Writing a good A-Level History Exam Essay

Writing a good essay under exam conditions can be a daunting task…. But it is a skill which has to be learnt and practised on a regular basis over the course of your studies. Essay questions at A level usually carry 24 marks, a fairly hefty portion of the total marks awarded for the paper. You need to be able to write at least two pages of coherent material under timed conditions.

You should get down to  work on the course as soon as possible. Provide yourself with a clear study timetable incorporating the number of hours per day/week etc you intend to devote to the course and when you plan to submit assignments for marking. Stick to this timetable throughout the course.

You are going to encounter fairly complex material. It is therefore a good idea to make your own notes from the material supplied in the lessons. I suggest you do the same with model answers provided by OOL. This will help you learn the material and give you practice in summarising argument and opinion. It will also aid revision and the retention of factual material.

Be clear that a rote regurgitation of the facts alone will gain you few marks. You must produce a formal piece of writing that addresses the actual question set on the examination paper. Irrelevant answers are heavily penalised. Writing an analysis and evaluation of the historical situation under review will gain high marks. This includes an outline of the cause and effect of historical events. Try to demonstrate some awareness of different interpretations. Try to include some evaluation which flows from your analysis. This might include how a particular point of view fits the historical facts or how valid a particular authority is. For example, evidence quoted from a primary source – state papers, a diplomatic document or private correspondence of the period is usually preferable to a secondary source.

Spend some time (5-10 mins) planning the broad outline of the essay before you begin writing. Hand in your notes as well as your script to the invigilator. Throughout the essay made explicit reference to the wording of the question and do the same in the conclusion. If the question requires it, come to a judgement or a balanced summary.

You should try to complete all the TMAs. They are usually closely related to past exam questions. Consult the model answers published on the internet particularly in the later stages of your course. Try to complete the course by the beginning of April of the year of the exam, using your own notes for revision.

One final point: A level students are usually advised to read widely. But students working by correspondence course lead busy lives and there are thousands of well written history texts published each year. Up to date material can be found on the internet. I would also recommend the historical programmes presented on TV, giving easy access to re-evaluation of historical events. Try to remember, history is no longer about dates and kings and queens. So enjoy the course.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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