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Master the Five-Paragraph Essay

example of a university history essay

The five-paragraph essay is one of the most common composition assignments out there, whether for high school or college students. It is a classic assignment because it presents an arena in which writers can demonstrate their command of language and punctuation, as well as their logic and rhetorical skills. These skills are useful not only for classroom assignments and college application essays, but even in the business world, as employees have to write memorandums and reports, which draw on the same skills.

Mastering the five-paragraph essay is doable, and here are some tips.

Components of a Good Essay

The five-paragraph essay lives up to its name, because is has five paragraphs, as follows: an introductory paragraph that includes a thesis, three body paragraphs, each which includes support and development, and one concluding paragraph.

Its structure sometimes generates other names for the same essay, including three-tier essay, one-three-one, or a hamburger essay. Whether you are writing a cause-and-effect essay, a persuasive essay, an argumentative essay or a compare-and-contrast essay, you should use this same structure and the following specifics.

Keys to Introductory Paragraphs

Any introductory paragraph contains from three to five sentences and sets up the tone and structure for the whole essay. The first sentence should be a so-called hook sentence and grabs the reader. Examples of hook sentences include a quote, a joke, a rhetorical question or a shocking fact. This is the sentence that will keep your readers reading. Draw them in.

What Makes a Thesis Statement

The last sentence should be your thesis statement, which is the argument you are going to make in the essay. It is the sentence that contains the main point of the essay, or what you are trying to prove. It should be your strongest claim in the whole essay, telling the reader what the paper is about. You should be able to look back at it to keep your argument focused. The other sentences in this paragraph should be general information that links the first sentence and the thesis.

Content of Supporting Paragraphs

Each of the next three paragraphs follows the same general structure of the introductory paragraph. That is, they have one introduction sentence, evidence and arguments in three to five sentences, and a conclusion. Each one of them should define and defend your thesis sentence in the introduction.

The first body paragraph should be dedicated to proving your most powerful point. The second body paragraph can contain your weakest point, because the third body paragraph can, and should, support another strong argument.

Concluding Paragraph Tips

Your concluding paragraph is important, and can be difficult. Ideally, you can begin by restating your thesis. Then you can recall or restate all three to five of your supporting arguments. You should summarize each main point. If you have made similar arguments multiple times, join those together in one sentence.

Essentially, in the concluding or fifth paragraph, you should restate what your preceding paragraphs were about and draw a conclusion. It should answer the question: So what? Even if the answer seems obvious to you, write it down so that your reader can continue to easily follow your thinking process, and hopefully, agree with you.

A Note on Compare and Contrast

Let’s look a little more closely at the compare-and-contrast essay, which is a very common assignment. It can be a confusing one due to the terms used. Comparing two items is to show how they are alike. Contrasting two items is to show how they are different. One way to approach this essay is to make a grid for yourself that compares or contrasts two items before you start writing. Then, write about those characteristics. Do not try to write about both. The name of the essay is actually misleading.

Keep these pointers in mind when you need to write a five-paragraph essay, and your end result will be clear in its argument, leading your reader to the right conclusion. Often, that conclusion is to agree with you, and who doesn’t like to be right?


example of a university history essay




  • History essays

Whether you’re a history student at university or you’re studying history at college, our history essays and resources are here to inspire you. Browse our essays and use as an example for your own work! Find more history essays here .

Cylinder seals in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550-1250 BC)

The international period concurrent with the Late Bronze Age (or LBA, c. 1550-1250 BC) exhibited heightened commercial and political relations between various regions in the ancient Near East, the Levant, and the Aegean. Perhaps the most revealing testaments of the contact amongst these regions, apart from the Amarna Letters, are the glyptic works of this … Read more

Was Stalin successful at dealing with opposition?

