Understanding the Assignment: Essay Requirements from the Professor Explained by Our Experts

understanding the assignment

You are a first-year student who just received your first essay assignment. You want to complete the task to the best of your capacities. You sincerely desire to impress your professor and show genuine studiousness. But here is the problem: you do not understand what they want and are afraid to ask the professor for the second time. The instructions are all Greek to you, maybe after the professor’s explanations. What to do? No worries, because below is a collection of the most typical troubles with understanding the assignment and comments from the experts on what you should do. 

I can say there is a dichotomy in understanding the assignment prompt. On the one hand, students are expected to do their research and figure things out on their own. On the other hand, college is a place of education, not perfection. 

Nicolas Evans, an expert at CustomWritings.com

Classic Recommendations

Below, you can find different confusing assignments and what to do about them. However, there are universal rules you can use first when dealing with such a task. Some are self-evident, and some are not, but it’s better to keep them as a list. So, the very first step you should take is to check out each point. If none of them help, continue reading the article. 

assignment prompt

Source – Giphy

Asking for clarification

It’s quite an obvious step, but you should do it the right way. The wrong questions to ask your professor are: “I don’t understand what you want from me,” or “These instructions do not make sense to me”. Such requests will create the impression that you did not even try to start the task on your own. Even worse, some students use such excuses to justify their unwillingness to do the task altogether.

Instead, the good questions to ask your professor are “Do I understand correctly that…” or “I understand the X part of the assignment, but the Y part is unclear to me. Could you please show some examples of how it can be done?”. 

A well-formulated question is a 90% guarantee of receiving a comprehensive explanation. Good clarification questions demonstrate your attempts to figure out the task and the sincere need for clarification. 

Xiu Zhang, an international student in the USA

Try different prompts for research

Let’s be honest; browsing is the first option we often try when something is unclear. However, Google, ChatGPT, and other AIs are not ideally suited to our requests. Therefore, modify your research questions in all ways possible. For instance, you can:

  1. Form it as a question
  2. Form the part assignment as a statement, and either find the confirmation to it or don’t
  3. Go to Quora or Reddit
  4. Search PDF files on a similar topic
  5. Search for customized websites on the topic (works well with the formatting questions)

Skip the frustrating part and prepare a draft for the rest of the assignment

If you are going to ask a professor anyways, it is better to do so with a draft. It is essential to show that you do not blindly follow the instructions or rely on someone else in doing your assignment. Your professor does not want the perfect implementation of all the tasks from you. What they want is to see your growing autonomy and your efforts in the classroom. 

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Issue №1: Making Connections to the Reading


Respond to the following questions by drawing from this week’s text and making explicit links back to at least one reading. What are the differentiating traits of primates compared to Homo Sapiens? What methods did anthropologists use to come to these conclusions?

The issue with the assignment

What does it mean to “draw from this week’s text” and “make explicit links”? Which links are explicit, and which are not? Should I summarize the reading or directly cite the material? 

The explanation

Sometimes, if you use too many quotes from the reading or your own research, the professor reduces the score for the lack of personal elaboration. Such a thing happens even in “link to the reading” assignments, as making connections to the text does not mean copy-pasting it. So, how do you draw connections to the reading correctly? Here are some tips:

  • Know your professor’s preferred ways of quoting the material. Essay writing has different types of quotes. For example, you can use direct ones: “In the article by A. Smith, we read: ‘Our society is undergoing an important digital transformation (2019, p.23)’”. The alternative is indirect quotations: “A. Smith said in her article that our society is undergoing an important digital transformation (2019)”. Some professors forbid the use of direct quotations in essays. Otherwise, the requirements for references will be mentioned in the assignment.
  • Do not just summarize the reading. Referring to the class materials means you should come to your own conclusions based on your reading. 

I have a good exercise that helps me not just retell the reading. Get a piece of paper and draw two columns. In the first one, write the excerpts from the text. In the second one, write three ideas / first thoughts of your own for each passage. 

