Unlocking the Secrets to Excelling in A-Level History

It is no secret that doing well in History at the GCE ‘A’ Level Examination is heavily dependent on the candidate’s ability to write good essays. The essay section makes up 60 per cent of the final score for both papers. Cambridge markers also consider the quality of written English when assessing essays. Their assessment of written English includes the quality of spelling, punctuation and grammar. On top of that, they also take into account how candidates structure and present their ideas, and use historical terms and phrases. History at GCE 'A' Level is no longer just focused on describing events. Although good factual knowledge is important, this must be used in support of historical analysis and evaluation.


In the following worked example, we will demonstrate how to unpack a typical History essay question and structure ideas in a way which demonstrates conceptual understanding.

1. Unpacking the question.

Candidates usually do not do well in essays because of the way in which they interpret and dissect questions. Misinterpretation of the question often results in a response that deals with the topic and not what the question requires.

Look at this question.

To what extent was the emergence of maximum governments in Southeast Asia by the 1960s due to the weaknesses of plural political structures?

Here is one of the most often employed techniques in dissecting essay questions.

a. Identify the main topic in the question: i.e. the emergence of maximum governments in Southeast Asia. These are what are commonly referred to as authoritarian governments and they could cover dictatorships, military governments, Communist regimes and dominant one-party states. In other words, the question focuses on the rise of these types of governments by a certain time period.

b. Identify the key words/phrases: i.e. weaknesses of plural political structures. These words require explanation in the introduction so as to provide an overview of what these were and how they contributed to the emergence of maximum governments.

c. Identify the command word(s): i.e. to what extent. This would imply the need for the candidate to examine the degree to which the given assumption is valid. In other words, while acknowledging the role of the weaknesses of plural political structures, what other causes may be responsible for the observation.

2. Writing the Introduction

The introduction helps the candidate structure the essay by encapsulating the key ideas the candidate is presenting in response to the question. Remember that the thesis statement tells the examiner what the candidate’s view is and explains it. It is also evaluative by explaining why a particular reason was the most important. Many candidates have difficulty constructing a thesis statement because they are either unfamiliar with the ideas to be discussed and how they connect with each other or they do not realise the need to provide a stand with justification as a means of informing the examiner of what the stand is and the basis upon which it is taken.

For example, the thesis statement to the above question may look like this.

“While it was evident that the politicisation of the military institution and the Cold War concerns of the United States contributed to the emergence of authoritarian governments in Southeast Asia from the 1960s, these were more often than not responses to the perceived failings of plural political structures to maintain stability.”

Note that by arranging the order of the arguments in a particular fashion, the candidate conveys the idea that there is a link among the factors, where a particular development is predicated on a root/fundamental cause.

3. Essay Structure

Typically, content paragraphs follow a ‘Sentence – Elaboration/explanation – Examples’ format though arguably the lines between the two ‘E’s are sometimes blurred. What is more crucial here is for candidates to realise the need to avoid the following:

a. Do not write one liners for your argument.

b. Do not write one liners for examples.

c. For Paper 2, using only one case study in support of an argument

Here is an example of a content paragraph to the question.

To what extent was the emergence of maximum governments in Southeast Asia by the 1960s due to the weaknesses of plural political structures?

"It was evident by the 1960s that the plural political structures that emerged at the point of independence were increasingly unable to maintain political stability. This stemmed from the fact that the prevalence of multiparty systems tended to accentuate the existing divides in Southeast Asian societies, leading to weak and unstable governments. Periods of political instability provided the justification for political figures and the military to justify their displacement with more authoritarian forms of government. [Always remember that an argument needs to be developed so as to demonstrate the link between a cause and effect] In Burma, growing factionalism within the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) government which presided over a parliamentary democracy prompted U Nu to request the military under Ne Win to set up a caretaker government in 1958. A return to civilian rule in 1960 failed to restore stability which culminated in a coup in 1962 that brought the military to power. Similarly in Indonesia, the post-colonial political structure tended to accentuate the regional divides in the country as political parties were organised along regional, religious and ideological lines. The outcome of the 1955 elections merely reinforced these divisions as coalition governments among the PNI, PKI, Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and Masjumi failed to produce a modicum of stability. This set the stage for Sukarno to declare the imposition of Guided Democracy by 1957, which was nothing more than his personal dictatorship.

[Always remember that for Paper 2, the candidate needs 2 countries in support of the argument.] It was thus evident that the inability of plural political structures to provide a viable basis for political stability after independence provided the justification for the emergence of authoritarian forms of government."


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