In this essay, dealing with opposition will be defined as fully eliminating threats, rather than merely postponing or temporarily preventing them. It will be argued that Stalin was the most successful in dealing with opposition than any other ruler during the period 1855-1964. This is due to his repressive approach in destroying potential threats to … Read more

Scotland’s Geo-Political Quagmire

In 2014, the people of Scotland voted in a referendum offered by the UK on whether Scotland should sever her political and economic ties with England and go her own separate way as an independent nation. National sentiment behind this referendum is not without precedent, as Scotland has borne the yoke of English subjugation in … Read more

Dowager period of Isabella of France

Isabella’s dowager period followed all standards that was expected for the retirement period of a queen. Like other dowagers before her, her political role was greatly reduced, and cultural and religious benefaction became a central focus of her life and her only appearances of the royal court was at major celebrations. A dowager period tended … Read more

Assess the view that there was a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’ between the years of 1547-1558

In the context of a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’, a ‘crisis’ is defined as a situation where the state is threatened to collapse. It is with this definition that Whitney Jones (1973) had first used the label of a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’, claiming that the combination of failures and instability in foreign policy, economy, and religious reformation had … Read more

How can we distinguish between good and bad interpretation?

Interpretation is an important mechanism to help us have a better understanding of a knowledge ground. Most of the time it is triggered by our senses. A simple example that I had is when I first listened to Any Song by Zico. The song appealed with such an addicting and joyful melody that made me … Read more

To what extent did the WASP Program impact women’s rights during and after World War II?

Introduction In World War II, American women had to fight twice as hard for their right to fight alongside men to protect their countries. Through nursing opportunities, sniper training projects, and the invention of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, women had to overcome the boundaries of their domestic duties on the home front … Read more

Thomspon, Hobsbawm and Clark – Marxism

No other historical perspective has influenced historiographical discourse in such contested terms. Many historians have written in the vein and spirit of Marxist belief; however, conceptual schisms have manifested between self-avowed Marxist historians who stretch the ideas of Marx, that have-fragmented the established bonds and orthodoxy of Marxist methodology. Theoretical Marxism, at-its core, is more … Read more

The Civilian Conservation Corps

Thesis Statement: The accomplishments of the Civilian Conservation Corps are still seen today throughout our national parks and reservoirs. During a harsh time what could you do to crawl yourself out of The Great Depression? In this time the state of the country was shambled, broken, and full of poverty. The environment was deteriorating. Much … Read more

Why did dancers from Soviet Russia began to defect to the West?

When you think about war, what do you think about? Missiles, poverty, the little green army men from Toy Story? In this essay, I am going to explore a different side of war–ballet. During the Cold War, more specifically the late 80’s and early 90’s, dancers from Soviet Russia began to defect to the West. … Read more

North-South relations and their importance during the Cold war

The end of the Second World War culminated in the rise of two superpowers- United States(US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). The world was therefore divided into two ideological blocs- Eastern bloc led by the USSR and the Western bloc led by the US. This rivalry came to be known as the … Read more

Defining Civil War and understanding its causes

How do you define a Civil War and what criteria do you have to fit to say that your country is at what? The most seen academic definition has that of two key criteria. ‘’The first says that the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political centre, … Read more

Athenian law – gathering evidence and case examples

1) One distinct feature of classical Athenian law was the use of torture as an interrogation method for gathering evidence. Specifically, that judicial torture was seen as a legitimate way to attain evidence in a criminal investigation. While today, this practice has been largely abandoned and rendered inefficient by many, what is peculiar about its … Read more

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan is one of the greatest military leaders that have ever walk the Earth. He was born in 1162. Temujin was a boy that would help shape the world of today. His father Yesugei was the chief of the nomadic tribe. He was poisoned by another tribe, and that meant that Temujin would have … Read more

How America’s history shaped fashion in the 70s

The 1970’s were full of political, cultural, and social issues.  A timeline of events throughout America’s history will help shape why certain fashions were the way they were during this time period.  Thus, creating a background for why the Hippies and disco lovers took on their fashions of this decade. The year of 1970, the … Read more

How to write a history essay

History essays focus more on demonstrating that you have an understanding of the issues to a set question than to finding the correct answer to the set question.

