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Modern History is one tough bugger of a subject. Between memoring statistics, learning content and just trying not to fall asleep, often the actual essay writing component falls through the gaps. Whilst we have a FREE essay marking thread here, I thought I would share my top tips for a successful History essay, based on the essays I’ve marked and the ones I wrote in my HSC year!


  1. Not using enough specific, accurate, relevant and detailed examples

Remember that this is a history essay. You can’t just say things and assume that the marker believes you; you have to back up EVERY substantive sentence with a statistic. That can be a date, a number, a quote, literally anything at all. Even if you can’t remember the EXACT statistic, say something like “More than 40%” or “In early 1915”, or even use a historian (“According to historian Richard Evans…”).

The point of the essay is to build up your fact-base so that you can draw whatever conclusions you want. Saying that the Allies won WWI is about as useful as saying Germany invaded America in 1918; explain HOW the Allies won WWI, on what date you think they defeated Germany, how many tanks they used at the Battle of Marne, how many political prisoners did they take? For a list of EVERY SARDE you need for the WWI section, click here.

Remembering a billion statistics is extremely difficult. If you want a really great method to retaining a huge amount of numbers and quotes, click here for a guide explaining how to utilise worksheets to your advantage. However, to achieve a top level response you really DO need to memorise hundreds of facts. An essay will not be strong without hard evidence supporting it.

As difficult as this seems, it really is an achievable goal for all of you. If you put the work in, and study smart, you’ll be writing out top level responses in no time!

  1. Not maintaining a thesis throughout

This is probably one of the most difficult things to get right in a history essay, or in any essay for that matter. My main recommendation is to, for your own benefit, write out what your thesis IS in one or two sentences. This doesn’t need to necessarily be included in the essay itself: just have it there for you to refer to. As you’re writing the essay itself, try to constantly refer back to your thesis. If you go an entire paragraph without referring to your thesis, you may as well not include the paragraph. Use sentences like “this supports the notion that…” and “This solidifies the idea that…” etc. etc.

Your topic sentence (ie. The first sentence of each paragraph) should introduce the general idea of the paragraph. The concluding sentence should directly link it to your thesis, and also perhaps allow for a quick introduction of the link between your current paragraph and the next. These things are really difficult to get right, and in this case practice makes perfect. Try going through a past essay you’ve written and highlighting the sections that directly refer to your thesis. If you are going too long without a highlighted section, rethink the way you are approaching your thesis (or maybe re think your thesis!).

  1. Explaining what happened, without drawing meaning from events

It is really easy to spend an entire paragraph explaining what happened 100 years ago in Germany or Indo-China. However, that won’t get you a very high mark in a history exam. What you want to be doing is spending a sentence or two explaining the events, and then a few sentences explaining their IMPORTANCE to your thesis/the time period etc. Saying that there were 478 Tanks at the Battle of Cambrai is all well and good, but where you get the marks (other than knowing the statistic) is by linking that to the question: For instance, the success of the tanks at Cambrai display the tactical advantage Britain had over Germany due to highly developed technological equipment, which would eventually lead to the end of the war.

Again, try going through and highlighting sections where you are just stating what happened. Whilst obviously this is a necessary part of any history essay, if you’re finding that more than half of the essay is “tell” rather than “theorise”, try rethinking the way you are constructing your essay.

  1. Building a simplistic thesis

So many of the essays I mark start with quite a simplistic thesis in their introduction, and then go on to build quite a complex one throughout their essay, ending in a good conclusion. Writing out your thesis beforehand, like suggested above, and constantly referring to it is the best way to mitigate this. However, not having a simplistic thesis in the first place is the best way to get a top level response in this course!

It is never a good idea to attribute an entire thing (ie. Collapse of Weimar republic, fall of German armies in WWI etc.) to a single cause. A thesis saying that “WWI ended because of Tanks” is obviously simplistic and, as all history thesis’ attributing events to a single cause are, just plain wrong. A thesis should be complex, incorporating a number of different factors. Think through your thesis in depth. Some students attribute, for instance, the fall of the Weimar republic entirely to the Treaty of Versailles. However, they then go on to discuss the role of the Great Depression, which evidently has nothing to do with the Treaty. It would have been smarter, therefore, to have initially said that Versailles was a large factor, compounded by the Great Depression. Think through your thesis carefully before you start your introduction, or even leave your introduction until the end so you are confident with you thesis when you write it!

  1. Structure

Plan your structure at the beginning of your essay. If a question asks about Social, Political and Economic factors, you already have your structure; One paragraph on each! If it is a more complex question, you should still plan (at the start of the exam period) how you are going to set out your answer so that it flows logically.

There are two main ways to structure an answer: Thematically or Chronologically. I would say that, the majority of the time, structuring it by theme works far more successfully. However, obviously answering a question like “outline the significance of the events leading up to the breaking of Stalemate” should be answered chronologically, simply because it’s easier for you.

The best way to prep for in-class essays is with essay plans. Go through each potential question and just write out the structure of your paragraphs: What the order will be, what statistics you will use, what your thesis is going to be etc. It is in Thesis, and Structure, that students often lose the most marks!

I hope this list helped you! If you have any questions about Modern History in general, click here, and if you want your essay marked FOR FREE, click here.