milk in the dairy industry.”

You might start by looking at the similarities (comparing), then at the differences (contrasting). Or you could alternate, looking at one similarity, then at a difference.

Cause and effect is probably a structure you are familiar with, a structure also used in many disciplines. In science, for example, you might be expected to outline the causes of a particular phenomenon and then look at its effects, or in history discuss the causes of a war and the effect on a nation. Consider the following sample title:

“Nowadays people are moving to big cities to look for a better life. Describe the reasons for this and discuss how this may impact on cities.”

You could choose to structure your essay either in a block structure, that is, discussing all the causes first, and then the effects, or use a chain structure, discussing one cause, then its effect, before moving on to the next cause.

In the next Step, you will study the structure of Patrick’s essay in more detail. When you are ready, mark this Step as complete before you move on.

© University of Reading
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An Intermediate Guide to Writing in English for University Study

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