It is rather difficult to arrive at a definite answer with most historical problems. In general for each historical question there will be a body of evidence that will be relevant to it. This body of evidence typically will explain about the events and phenomena under discussion. A good answer will need to bring together all of this evidence and explain why particular items have been dismissed as having no bearing on the problem.

Analyse the Question

You must have a thorough understanding of the question by identifying the exact nature of the question; what are you being asked, this will help in giving an adequate answer that is the kind of information you will need to answer the question. Historical essays do not involve simply reporting information, rather it requires you to understand the question and make a judgment on the issue. Paying keen attention to keywords in the question is also important; words such as: discuss, explain, compare, evaluate and so on.

Here we explain how to write a history essay and expand on some of the keywords that are so important to understand:

‘Explain’ and ‘why’ questions:

These type of questions demand a list of reasons or one big reason; each reason will have to be explained – that is, clarified, expanded upon, and illustrated.

This is to break-down something. To determine the nature and relationship of the parts of; say “how” or “why” something happened. This could be likened to “cause and effect”.

‘Assess’ and ‘evaluate’:

This is how true or false something is. To judge value of its character; this should be supported by explanations and evidence. Evaluate discuss merits and de-merits, it is giving an opinion regarding the value of it.

This demands the purpose of identifying similarities and differences. When the question calls for comparisons, they expect you to include differences as well. One way of going about such an essay would be to distinguish areas of similarity and differences; furthermore give a section in which you would assess the degree of similarity and reach a sub-conclusion.

Give an account of; tell about; give a word picture of.

Show the different sides of, and argue from various points of views.

Make known in detail, to make clear or plain.

‘What-role-did-X-play-in-Y’ questions:

This requires you to identify the function of some group or institution within some specific system. This is the functionalist approach. The subject of the question is the ‘Y’ rather than the ‘X’ element. This question requires a discussion of the system as a whole and the consideration of alternative explanations of how ‘X’ worked within it.

To What Extent and In What Ways:

Involves measure of, that is, how much? For instance, Examine five spheres which cast light on the extent of Jewish influence in high medieval France: namely, their role in the commercial life of the towns, the role of Jewish banking in the agrarian economy, their influence on Christian intellectual life and so on. It has been seen that the Jews exerted a profound influence on the intellectual life of the universities but almost none on that of the established monastic orders.

In what ways should show how an event or condition relates to another. Understand what was done and what was left to be done. In this you should expect counter-arguments, did an event or condition relate to another?

Knowing  how to write a history essay  is not just about knowing facts and figures. It’s also about how you structure your writing so it flows.

The introduction:

It is usually one paragraph and its purpose is to clearly set out the problem to be discussed in the paper, define key terms that will be used, outline the structure of the argument and to clearly state the thesis. The thesis statement is the version of your argument. The thesis thus presents new information to your reader, however, for it to be a good thesis it will require you to introduce the concepts in it before presenting the thesis itself. That is the task of the introductory paragraph and that’s how the thesis fits in the introductory paragraph.

For instance, “The nature of slave rights had a dual character. On the one hand, in order to maintain the total dominance of the white master class, the law denied any rights to slaves. Publicly, the slave was merely property, and not human at all. Yet the personal records of many planters suggest that slaves often proved able to demand customary “rights” from their masters. In the privacy of the master-slave relationship, the black man did indeed have rights which the white man was bound to respect, on pain of losing his labor or subjecting himself to violence. This conflict between slaves’ lack of “public” rights and masters’ “private” acknowledgment of slaves’ rights undermined planters’ informal rule and permitted slaves a degree of freedom within an oppressive system.” The thesis is clearly structured between two concepts public and private rights which are included into the thesis. This gives the reader a clear idea of what the paper will need to argue to prove its thesis.

