It is sometimes said that the difference between a good grade and a great one is the difference between someone who sees key words and charges with an answer, and someone who takes the time to read the question 2 or 3 times to make sure they understand it. This can happen with exams, quizzes and even essays. To help clarify this issue, here is a list of critical directive words for essays that will appear in the instructions for your assignments frequently. Understanding them and following through may make all the difference in the world.


“Let me explain. No.. wait. Explain take too much time. Let me sum-up.” –Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.
Like the man says, to summarize is not to fully explain something. It is to cover the main points and relationships of a concept, leaving the nuances and subtle details for another project. Very often students are asked to summarize something before giving a critique or analysis and they take up all their time going into unnecessary details. When you see this word, it is cue to touch on the main points and move on.

Compare & Contrast

This sentence, in an ongoing effort to shed light on the meaning of its concepts, relies heavily upon an excessive amount of text. In contrast, this one uses brevity.
See what we did there? When you are asked to compare and contrast two things, you don’t have to invent really fascinating similarities and differences, you just have to point out what they are. Compare and contrast chocolate and vanilla, and you won’t be rocking anyone’s world. If, however, you make a point about one and then the other, being sure to use phrases like, “by contrast”, “in comparison”, “on the other hand,” etc, you will be accomplishing your goal.


Well, given our first example, this one should be easy. When you are asked to explain something, make sure you give all the important details so that someone reading it could turn around and explain it to someone else.


Ask somebody to justify why they deserve a discount at their favourite store and they’ll get the concept right quick. Ask them to justify a written opinion and it might take a bit more prodding! Remember that when you are asked to justify something in an essay, you are asked to explain why you selected the answer you did. Be convincing, just like you were going for a discount on your favourite jeans.


This one can sometimes need a bit of clarification. To criticize in academic work is not the same thing as that one relative you have who spends all Christmas day criticizing what everyone else is wearing! It means be critical in how you think about it. Don’t just say it’s nice or not nice, but be precise in finding details from whatever is being criticized, and talk clearly about what those details bring to the idea or project. A written criticism or a critique does not have to be negative or diminishing of the idea; it simply needs to make an argument about its value, and back it up with details.

If there is a quick lesson in this it may be to pay attention to detail, particularly the little words that may seem unimportant in questions and instructions, as they often make the difference between ‘very good’, and ‘excellent’ work.