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Transkills: supporting transition to University


What an essay does is ARGUE, DEBATE, DISCUSS.

  • It is NOT a narrative; it is not a demonstration of all the information that you have learnt
  • While you must carefully assess the information at your disposal in reaching your conclusion (this often includes making full chronologies of events), you should NOT therefore learn any information for its own sake
  • Rather, information should only be learned in order to reinforce an analytical point
  • Analytical points are big historiographical or conceptual ideas
  • If you revise in this way, you will automatically revise in an analytical, not a narrative way
  • You will not find yourself over-loaded with facts that you struggle to remember

Keep the above in mind as you think about what/how much you need to revise.  In the past you are likely to have been given credit for communicating all you know on a topic but here you need to be more discriminating about what you include.

Structuring your argument

The argument in your essays should be clearly signposted at the start of each paragraph.

  • This does not mean simply repeating the words of the question
  • It does mean making it clear where you are going in that paragraph in relation to your overall argument
  • The most common plans proceed in a linear way: point 1, point 2, point 3…

For more on structure and planning, see the relevant section in supervision essay writing.

Where do you need to get to?

  • Logically, by the later part/second half (the precise balance varies) of the essay you need to have reached a discussion of your own evaluation
  • But you also need to have assessed the other possibilities and DEMONSTRATED why they don’t work
  • Don’t ignore arguments because you don’t know what to do with them!
  • Ask your supervisor in revision

The introduction

There are essentially three types of introduction:

  • First, there is the introduction which summarises your argument
  • Secondly, there is the introduction which sets out what the question is driving at, and explains what the subtext is, in order to set the parameters within which the following discussion will take place
  • Thirdly, there is the introduction which is not an introduction…!

It is YOUR choice which you adopt. Some supervisors/examiners have a pedagogical preference for the second approach, while others have a preference for the first approach. You must decide for yourself and then be consistent; you will get confused otherwise. Don’t write for the examiner; write the history as you see it (ensuring you are being logical, sensible and analytical)

For more on introductions, see the Supervision Essay Writing package.

The mark scheme: Writing analytically

If you produce analytical essays you will do what the mark scheme asks, namely:

  • You will address the question: ‘engage closely with the question and address its implications as well as its ‘surface’ sense
  • You will argue effectively: ‘deploy ideas and information to create a sustained argument’. The very best answers will ‘go beyond merely paraphrasing the ideas of others to demonstrate their own conceptual command’
  • You will display your knowledge, but note: ‘descriptive and factual elements will be harnessed effectively to the argument’

Make sure you are familiar with relevant Faculty criteria and other documents, all of which are available on the Faculty website for current undergraduates:

  • Marking conventions for Part IA and Part I
  • Examiners' reports from the past five years
  • Past papers and specimen papers


Activity: Writing a good essay

Placing yourself in the position of the examiner, offer feedback on the following genuine Prelim essays. Refer to the marking standards as you decide which classication you will award.

1. Paper 4 'Gender has been over-used as a tool for analysing the reign of Elizabeth I'. Discuss.

Candidate 1 (pdf)            Candidate 2 (pdf) 

2. Historical argument and practice 'Class and social status are essentially the same'. Discuss

Candidate 3 (pdf)


Now click here to access Examiner comments on each of the essays above, and compare with your feedback.