Exam essentials: Understanding command words used in exam questions

This article was first published on 29 January 2019

You may have revised all your subject content, but do you know exactly what the question is asking you to do? For example what's the difference between 'compare' and 'contrast'?

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Read your question carefully and make a mental note of the command words being used

  • Notice the number of marks the question is worth. This is a good indication of how much time to spend on the question

  • Look at past papers. Familiarise yourself with how examiners write questions and the answers that are required.

Mr Moore explains the meaning of command words

The meanings of exam words

Command words like 'identify' or 'explain' are often used in exam questions. These command words are instructions for how to answer a question, so it is important you know the meanings of these words.

Discuss - Write about a topic in detail, taking into account different ideas, and where appropriate different opinions.

Describe - Give an accurate and factual account

Compare - Look closely at two or more things and look at the similarities and differences

Contrast - Look at two things and focus on the differences

Explain - Explain how or why something happened.


  • Use the marks of a question as a guide for how much information to write.

  • Past papers are a good way to familiarise yourself with how examiners write questions and the command words that are likely to come up.

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