Using the keyword in the question to get better marks

Lauren Condon

Marketing Specialist at Atomi


min read

Have you ever wished there was a cheat code for the HSC?

Yeah too bad, there’s no such thing.

BUT, what we do have is a bit of a secret weapon when it comes to answering questions in your HSC exams. See, we all know about that list of keywords that NESA likes to use in exams: analyse, evaluate, discuss, propose, justify etc. They sound pretty fancy and they can be even more useful than just making NESA look super smart.

Basically, the key word in the question is telling you how to write an answer and exactly what the marker is looking for. So, let’s dive into these key words and find out how to use them to get the most marks out of every question.

Pay attention to the key word in the question

So when you get into your exam and see a question, now isn’t the time to start spewing everything you know onto the paper.

Let’s take this Ancient History question from 2014:


You’re going to want to pay attention to the big “nouns” that sound like something you’ve learned in class and just start writing everything you know about the cult of Amun.

But NO. Stop that.

That approach is seriously not going to give you the most marks in the least amount of time.

Instead, look at the beginning of the question and circle that keyword: assess.

Know what the key word really means

So, you’ve picked out the key word of the question. Congrats, but that was a baby step and we still have a little way to go.

The next step is to know what that word really means. Luckily, NESA was kind enough to type out all the keys words for us AND give a definition. Check them out here, it will seriously be worth the 10 seconds it takes to read through.

Some of those definitions will sound kind of random but it’s not as confusing as you think. If demonstrate means “show by example”, you know that you need to give and explain an example to prove the statement in the question. For a trickier one like analyse, the markers are asking you to do a few more things: pull out the different elements of the topic in the question, show how they connect to each other and what those connections tell us.

Use the keyword to structure your answer

So let’s go back to the Ancient question as a bit of an example of how we can use a key word to structure a killer response. See, we want to be answering the exact question to get the most marks without doing any extra, pointless work because we’d be wasting time and losing marks on the rest of the exam.

So, assess means “make a judgement of value, quality, outcomes, results or size”. That means, we need to make a judgement, not just write down everything we know.

NESA has taken this question from one syllabus point but 25 marks means this is a major question so we're going to need to draw in information from other points as well to flesh out a killer response. To structure all that content, we can use this ‘assess’ key word.

You’re going to need to make a strong judgment on how significant the development of the cult was, how important the cult was in other aspects of the period, and carry this all the way from the introduction to the conclusion. This is assessing. See? And then your individual paragraphs should each use a different piece of information from the syllabus, whether that be building programs or the role of officials, to support your argument.

That way, you’re creating an answer that really answers the question and will give the marker exactly what they’re looking for.

Remember that not every question will use a keyword

The last thing to remember is that sometimes NESA is going to be pretty straight to the point and just give you a ‘why’, ‘how’ or ‘to what extent’.

Don’t freak out if you can’t see that key word and suddenly forget what ‘why’ means. You know this, just pay attention to the exact word and address your question like that. If it asks ‘why’, show the reasons. If it asks ‘how’, show the process. If it asks ‘to what extent’, draw a line to demonstrate where the statement isn’t true anymore. Come on guys, we can easily do this and it will make sure we’re getting as many marks possible out of each question!


When you get into any kind of exam and read the question, one of the first things you need to do is pay attention to the key word. Now is the time to go through all the words and make sure you know exactly what they are really asking for and how you would structure an answer. It’s going to mean that you can use your study in the smartest way possible to give the marker exactly what they want. Band 6, here we come 👊 .


Published on

June 6, 2017

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