Jaime Clark, an expert at CustomWritings.com

Issue №2: Use One Reading to Comment on the Other One


In this week’s reading, Firestone (2013) explains how a secure attachment style affects one’s relationships in adulthood. While the question has many subordinate questions, the author emphasizes the definitions of secure attachment and non-secure types. JA Simpson (1990) explores a few hypotheses on the emotions experienced in couples with different attachment styles. This mini-essay asks you to apply your understanding of Firestone to analyze Simpson’s findings. In a 1 to 2-page, double-spaced analytical essay, do the following:

  • Both authors talk about the nature of the attachment style and whether it can be changed through life. Were there differences in the factual information concluded from each author’s research?
  • How can you characterize the initial phases of a relationship’s development when one of the partners has an avoidant style of attachment?

The issue with the assignment

This task is a “bingo” for many students. The assignment requires that you read, understand, and analyze multiple sources to give the answer or analyze one through the lens of the other. Moreover, you may ask yourself, “What should I do if my professor asks me to answer a few questions AND simultaneously compare and contrast the sources? How do I do that?” 

The explanation

The key to completing such tasks is to deconstruct and reconstruct the assignment. First, you must divide the task into smaller parts and work through them. The important advice: it is usually not helpful to divide the task as it is presented. For instance, in the case above, the obvious decision would be to first answer the questions and then try integrating them with the reading. 

The problem is that such a method involves unnecessary work. You will rewrite the answers so that they align with the concepts and present one article through the lens of the other. Moreover, this way, your analysis will be brief and shallow. Instead, you should clearly define both works’ similarities, differences, and connections. For a deeper understanding, you should use a particular framework. Here is one you can use: 

The position of author #1 on both questions The position of author #2 on both questions

Similarities in their perspectives

Differences in their perspectives

How the perspective of author #1 can be a frame for the position of author #2 (connections between them) How the perspective of author #2 can be a frame for the position of author #1 (connections between them)

My answer to question #1

My answer to question #2

Issue №3: Formatting


In your essay, you should carefully check the following formatting requirements:

  • All page margins should be 1 inch on all sides.
  • Double-space all text, including headings.
  • Indent the first line of every paragraph 0.5 inches.
  • Use Times New Roman 12pt.
  • Include a page number on every page, except for the title page
  • Cite all your sources according to the APA 7th edition guidelines. 
ask the professor

Source – Giphy

The issue with the assignment

“I asked the professor how to do all that, and he briefly explained it, but it was a few days ago. Now I forgot where to look for all these options in Word documents or Google Docs. I fear that the instructions I find in the free access are inaccurate and will not meet my college’s criteria. Where can I find the correct and precise guidance for APA and MLA formatting?”

The explanation

That is quite a reasonable question. Indeed, there are numerous guidelines for essay formats, some of which have different versions. For instance, APA formatting has the two most popular kinds: APA 6 and APA 7. 

  • APA formats. The development of the current APA guides is tightly connected with the nonprofit American Psychological Association. It all began in the late 1920s when a group of psychologists, anthropologists, and business managers sought to establish a set of guidelines for standardizing scientific writing and citation practices. Therefore, now you can find the official information for this format in the guidelines of their authorship.
  • MLA format. The abbreviation MLA stands for The Modern Language Association of America, which presented the first MLA Style Sheet in 1951. The modern official handbook is available for purchase only on the organization’s website. However, Purdue Online Writing Lab is a pretty credible resource to learn about the manual. 
  • Free formatting tools. You can use some tools for free and generate your bibliography sources. For instance, a bibliography generator helps with that task. 

To avoid going through the formatting each time, I prepared the drafts for the most common formats. I have a folder on my PC with blank files in each format, so I just insert the text inside each time. 

Xiu Zhang, an international student in the USA

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Lauren Bradshaw
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Lauren started writing in 2003. Since then, she tried her hand in SEO and website copywriting, composing for blogs, and working as an academic writer. Her main interests lie in content marketing, developing communication skills, and blogging.

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