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Short Answer Questions

Short Answer Questions Help

How to Write Short Answer Questions

Most students struggle when they take an exam due to a lack of preparation. But if you take the time to understand what the particular exam entails – whether it is a multiple-choice type or short essay questions – you can gain a major edge going into test day.

This particular article focuses on how to write short answer questions (SAQs) from the perspective of your professor's expectations. While every professor has their own particular ideas about how to answer short response questions, these short answer test tips should work in most cases.

Keep in mind that in order to succeed at any test, you should attend all lectures, take good notes, read all of the class materials, ask questions when something is unclear, and never wait until the night before the exam to start studying. If you develop good study habits, you will find yourself on the right track and ready to conquer any exam.

Let us take another look at the short-answer exam. To being with, a short-answer exam really is what it means: a series of short response questions that require a concise answer and nothing more. They can often be answered in a couple of words or a phrase, a short numerical answer, or even through a basic graph.

Some professors penalize their students if their answer is overly long. But most of them are more concerned with the answers being correct. When taking the exam, you want to use caution regarding length. If you take 5 sentences to answer a question that could easily be answered in 2, and any of that additional information is incorrect, you are certain to lose points. Rule of thumb: only include extra info if you are positive that it can improve your score.

Types of Test Questions

Now let us take a look at the six most common short-answer question prompts: define, explain, give an example, relate, calculate, make a graph. If you familiarize yourself with them, you can learn how to write short answer questions.


This is self-explanatory: all that is required is to provide a definition of a term or idea.

Example: “What is the capital gains tax?” Answer: “It is the tax levied on profits realized on the sale of stocks and other non-inventory assets.”


Simply provide an explanation for why an idea or concept is true or how an object or process works.

Example: “Why does the demand for luxury goods increase as the price increases?” Answer: “Because there is a certain prestige attached to attaining something that the average person could never afford.”

Give an Example...

For this, simply provide an example of one or several specific occurrences of an idea or concept.

Example: “Give two examples of pairs of goods that serve as near perfect substitutes.” Answer: “Orange juice and apple juice. Butter and margarine.”


For this, simply discuss how two or more concepts or objects are related. Is one different from the other? If so, how? Are they perfectly alike? Does one represent the other in some way? (Note: students typically find this type of question to be the most challenging)

Example: “Why would a rise in the price of sugar lead to an increase in the sales of honey?”

Answer: “When the price of a product goes up, people will seek out a substitute that more or less services the same purpose. In this case, a rise in sugar prices should lead to higher sells of honey, assuming the price of honey remained unaffected.”


For this, you need to apply some mathematics.

Example: “Tom and Sally own a coffee shop that makes delicious nut bread. They need to buy flour, which costs $2 per pound and nuts, which cost $1.50 per pound. They have $68 in their budget. The weight of the nuts should be four times that of the flour.”
Answer: f = flour (pounds), n = nuts (pound) f = 4n, 2f + 1.5n = 68, 2(4n) + 1.5n = 68, 9.5n = 68, n ≈ 7.16

Make a Graph...

This requires a basic graph with clearly labeled axes and curves. Unless the question asks for written explanation, it is not necessary to provide one.

Example: “Draw a supply/demand curve.”

Typical Mistakes

Do not make the mistake of providing an answer to one type of question if you are being asked a different type. For example, if it is an explanation question, don't provide a definition instead even if your answer is technically correct since that is not the question you are being asked. Professors dock points for that no matter how beautiful your answer might be.

A few final short answer test tips. Make sure you are not accidentally answering only part of a question. In a rush to get their exams completed, a lot of students might overlook the fact that a certain question has two or more steps. This is particularly true if you are calculating formulas. You might solve part of an equation (such as quantity maximization) but forget to also calculate price as required in the question. Likewise, if the question specifically asks you for more than one example, do not settle for just one (unless, of course, you are unable to think up a second example, but even then you should try).

Even if you are not sure how to write short answer questions in some cases, never leave the question blank. Always write down something because you at least stand a chance of getting partial credit. On the other hand, not providing any kind of answer is the surefire way to get a zero for that particular question.

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