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I ask in the context of preparing to write an essay test, with a time limit of 35 mins and a word limit of 550 words, that requires the choice of one of three essay questions on a range of subjects that I won’t know in advance. The test must be typed on a computer, with no access to spellcheck or any kind of reference or notes. This test doesn’t care whether you have any data about the topic. An argument based on assumptions can be just as good as an argument based on information. But you need to say what your assumptions are.

So suppose a topic 'is Should X be legalised?', where X is a controversial topic, say the death penalty.

If I believe that the given topic is too broad or vague, should I limit/circumscribe it, by adding provisos or specifics? For example, instead of arguing that the death penalty be legalised, I'd argue instead that the death penalty be legalised, under strict conditions, such as by majority vote, mutual choice of the claimant and defendant, new evidence of X's substantial effects on deterrence, etc...

Or is this cheating or dodging the given question, thus harming my essay?

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(As @chris_Sunami pointed out in the comments, this question is best fitted in the academia site, but since it is here I will give it a go anyway.)

Having a time limit and a word limit should compel you to limit your answer to a specific point about the topic. If you believe the topic is too broad to fit into 550 words, then pick a single aspect of that topic to focus on.

As you mentioned, yes, certainly you can (and possibly should) explicitly state your intent as an introduction to your answer.

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