You need an organising scheme for your paper, which most often will be suggested by your thesis. Let’s take this thesis: “In the 1950s, American auto workers developed their identities as laborers in the home as well as the workplace.” This thesis suggests a structure: at the very least, you will have to divide things up into “home” and “workplace.” The general flow in the body is from the general to the specific. Start with general statements, such as “Federal policy towards native peoples aimed at either assimilating Indians or exterminating them.” Then move on to specific statements which support your general statement, such as “The origins of the policy of assimilation can be traced back to Puritan missionaries of the 1650s.”

The use of paragraphs is essential and must start with a topic sentence. Each paragraph should have a main point with a small argument to support the paragraph. The paragraphs of the paper must flow from one idea to the next. Arguing in the body need not be heated emotions and raised voices rather it should be intended to convince the reader through reason. One must anticipate counter-arguments which one can either: refute by proving it is false, as in, “While the federal census of 1890 seems to suggest an increase in black mortality, that census was infamous for recording specious data”. Or you may accept certain true statements which refute your argument but explain why they do not harm your arguments, as in, “It was indeed true that Latino youth were incarcerated at a rate three to four times greater than Anglo youth, yet this may suggest the iniquitous workings of the local justice system rather than a Latino propensity towards crime.”

This kind of arguing in the body will give more credibility to the paper and make it more persuasive.


This usually gives a brief explanation on your thesis, and pulls all your arguments together. The conclusion should show why the argument is important in the bigger picture of things, or suggest areas for further research. Or it could raise a bigger question.

We hope you gained a lot from reading our free ‘how to write a history essay’ guide.

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Arts: History essay

What is the purpose of a history essay.

As with many other scholars, historians learn their craft through researching and writing essays. The main purpose of a history essay is to formulate and defend a logical and convincing argument about a key problem or question in the discipline.

This involves:

  • examining important debates among historians
  • demonstrating skills in finding, evaluating, and presenting analysis of relevant primary and secondary sources.

5 key steps to a successful history essay View

Sources in a history essay.

The research materials required for a history essay will generally fit into one of two categories: primary sources (first hand evidence) and secondary sources (scholarly writings on the topic).

Primary & secondary sources accordions

Primary sources.

Typically, primary sources are materials that were produced during the historical period that you are studying. These kinds of research materials are called primary sources because they were written or created by those who experienced or observed the events and conditions under analysis. However, primary sources can also include related autobiographies, memoirs, oral histories and other materials that were recorded after these events and conditions.

Primary sources take many different forms. The most common types used by historians are:

  • texts , such as letters, diaries, official documents, newspaper reports, or fictional accounts (such as novels or poems)
  • oral accounts , accessible through audio or audio-visual recordings and transcripts
  • images , such as paintings, prints, photographs, maps and posters
  • film from the period.

This is far from an exhaustive list! All surviving materials are potential primary sources. New scholarship in the discipline depends, to a significant extent, on exploring different kinds and combinations of primary sources.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources are studies of the past written by historians or, occasionally, scholars in other disciplines. You should be relying on scholarly sources, which are secondary sources that have been reviewed by experts in the field and recommended for publication. These can be found in peer reviewed journals and books from scholarly publishers. They are the product of considerable research and contribute to ongoing academic discussions in the discipline.

Secondary sources generally come in the following forms:

  • books written by a single author or co-written with other historians
  • edited collections . These are books that focus on a particular period or theme that consist of separately authored chapters
  • peer-reviewed journal articles . These are articles published in recognised academic journals that have gone through a referee process.

In your essay, you will be required to use these types of scholarly sources to support your argument. The quality of the sources you choose will influence the quality of your essay.

Non-scholarly sources can include newspaper articles, blog posts, popular (non-academic) books, and journals or magazines that are not peer reviewed. In most cases, these kinds of sources are not appropriate for a research essay in history unless they are used as primary source material.

Check your understanding View

Imagine that you are conducting research for an essay about the relations between Europeans and Native Americans during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Consider each of the sources below and decide whether or not it is a primary or a secondary source.

How to analyse your sources

Analytical writing relies on a critical engagement with your primary and secondary sources. In order to generate this kind of engagement, many historians and other scholars compile a list of questions, or make up a note taking template, that encourages them to think critically and write down their thoughts.

