How to Dissect a Prompt

  • Look for key words on how the prompt wants to be answered:
    • Compare/Contrast – remember, compare means find similarities and contrast means find differences, and it’s always good to talk about both in an essay
      • Ex: Compare and contrast King Henry VIII to King Louis XVI.
    • Change over Time – make sure the difference from the beginning of the time period and the end is clear, and explain why/how
      • Ex: Describe how social media has changed over the past ten years.
    • To what extent – generally leads to theses with “level” words, including “drastically,” “slightly,” “minimally,” “completely,” etc.
      • Ex: To what extent was Hamlet truly “mad”?
    • Show/Explain/Describe How… – usually the prompt comes with some assertion following those words, basically giving you your thesis.
      • Example: “Please show how the author’s manipulation of time in A Separate Peace contributes to the effectiveness of the work as a whole.


  • Is the prompt asking you to regurgitate and manipulate facts?
    • Start with the background: Who/What/When/Where/Why/How?
    • Dig deeper:
      • What are the motivations for events and actions?
      • Who was involved and why?
      • What’s missing or doesn’t make sense?
      • What are the bigger implications for the time?
      • Where are the connections between events/ideas/people/actions?


  • OR is the prompt asking you to come up with your own idea?
    • Refer back to your notes.
    • Do you agree/disagree with the idea in the prompt? Why or why not?



Prompt: Choose a complex and important character form A Separate Peace who might – on the basis of the character’s actions alone – be considered evil or immoral. In a well-organized essay, explain both how and why the full presentation of the character makes us react more sympathetically than we otherwise might.

Dissected Prompt:

Key words: actions alone, evil or immoral, how and why, full presentation of the character, audience reacts more sympathetically than otherwise might.

Things to Do:

  • Identify a main character who could be considered evil/immoral based on his/her actions.
  • Define the full presentation of that character. (does the audience know things about the character other characters don’t know? etc.)
  • Identify the audience’s reaction to the character. Why is it abnormal?
  • Analyze how and why the presentation leads to the abnormal reaction.

Possible Thesis:

While readers may be tempted to judge Gene based on _______, a fuller presentation of the reasons and motivations for his behavior may allow a reader some wiggle room to have greater sympathy for his actions and subsequent loss of innocence.