The key here is to become familiar with the most effective way to tackle an essay which then means in the exam you won’t have to spend time to considering the best way to go about things. A crucial difference between GCSE and A Level is how essays are structured, with the higher level examiners wanting you to go beyond simply the ‘Point Evidence Explanation’ strategy that you’re taught at GCSE.
The basic framework for an A Level essay is standard:
However, certain techniques used within this structure are what can help present your knowledge in the most effective way for reaching the higher marks:
- What to include within each of these 4 sections
- Structuring the arguments in a way that provides links between points
- Offering a clear distinction between the importance of the points you’re making
- A clear direction throughout the essay
An introduction should be short and effective. Its main purpose is to inform the examiner of your answer to the question and how you intend to present your argument for this. Many people have a tendency to waste both time and words on an unnecessarily long intro, hence why grasping exam technique can really make a difference. So, for an introduction:
- Context: Offering a very brief context to the question can often give a strong start to your essay and really I find just gets it underway. However, this should be a line or two at most because the key historical points and facts will be the body of your essay and you don’t want to repeat key events later in your essay. It is in this line or two you should make reference to the time period if one is stated in your question.
- Overview: Within two or three lines you should offer the central point of your argument (and thus your answer to the question) as well as acknowledging that you will explore the other side of the question. This shows the examiner that your essay is leading somewhere and is well thought out.
- Judgement: Your answer to the question. Your introduction, much like your conclusion, should show the examiner that you have read and understood the question and then offered your response.
There are various ways people structure their arguments (e.g. some like to list all the for points and then all the against, while others interchange between them), this for me has proven the clearest and most effective way of doing so:
Argument 1: Point A > Point B > Point C
Argument 2: Point A > Point B > Point C
Clearly, this is the practice employed at GCSE. So, what’s different for A Level?
- Prioritise: You must introduce each point with some reference to its level of importance to the answer of the question. This is done most obviously when the question asks for it (e.g. “To what extent was” or “_____ was the most important factor. Discuss”. However, you should always prioritise points, no matter what. For example:
‘The USA’s involvement in international affairs in the years 1991 to 2004 was the result of its commitment to the United Nations.’ Assess the validity of this view.
When arguing that US involvement was due to its commitment to the UN, you must think about what the most important reasoning for this commitment was or perhaps the most significant evidence that involvement was driven by UN commitment, and very clearly state this.
- Link: Your points shouldn’t just stand alone; stronger answers will make reference to the other points of the argument, providing a common thread throughout. This then shows that you understand the wider context of the period and how the different points within your argument link together. This skill is easy to display when moving onto the next point in your argument, often through introducing the point in relation to the point you made previously or linking them together when concluding that paragraph. Not only does this make your essay flow but shows a higher level of understanding of the relationship between factors/influences.
The conclusion is one of the most important parts of the essay, you must always include one. There are some key things to remember:
- There should be no new information in your conclusion. Rather, it offers a summary of what you’ve written before.
- It should be concise. This then leaves the examiner understanding exactly what your argument was.
- It must echo the same argument throughout the essay (often some people find if the the argument opposed to their judgement is prior to their conclusion they somehow lose clarity)
- The conclusion can be a great opportunity to acknowledge the links you should have made between points in the essay. This allows you to state how different aspects of your answer come together to provide the most convincing evidence to support your judgement.