Analysis - accordions

Analytical questions to ask about your primary sources.

  • What do I know about the circumstances and context surrounding its creation? How does this impact the content and the views presented in the work?
  • Whose voices are present in the text? Have important perspectives been left out? Why is this? What implications does this have for my ability to answer the question?
  • What secondary sources or theories might be useful for contextualising, understanding and interpreting a source such as this?
  • How is this type of source useful in exploring and answering my central question (in other words, how is it important for the development of my argument)?
  • Does this source contradict my thinking on the topic? What does this mean for my overall argument?

Analytical questions to ask about your secondary sources

  • What argument is this scholar making?
  • What evidence or theories have they used?
  • Have they provided enough supporting evidence to support the argument?
  • Is their reasoning sound? In other words, have they drawn conclusions that are a suitable match for the evidence that they have provided?
  • How has this study changed or influenced my understanding of the topic and my approach to the essay question?

Note taking template to help you analyse sources

The table below offers an example of how you might construct a note taking template to help you critically analyse your sources. It will help you identify connections between sources, and will help you use the secondary sources to offer a perspective on your primary sources.

The difference between descriptive and analytical writing

When writing a history essay, you will be required to both describe and analyse your sources and your topic. While description and analysis are both essential features of academic writing, remember that the purpose of your essay is not to merely describe past events or the material contained in your sources. For a strong critical argument, you must also analyse them.

Descriptive writing is necessary in order to outline a past event or set of conditions, or to summarise the content or argument of a text. While descriptive writing may be necessary, it does not demonstrate a deep understanding of your sources or the topic. Descriptive writing is there to support your analysis.

Analytical writing involves a critical engagement with your primary and secondary sources.

Read each paragraph and decide whether it is descriptive or analytical.

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Preparing to Write Your Essay

1. evaluate the essay question..

  • For example, if the question was “To what extent was the First World War a Total War?” the key terms are “First World War” and “Total War.”

2. Consider what the question is asking you.

  • Explain: provide an explanation of why something happened or didn’t happen. An example of an amazing topic would be on how Martin Luther King Jr. was able to spark a cultural revolution in the eyes of the public and with all of America watching. You may also see what is writing used for ?
  • Interpret: analyze information within a larger framework to contextualize it. One topic example that would require interpretation would be on World War II to provide a historical timeline of World War II and who were the parties that were affected by it. You may also like writing examples in PDF .
  • Evaluate: present and support a value-judgment. A sample topic for an essay like this would be to present the works of the Trump Administration and as to how it contributed to society’s common good and welfare.
  • Argue: take a clear position on a debate and justify it. Normally, the best platform to argue would be in the form of a debate. Argumentative essays are normally posed with an affirmative or negative kind of setting. In light of the recent school shooting events that have transpired all across the U.S., a good essay topic would be, “Should the gun carrying general policy increase its age limit or not?”

3. Try to summarize your key argument.

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Doing Your Research

1. distinguish between primary and secondary sources., 2. find your sources..

  • One tip when doing research in the library or on the Internet would be to look at footnotes and bibliographies as they can guide you to further sources that give you a clearer picture of the important texts.

3. Evaluate your secondary sources.

  • Who is the author?
  • Is it written by an academic with a position at a university?
  • Who is the publisher?
  • Is the book published by an established academic press?
  • If it’s an article, where is published?

4. Read critically.

  • First thing you have to do would be to ask yourself as to why the author is making this argument. Learn to evaluate the said text by placing it into a broader intellectual context.
  • Ask yourself whether or not it is part of a certain tradition in historiography and is it in response to a particular idea.
  • Even the best of key arguments have their own strengths. At some point, you have to consider where there are weaknesses and limitations to the argument.

5. Take thorough notes.

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example of a university history essay

How to Write Your First Undergraduate Essay

Jeremy Black prepares readers for the rigours of university history.

