One of the most difficult parts of transitioning from GCSEs into AS and A-Level subjects is learning how to structure essays. This blog sets out what to prioritise in each part of your answer.
This is where you make your first impression on the examiner. It is important that the introduction is clear and controlled. It should be one brief paragraph, explaining how you understand the question and setting out the topics for discussion. It can be very effective to give your conclusion at the beginning: the essay will then elaborate on how you reach your answer.
- Main body:
Thematise: One of the most common pitfalls for the ‘argument’ section of an A-Level history essay is when students approach the question chronologically. (For instance when a question asking whether public attitudes to the Roman Emperors changed in the First Century AD takes each emperor in turn.) Being able to approach the question thematically will allow you to more easily analyse the issues at stake rather than regurgitate facts.
Backup: Use sources to strengthen your points. Historians evaluate different types of information about a particular event or period. The arguments in this section should use multiple sources against one another to arrive at a particular conclusion. When starting a new paragraph identify your argument and relevant sources before you continue. Good use of sources will mean you score highly in the AO2 part of the mark scheme. The sources can be primary and/ or contemporary but you must evaluate their usefulness either way.
Balance: No A-Level history question has a simple yes or no answer. It is therefore crucial that you acknowledge potential counterarguments or complexities in your writing. Useful phrases to signal a balanced argument are ‘on the one hand… on the other’ and ‘while x indicates…, y makes the stronger argument that…’ This part of the answer refers to the AO3 section of the mark scheme, which evaluates your understanding of the different interpretations around a historical issue.
Less is more: It is common to see A-Level history students feeling obliged to write all that they know about a particular topic, in the hope that it will earn them more marks. By the time you take this exam you will have more facts at your fingertips than you can hope to write in one exam sitting. Instead, try to choose which facts best support your answer to the question at hand. This will make your essay more coherent and enjoyable for the examiner to mark.
It is crucial that this paragraph answers the original question. No new information should be added as this point, but instead try to synthesise the points you have made in the essay body into one argument. Acknowledge the main counterarguments to your point, but explain why your conclusion is justified.