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Writing essays at A Level: 6 steps to success!

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

You've started A Level History and you are about to write your first essay. Sounds straightfoward, doesn't it? You've done the reading, you've made notes and now you are facing a blank screen or piece of paper. Sometimes the very word essay can be really off-putting for many students. So here's some tips to help.

Step 1: Read the question carefully🤣 . Sounds horribly obvious but I have seen many essays where a student has answered the question they want to answer, rather than the one that is there. It is especially important to make note of the dates, eg if you have a question such as 'Assess the threats facing the security of the reign of Henry VII before 1490', you are clearly not going to do well if you write reams about threats after that date. It sounds obvious but you'd be surprised how easy it is to make a mistake like this...

So what is the question asking you to do, for example: 'To what extent do you agree..?'; 'How far do you agree with the following statement...?; 'Assess the reasons why...'. Many essays start with phrases like these and they are asking you to decide the relative significance of a number of factors and to make an overall judgement of importance.

Step 2: Pick your factors. So first of all, think about which factors you are going to include. Usually three, or maybe four, factors will allow you to examine the question in enough detail. The traditional A Level format is to divide your essay into political, social, and economic factors but this doesn't always fit the question. Let's look at some other questions to see further possibilities.

i. 'Assess the reasons for the failure of the Second Crusade': factors could include the growing strength of the Islamic Near East; poor leadership of the Crusade; tensions between Crusaders and the Crusader states.

ii. 'How far do you agree that the Liberal reforms were a result of the problems of army recruitment?' In a question like this you have to discuss the named factor, even if you don't think it is the most significant, so you only need to come up with 2 or 3 more factors, eg the threat to the Liberals of the growth of the Labour party, or the impact of poor health on the economic strength of the country, or the genuine conviction of the reformers.

iii. 'How revolutionary was Oliver Cromwell?' This could be divided into the traditional approach of political, economic and social but a more relevant approach to this specific question might be politics, religion, army.

Step 3: Collect and select your evidence. Make sure it is detailed and relevant to the question. What are the strengths and limitations of your evidence? Have you included different opinions/perspectives?

Step 4: Work out the relative importance of each factor. The examiner does not want to see a list approach, eg another reason is...yet another reason is. So you need to think about the order of importance before you start writing. One way of thinking about the 'to what extent' style question is to think of a line from 0 - 10 where 0 is completely disagree and 10 is completely agree. Where are you on that line? Preferably not halfway, examiners like to see an overall judgement.

Step 5: PLAN! (Sorry for shouting...) You will have different ways of doing this and you might want to try a few out, eg mind maps are particularly good for showing links between factors or you might prefer bullet points. The links between factors can really help your essay flow.

Step 6: Write your essay.

Introduction - set out a bit of context to the question and the debate around it; explain how you are going to address the question; what are you intending to prove?

Main body of essay - discussion of your factors, with significance evaluated and supporting evidence used. Stay focussed on the question.

Conclusion - a brief summary with your overall judgement. This has hopefully been clear throughout the essay and should not therefore be a surprise. Good planning means that if you have stated your opinion in your introduction, you won't have changed your mind halfway through. Conclusions should not contain any new information.

So, good luck! Good essay writing is a useful skill so listen to the feedback from your teacher and keep practising.

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