Well done! You have got into university to read history, one of the most interesting subjects on offer. One reason it is very interesting is that there is a clear progression from the challenges at A level to the requirements of a degree. And that is your problem. You have been set your first essay and you are not clear about these requirements.

The first rule is a simple one. The questions may look the same but your answers must be different. One can be set the identical question, say ‘Why did the French Revolution occur?’, at ages 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 or, if you are an academic writing a paper, 50 or 60, but a different type of answer is required.

In what way different? Not primarily in terms of more facts, because university history degrees are not essentially a test of knowledge, not a question of remembering dates or quotes. It is certainly appropriate to support arguments with relevant information, the emphasis being on relevant not information, and, when you deploy facts, do get them right. To get your facts wrong risks undermining the impression you create because it suggests that you do not really know the subject.

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But history is what you remember when you forget the facts. It is a habit of thought, an attitude of critical scrutiny and exposition, a method of enquiry. These should underlie your reading for your essay and should guide your preparation, and it is in their light that facts are to be assessed. They must contribute to the critical argument, and that requires an ability to engage with three elements if the essay is to be a good one:



  • Historiography.

I will go through all three, but do not worry. At this stage, for most students, these are an aspiration and not an achievement; but the aspiration is important as it shows you, first, how your degree course is different from A level and, secondly, what you will be expected to be able to do by the end of your university career. To do well, you should make an effort to begin including each of these elements in your essays.

Many questions relate to key concepts in history. For example, if you are asked ‘What were the causes of the French Revolution?’, the key concepts are causes and revolution. What do you mean by the French Revolution? Is it primarily the violent challenge to royal authority in 1789, the creation of a new political order, a marked ideological discontinuity, the process of socio-economic change, or, if a combination of all of these, which takes precedence and requires most explanation? What do you understand by causes? Are we talking primarily about long-term, ‘structural’ factors that caused problems, or about precipitants that led to a breakdown of the existing situation? These issues need discussing explicitly, out-in-the-open. That is key to a good essay at university level. They should not be left unspoken and unaddressed; and your discussion of them should reflect your awareness that issues are involved in the analysis, and that you are capable of addressing them. You also need to be aware that there will be different answers and this should guide your handling of the concepts. This leads into Methodology.

In this section, you should explicitly address the issue of how scholars, including yourself, can handle the conceptual questions. This follows the previous point closely. What sources should scholars use and how should they use them? Do you put a preference in studying the French Revolution on the declarations made by revolutionaries, on their public debates, or on what happened ‘on the ground’, including the violent opposition they aroused? If you discuss the latter, you underline the fact that the Revolution led to civil war, and that the causes of what you present as the Revolution were not a mass rejection of the existing system. You also point out that in 1789 few people envisaged what they were expected to support in 1792 (a republic and the trial of the king) let alone 1793 (the Reign of Terror). The Revolution is thus presented and studied as a dynamic, changing process, which requires different explanations at particular stages.


A key feature of university work is that you need to address explicitly the degree to which historians hold different views, and why, and to show that you understand that these views change, and can locate your own essay in their debates. For the French Revolution, we see a tendency among French scholars to stress socio-economic causes, among American academics to emphasise the conceptual inconsistencies of the French ancien régime , and among British writers to underline short-term political issues.

Ten Key Things To Do

  • Read the question and understand what it is asking.
  • Work out your approach.
  • Write a detailed essay plan, with different points per paragraph.
  • Have an introduction in which you reveal your understanding of the current debate in interpretations.
  • Remember to handle the concepts in the question and in your answer clearly.
  • Remember to introduce the relevant historical methods explicitly.
  • Engage with the historiography, the views of different historians.
  • In doing so, show how your work is part of the debate.
  • Have a clear conclusion that brings out the relevance of the topic and your answer for wider historical issues.
  • Include a reading list and a word count.

Sounds difficult? Well, these approaches add interest and understanding, and help make your degree a worthwhile process of education and exposition.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is the author, with Donald M. MacRaild, of Studying History (Palgrave, 3rd edition, 2007).

