A-Level Essay writing

The step up from GCSE to A-Level is tough, particularly when it comes to writing an essay. For those of you who did GCSE History, some of the skills from the final question in your exams are relevant here, but there is a definitive step up in terms of your skills in analytical thinking and reasoned judgement.

DJThe examiner isn’t primarily interested in the details you know. Whilst the amount of details you include can determine your marks within a level, your ability to write a strong analytical answer can determine the level in the first place! So it’s vital you get this right. So, here’s a cheesy acronym to help you remember the key features of stong essay writing: to get the party started, you need A DJ!

ARGUMENT- All questions are looking for your to form opinions. That’s what history is all about- looking over the events and forming an interpretation. So start with an argument- what is your line of thought going to be? Do you agree or disagree? To what extent do you believe the statement to be true? You need to do this having looked at all the evidence, you can’t change your mind half way through an answer! You’re almost planning your conclusion first here!

Once you know this, your whole essay should be structured around developing this argument. Whilst you will need to show a sense of balance and think about the other side of the story too, you mustn’t move away from your overarching argument. Your whole essay should be proving to the examiner that your interpretation is correct.

DETAIL- Once you’ve worked this out, you can plan out an answer- what points will you cover to back up the argument you’re putting forward. The key here is not narrating a story of what happened, but using details to prove that your argument is the correct one. Look at the two examples below where the question asked you to assess why Jimmy Carter was unable to secure a second term as President of the United States:

Jimmy Carter had made lots of promises when he was elected in 1976. He said that he would heal the problems that had been caused by Watergate and the Ford administration. He highlighted how Washington was seen as corrupt due to this, and he promised that he would be a fresh start for US politics. But he did not keep his promises, and many of the problems- especially the economic ones- did not go away. He couldn’t even work with a Democratic Congress due to his micromanagement and poor relationship. This shows that Jimmy Carter was unable to secure a second term because he did not do as he said he would, or work with the other branches of the Federal Government.

In GCSE, this would have been a sound PEE paragraph, that would have secured a great grade. But in A-Level, this is focused too much on sharing details and narrating the events, with a simple explanatory sentence at the end. At best, an essay like this might just get a C grade.

However, it was Carter’s failure to deliver on these promises that led many to see him as just like his two predecessors. Running for re-election is always harder due to the demands to defend your track reccord, and the fact that even a Democratic Congress failed to work alongside Carter clearly demonstrates his inability to restore confidence in the position of President. His inability to heal the inherited problems, particularly the economic ones, caused voters to see him as another President whose promises were empty, and therefore they quickly lost faith in him. 

This example is more analytical. We learn in this that President carter failed to deliver on his promises, failed to work with Congress and deal with the problems he inherited from his predecessors- that’s quite a lot of information! Yet look at the argument running- we know that it’s justifying its opinion that Carter’s inability to cope that led to his failure to secure a second term. And the example is shorter too- because the detail is embedded into the argument, you don’t actually have to write as much detailed description, and can spend more time developing your opinion clearly.

JUDGEMENT- To really secure high marks in an essay answer, you need to clearly show reasoning behind your opinion. There are two ways you can do this.

  1. Show clear understanding of the impact of the points you’re covering as you talk about them. As an examiner reads your answer, they should implicitly know why you’ve bothered to include this!
  2. Your conclusion- this is not a summary section to your essay, it is the final blow to your opposing argument which will secure you victory. Don’t insult the examiner’s intelligence by repeating what you’ve already said- they just read it! Instead, tell them clearly why your interpretation is correct, and what factor/event in particular proves you’re right! Look at this example from the Carter essay below:

Ultimately, Carter was elected in 1976 because a disillusioned electorate needed someone with drive, enthusiasm & personality to inspire them. In Carter, many Americans thought they had found that someone, but in truth, Carter was as ineffectual as his predecessor. Reagan was elected in 1980 for the same reasons that Carter became President in 1976- because the predecessor was ineffectual, and in searching for a return to prosperity, American voters were more open to change. In particular, his inability to negotiate with a Congress full of his own party members meant that Carter had no excuses for his failures, and when judged against the actions of his first term, was a poor choice in comparison to Regan in terms of both his policies and his personality.

The main point is hammered home (he lost for the same reasons he won), and the key point (his inability to work with Congress) is justified. It really gives a confident end to the answer you’ve written.


So, with these three key elements flowing through your answer, you can really show the examiner what a highly skilled historian you are!

  1. Argument & opinion- clear & sustained
  2. Details used for analytical thoughts, not for stories
  3. Judgements clear that show the reasons behind your opinions

Good luck!


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