How to Write an Essay Following a Prompt

Students are often given prompts to write essays. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to prompts, some simple guidelines can help a student start on the right path to a good answer. Looking for key words, choosing a side and crafting a strong thesis are all steps toward satisfying the criteria of any prompt. Using an active voice and solid writing skills also help ensure writing success.

Essay Types

Although often overlapping, some common essays include analytical, argumentative, comparative, critical, descriptive, definitive, illustrative, instructive and narrative. Analytical essays break down subjects into core components and offer thorough examinations. Analyses are often used for literature, and the essayist might interpret theme, plot and symbolism in answer to a prompt. An argumentative essay stakes a claim on an issue and supports it, and a compare/contrast essay examines two or more topics for their similarities and differences. Critical essays are often used to examine a piece of art, a movie or a book as the writer discusses the merits of a work. Descriptive essays describe; definitive essays define. The illustrative essay makes a point by using examples. The instructive essay teaches readers how to do something. And a narrative essay tells a story; it's often used for book reports and creative writing.

Key Words

Prompts often hold clues about the sort of essay expected. By identifying key words in the prompt, students can discern whether they’re being called on to compare and contrast or to stake an argumentative claim to defend a position. Prompts sometimes use the specific terms from the above essay types. However, other words send clues as to the type of essay expected. For example, the word “tell” is often a prompt for a narrative, as in, “Tell me about a time you found success.” The word “persuade” hints at an argumentative essay, just as the word “senses,” as in “use your senses,” would likely trigger a descriptive response.

Prompt Intent and Audience

Following a prompt requires considering its intent, content and audience. A question such as, “How was the earth formed?” would likely result in different responses in a science course and a philosophy course. Students need to consider not only what they are being asked, but also why and by whom. College application prompts often ask students to describe a personal hero. In these cases, the office of admissions is not looking to learn about Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. Rather, the school is seeking clues as to whom an applicant considers a worthwhile hero and why. It is trying to learn about the student, not the hero.


Students can use outlines, concept maps and Venn diagrams to help keep essays focused and well-structured. Once a student understands the basic questions being asked, she should ask a few of her own -- who, what, where, when, why, how -- and then be certain to hit all those points. She should also divide the essay into an introduction, body and conclusion, and write clearly and concisely and edit before considering the work complete.