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A guide to writing history essays

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This guide has been prepared for students at all undergraduate university levels. Some points are specifically aimed at 100-level students, and may seem basic to those in upper levels. Similarly, some of the advice is aimed at upper-level students, and new arrivals should not be put off by it.

The key point is that learning to write good essays is a long process. We hope that students will refer to this guide frequently, whatever their level of study.

Why do history students write essays?

Essays are an essential educational tool in disciplines like history because they help you to develop your research skills, critical thinking, and writing abilities. The best essays are based on strong research, in-depth analysis, and are logically structured and well written.

An essay should answer a question with a clear, persuasive argument. In a history essay, this will inevitably involve a degree of narrative (storytelling), but this should be kept to the minimum necessary to support the argument – do your best to avoid the trap of substituting narrative for analytical argument. Instead, focus on the key elements of your argument, making sure they are well supported by evidence. As a historian, this evidence will come from your sources, whether primary and secondary.

The following guide is designed to help you research and write your essays, and you will almost certainly earn better grades if you can follow this advice. You should also look at the essay-marking criteria set out in your course guide, as this will give you a more specific idea of what the person marking your work is looking for.

Where to start

First, take time to understand the question. Underline the key words and consider very carefully what you need to do to provide a persuasive answer. For example, if the question asks you to compare and contrast two or more things, you need to do more than define these things – what are the similarities and differences between them? If a question asks you to ‘assess’ or ‘explore’, it is calling for you to weigh up an issue by considering the evidence put forward by scholars, then present your argument on the matter in hand.

A history essay must be based on research. If the topic is covered by lectures, you might begin with lecture and tutorial notes and readings. However, the lecturer does not want you simply to echo or reproduce the lecture content or point of view, nor use their lectures as sources in your footnotes. They want you to develop your own argument. To do this you will need to look closely at secondary sources, such as academic books and journal articles, to find out what other scholars have written about the topic. Often your lecturer will have suggested some key texts, and these are usually listed near the essay questions in your course guide. But you should not rely solely on these suggestions.

Tip : Start the research with more general works to get an overview of your topic, then move on to look at more specialised work.

Crafting a strong essay

Before you begin writing, make an essay plan. Identify the two-to-four key points you want to make. Organize your ideas into an argument which flows logically and coherently. Work out which examples you will use to make the strongest case. You may need to use an initial paragraph (or two) to bring in some context or to define key terms and events, or provide brief identifying detail about key people – but avoid simply telling the story.

An essay is really a series of paragraphs that advance an argument and build towards your conclusion. Each paragraph should focus on one central idea. Introduce this idea at the start of the paragraph with a ‘topic sentence’, then expand on it with evidence or examples from your research. Some paragraphs should finish with a concluding sentence that reiterates a main point or links your argument back to the essay question.

A good length for a paragraph is 150-200 words. When you want to move to a new idea or angle, start a new paragraph. While each paragraph deals with its own idea, paragraphs should flow logically, and work together as a greater whole. Try using linking phrases at the start of your paragraphs, such as ‘An additional factor that explains’, ‘Further’, or ‘Similarly’.

We discourage using subheadings for a history essay (unless they are over 5000 words in length). Instead, throughout your essay use ‘signposts’. This means clearly explaining what your essay will cover, how an example demonstrates your point, or reiterating what a particular section has added to your overall argument.

Remember that a history essay isn’t necessarily about getting the ‘right’ answer – it’s about putting forward a strong case that is well supported by evidence from academic sources. You don’t have to cover everything – focus on your key points.

In your introduction or opening paragraph you could indicate that while there are a number of other explanations or factors that apply to your topic, you have chosen to focus on the selected ones (and say why). This demonstrates to your marker that while your argument will focus on selected elements, you do understand the bigger picture.

