Understanding the Assigned Topic Help (page 2)
Understanding the Assigned Topic
This lesson explains how to break down an assignment to understand exactly what is required.
Whether you like the freedom of choosing your own topic or prefer to have the topic chosen for you, one thing is certain: If you are writing an essay for a college application, the SAT or ACT, an AP Exam, or a high school course, you must fulfill the assignment. If the assignment asks you to write about a particular issue—year-round school, for example—you can't expect to succeed if you write about the need for campaign finance reform. On the SAT, failure to address the topic is grounds for a score of zero— no matter how well you wrote your essay.
Even the most open-ended essay assignments have guidelines that must be followed. There may be a specific issue to address, an approach to take, or a length requirement to fulfill. When the assignment isn't open ended, there are even more constraints. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Assignments give you a framework within which to work. That framework can not only guide you through the writing process, but can also eliminate the time you would otherwise spend deciding on a suitable topic.
Fulfilling the Assignment
The essay assignments found on college applications, AP Exams, and the SAT and ACT are the product of considerable study and research. They are designed to elicit essays that fulfill a specific need. Colleges need to know more about you in order to make admissions decisions, so they ask you to write about personal issues. The ACT and SAT writing tests are designed to give colleges and universities a better idea of your writing aptitude. Even your high school teacher, when he or she hands out an essay assignment, is looking for something specific.
You may think that writing about something other than what's assigned portrays you as an independent thinker, someone who can come up with ideas and doesn't need to be told what to do. But that's not the message you'd be sending. If you're doing your own thing and avoiding the topic, you're telling your readers that you don't care about what they want, you don't understand the topic, or you don't know enough about the assigned material to write about it.
Fulfilling the assignment, on the other hand, sends a positive message to readers. It tells them that:
- You know how to follow directions.
- You can handle the subject matter.
- You can meet the challenge presented to you.
Additionally, in timed situations, fulfilling the assignment shows that:
- You can organize your thoughts about a specific topic while under pressure.
Understanding the Assignment
In order to fulfill the assignment, you must understand exactly what the assignment is asking you to do. While this sounds simple, consider that many essay assignments aren't obvious. What does it mean, for example, to "discuss" an experience? How are you supposed to "analyze" an issue?
Breaking Down the Assignment
To comprehend an assignment, you need to understand the following:
- What you are to respond to (the topic)
- How you are to respond to it
In some cases, there may be more than one topic and more than one way you are supposed to respond. To find out the expectations, break down the assignment. First, underline the words that describe the topic. Then, circle all of the words that tell you how to respond. These "direction words" include analyze, describe, discuss, explain, evaluate, identify, illustrate, and argue.
For example, here is a writing assignment from an AP Biology exam:
Describe the chemical nature of genes. Discuss the replicative process of DNA in eukaryotic organisms. Be sure to include the various types of gene mutations that can occur during replication.
By breaking down the assignment, you can identify three subjects, each with its own direction word. The subjects are underlined and the direction words are circled:
the chemical nature of genes. the replicative process of DNA in eukaryotic organisms. Be sure to the various types of gene mutations that can occur during replication.
To help make the assignment even more manageable, break down the two parts (topic and direction words) into a simple chart:
To completely fulfill the assignment, you must cover all three of these subjects in the manner in which the assignment dictates.
When the Assignment Is a Question
In some assignments, you are given questions instead of direction words. Here's an example:
What were the issues, successes, and failures of the Civil Rights movement from the 1960s through the 1970s?
Notice that there are no direction words. For this type of essay prompt, you will need to determine the word or words yourself. Reread the question, paying careful attention to each word. Notice it begins with What were. This is a good clue that you should identify the issues, successes, and failures.
Translating questions into directions can be tricky, but it's a critical step in understanding the prompt. You need to determine exactly how you're supposed to respond to the subject. The following chart lists common question words and corresponding direction words.
Understanding Direction Words
You've broken down the assignment and isolated the direction words. But what do those direction words really mean? In the following table, you'll find the most common essay direction words and their explanations.
Here are a couple of examples:
Compare and contrast prohibition and the current anti-tobacco movement
This assignment gives you two direction words: compare and contrast. Therefore, you should locate and discuss the similarities and differences between the two subjects (prohibition and the anti-tobacco movement).
Rousseau offers judgments about the relative goodness and badness of life as a savage and of life in society. Assess the validity of these judgments. What arguments does he provide to support them? Are they sound arguments?
The explicit direction word in this assignment is assess. The implied direction word for the first question "What arguments does he provide to support them?" is identify. The implied direction word for the second question "Are they sound arguments?" is evaluate. For this assignment, you are expected to:
- Assess the validity and soundness of Rousseau's judgments.
- Identify the arguments he uses to support his judgments.
- Evaluate the strengths and/or weaknesses of his argument.
For every writing situation you encounter, you must fulfill the requirements of the assignment. Break down the assignment into its parts. Identify the subjects you must cover and the direction words that tell you how to address those subjects. Then you can proceed by writing an essay that meets your evaluator's expectations.
Exercises for this topic can be found at Understanding the Assigned Topic Practice.
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