Tips for writing a good history essay for school, college or university

What are the tips and tricks to get the best grade you can?

The best tip that I can give for writing a good history essay is to analyse. Don’t just tell the story. You need to say why people could have done or believed what they did. What were the consequences?

For example:-

Narrative: Henry VIII had six wives and three children by different wives.

Analytical: Henry VIII had six wives because he was determined that women couldn’t rule a country. He needed a male heir to secure the succession and avoid a repeat of the Wars of the Roses. He got rid of his first two wives, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, because they only had a daughter each. It was his third wife, Jane Seymour, who finally presented him with a son, and it was with her that Henry VIII chose to be buried at Windsor because of her success in his eyes.

Hopefully you can see the difference between the first and second examples. Not only is the analytical example more concise and gives you more information, it also explains the significance – why Henry VIII had six wives, and why he put aside his first two. Analysing also makes things longer, which is good when you’ve got a large word count to hit! Nevertheless, don’t write just to fill a gap or increase your word count as that won’t get you any marks and may actually lose you marks.

When dealing with sources, especially secondary sources with historians’ opinions, don’t just write what they thought without actually examining their claims. You need to make sure that you put in your own opinions and whether you think the historian is right or wrong and, most importantly, why you think they’re right or wrong! Don’t give an opinion if you can’t back it up. Make sure you also pay attention to any bias on the historian’s part – they might be basing their views on assumptions rather than actually examining in the evidence and this is something that is always worth mentioning in an essay.

Also when examining sources, you should try and link them to each other. Even just linking two historian’s opinions together by saying “David Starkey disagrees with David Loades because” demonstrates that you have thought about the wider perception of views and that you realise that each source doesn’t stand on its own, and is always influenced by works that have gone before.

The key when choosing what to write in the essay is to make sure that everything you write is connected to the question. Even if you don’t agree with some of the information you’ve gathered that does relate to the question, it is still worth writing about it and explaining why you disagree with it.

If, for example, you were given the question, “To what extent was Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion in I554 due to economic difficulties?”, but you believed that the more important factor was the proposed marriage of Mary I to Philip II of Spain, you still have to examine the ideas of economic difficulties in I554, even if you end the section by saying “however, this wasn’t as important a factor as the political difficulties that could be caused by a marriage between Mary I and Philip II of Spain”. This means that you have handled the counter-argument.

The easiest way to remember how to write a good evidence is the basic point, evidence, explanation. But it does work. First you need to make your point, usually in the first line of the paragraph. Then you need to state your evidence, giving a historian’s opinion or quoting from a primary source. Then you need to explain the significance of what you’ve quoted. This last bit is the most important. This is the section where you really need to show how good you are, and that you can link sources together, argue and persuade. You also need to make sure that, during your explanation; you link back to the question.

And before you start to write, make sure you plan what each paragraph will be and what your overarching argument will be. Also make sure you understand your sources and how they link to your argument.

Follow these tips and you should be able to write a fairly good history essay! But sometimes you also just need a little bit of luck and a nice examiner!

One thought on “Tips for writing a good history essay for school, college or university

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