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Tips For A-Level History Essays

Essay writing takes a leap at A-level and many aren't quite prepared for it: Here's 7 ways to get you on your way to a killer essay.

Start with a good structure

ANY good essay should have a good, solid structure: A clear beginning, middle and end, just like any other piece of writing.

Begin with a strong introduction which should establish the topic of your essay, give the reader a concise overview of what it will be about and inform them of what can be expected in the main body.

The body should contain the vast majority of your content, starting with some background information before explaining and developing arguments and adding analysis of the essay subject.

Finally, the essay will end as strongly as it started with a conclusion that summarises and evaluates the body's arguments.

Make it interesting

While your essay should follow a good structure at the same time you don't want to come across as just another bland by-the-numbers piece of writing.

For example, ditch the cliche introduction of "In my essay I will be writing about..." and get a bit more inventive and creative.

Whip out your thesaurus and vary your vocabulary - just don't do a Joey!

See it from both sides

A good essay isn't one that just puts your argument across but one which also counters any opposing views. Think of possible counter arguments that may be leveled and anticipate them with well thought out responses or rebuttals.

Be critical

An A-grade essay will see critical analysis of the subject topic and development of the ideas involved, as opposed to simple regurgitation of what you may have researched or learned in class. You’ll want to show not only that you know about the subject but actually understand it, for example by discussing the implications or effects of any arguments.

Learn to PEEL and not PEE

YAY for acronyms! Here's one you want to make sure you get right: The main body of essay should consist of what can be referred to as 'PEEL' paragraphs:

  • P: Make your POINT
  • E: EXPLAIN it
  • E: Support it with EVIDENCE
  • L: Make sure it LINKS in

Many students struggle to get top marks because they end up PEE-ing, writing some good arguments but ones that fail to link into either one another or the main essay topic.

Finish on a strong conclusion

The conclusion shouldn't really be a one or two line afterthought. Instead it should link directly back to all of your previous writing, referencing key points and arguments (but not just repeating them) and ultimately end right back to the original essay topic with an answer to the question that was posed.

Proofreading

Really goes without saying but whether it’s just a casual letter or a full blown University essay: Proofread your writing! Not just once or twice but a number of times, especially if you decide to make any changes. Ask a friend or family member to read through it to see if they spot anything wrong you may have missed.

What are some of your own essay writing tips? Add your comments below!

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Tips for Writing Essay Exams

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Before the Exam: Prepare and Practice

Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
  • Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
  • Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
  • Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
  • Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
  • A definition of the theories
  • A brief description of the issue
  • A comparison of the two theories' predictions
  • A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
In the exam

Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
  • Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
  • Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
  • Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
  • Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
  • Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
  • A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
  • Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
  • Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
  • Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Things to Avoid

Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
  • Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
  • Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
  • Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!



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