Understanding the Question
An essay is not a chance for you to display all your knowledge on a particular subject. Rather it is an opportunity for you to show that you can marshal facts and data in support of a coherent, logical, and compelling case or argument. Relevance is crucial to writing a good history essay and for your argument to be relevant it must address specifically what it is that the question is asking. In every essay question, there will be keywords, such as: discuss, analyse, compare, contrast, identify and so on. You should treat these keywords like road signs, pointing you in the direction that you need to go. Writing your essay will seem so much easier once you have deciphered these keywords and thus have a clearer understanding of what it is that you are being asked to do. Let’s move on to some examples of these keywords and how best to go about answering them:
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Explain & Why
If you are asked to explain something or asked why certain events occurred then you are expected to come up with reasons, to shed some light upon a subject. You might be set the question “Explain the reasons for the American involvement in the Vietnam War” – so your essay would primarily consist of several key factors that led America into Vietnam (such as the Cold War belief in the domino theory, or the desire to spread democracy, etc.) and you ought to clarify and give justifications for your reasons and why you believe them to be valid.
“Quote” and Discuss
A frequent tactic for those who set history essay questions is to provide a quote, often by a noted historian, or occasionally by a famous historical figure, and then you will be asked to discuss it. Here is a typical example: “The Cold War began because of the imperialistic desire to extend the American Empire” Discuss.
The challenge with these types of questions is attempting to keep your answer relevant. Students sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that being asked to discuss a topic means that it allows them to go off on a tangent when the mood so takes them, and their essays end up lacking structure and usually fail to adequately answer the question. Instead of doing this it is usually best to take a position that is either in favour of or against the quote given. This presents you with a clear argument to make and helps structure your essay – you firstly give arguments in favour of your position, and then go on to make the case that the counter-argument is incorrect. For the example above you could begin by showing an awareness of the differing positions that historians take on the issue of the causes of the Cold War, and then go on to either agree or disagree with the quote, giving appropriate supporting evidence for your arguments. Such an approach not only displays historiographic knowledge but also your ability to present a reasoned argument.
Assess & Evaluate
If you are asked to ‘assess‘ or ‘evaluate‘ something, then you are expected to make a judgment. Such questions can alternatively be phrased as ‘to what extent…’ or ‘how significant was…’. Regardless of the exact phrasing, the task remains the same. An example question might be: “Assess the success of the Clinton Presidency in meeting the foreign policy demands of the post-Cold War period”. In such a case you need to make a judgment on how successful Clinton was, so you have a number of options available – you could argue that he was very successful, moderately successful, or not very successful; the choice is yours, but it should be informed by your reading and background knowledge on the subject. Again, as with all essay arguments, you must provide sound evidence to support your case, and try to explain why the counter-arguments are invalid.
Questions that ask you to compare and contrast are often based on some sort of philosophical idea or intellectual or ideological theories, e.g. “Compare and contrast social democratic and neo-liberal ideas on the role of the state”. The trick with such questions is to identify similarities and differences. With these types of essay questions, you should always try to both compare and contrast – do not just attempt one or the other! No matter how well you make your case, or how valid your argument is, just either comparing or contrasting will lose you plenty of marks because you have not done fully what the question asked you to. So, it is important that you structure your answer so that roughly half your time is spent contrasting and half your time is spent comparing.
Your structure should always consist of three parts: (1) an introduction, (2) the main body of the essay, and (3) a conclusion.
The introduction is a chance for you to familiarise the reader with the relevant issues at stake. As an example, let’s take one of the dummy questions that was given previously: “Assess the success of the Clinton Presidency in meeting the foreign policy demands of the post-Cold War period”. For the introduction to this essay, you might want to briefly give some historical context by mentioning the end of the Cold War and how this changed the climate in which foreign policy had to operate. Such background should be kept brief though as the main function of the introduction is to sketch your arguments for the reader. You need to present the overall thesis or argument of your essay and do so in no more than a few sentences.
The main body of your essay will build upon and flesh out the arguments you sketched out in the introduction. Your statements must be backed up with supporting evidence and data and any material you use or points you make ought to be kept relevant to the immediate task in hand.
Your conclusion is where you sum up all the arguments you have made and recap your main thesis. Think of it as a reminder or summary for the reader, a chance to re-emphasise your key message.
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