The classic sections of an essay


  • Establishes what your argument will be, and outlines how the essay will develop it
  • A good formula to follow is to lay out about 3 key reasons that support the answer you plan to give (these points will provide a road-map for your essay and will become the ideas behind each paragraph)
  • If you are focusing on selected aspects of a topic or particular sources and case studies, you should state that in your introduction
  • Define any key terms that are essential to your argument
  • Keep your introduction relatively concise – aim for about 10% of the word count
  • Consists of a series of paragraphs that systematically develop the argument outlined in your introduction
  • Each paragraph should focus on one central idea, building towards your conclusion
  • Paragraphs should flow logically. Tie them together with ‘bridge’ sentences – e.g. you might use a word or words from the end of the previous paragraph and build it into the opening sentence of the next, to form a bridge
  • Also be sure to link each paragraph to the question/topic/argument in some way (e.g. use a key word from the question or your introductory points) so the reader does not lose the thread of your argument
  • Ties up the main points of your discussion
  • Should link back to the essay question, and clearly summarise your answer to that question
  • May draw out or reflect on any greater themes or observations, but you should avoid introducing new material
  • If you have suggested several explanations, evaluate which one is strongest

Using scholarly sources: books, journal articles, chapters from edited volumes

Try to read critically: do not take what you read as the only truth, and try to weigh up the arguments presented by scholars. Read several books, chapters, or articles, so that you understand the historical debates about your topic before deciding which viewpoint you support. The best sources for your history essays are those written by experts, and may include books, journal articles, and chapters in edited volumes. The marking criteria in your course guide may state a minimum number of academic sources you should consult when writing your essay. A good essay considers a range of evidence, so aim to use more than this minimum number of sources.

Tip : Pick one of the books or journal articles suggested in your course guide and look at the author’s first few footnotes – these will direct you to other prominent sources on this topic.

Don’t overlook journal articles as a source. They contain the most in-depth research on a particular topic. Often the first pages will summarise the prior research into this topic, so articles can be a good way to familiarise yourself with what else has ‘been done’.

Edited volumes can also be a useful source. These are books on a particular theme, topic or question, with each chapter written by a different expert.

One way to assess the reliability of a source is to check the footnotes or endnotes. When the author makes a claim, is this supported by primary or secondary sources? If there are very few footnotes, then this may not be a credible scholarly source. Also check the date of publication, and prioritise more recent scholarship. Aim to use a variety of sources, but focus most of your attention on academic books and journal articles.

Paraphrasing and quotations

A good essay is about your ability to interpret and analyse sources, and to establish your own informed opinion with a persuasive argument that uses sources as supporting evidence. You should express most of your ideas and arguments in your own words. Cutting and pasting together the words of other scholars, or simply changing a few words in quotations taken from the work of others, will prevent you from getting a good grade, and may be regarded as academic dishonesty (see more below).

Direct quotations can be useful tools if they provide authority and colour. For maximum effect though, use direct quotations sparingly – where possible, paraphrase most material into your own words. Save direct quotations for phrases that are interesting, contentious, or especially well-phrased.

A good writing practice is to introduce and follow up every direct quotation you use with one or two sentences of your own words, clearly explaining the relevance of the quote, and putting it in context with the rest of your paragraph. Tell the reader who you are quoting, why this quote is here, and what it demonstrates. Avoid simply plonking a quotation into the middle of your own prose. This can be quite off-putting for a reader.

  • Only include punctuation in your quote if it was in the original text. Otherwise, punctuation should come after the quotation marks. If you cut out words from a quotation, put in three dots (an ellipsis [ . . .]) to indicate where material has been cut
  • If your quote is longer than 50 words, it should be indented and does not need quotation marks. This is called a block quote (use these sparingly: remember you have a limited word count and it is your analysis that is most significant)
  • Quotations should not be italicised

Referencing, plagiarism and Turnitin

When writing essays or assignments, it is very important to acknowledge the sources you have used. You risk the charge of academic dishonesty (or plagiarism) if you copy or paraphrase words written by another person without providing a proper acknowledgment (a ‘reference’). In your essay, whenever you refer to ideas from elsewhere, statistics, direct quotations, or information from primary source material, you must give details of where this information has come from in footnotes and a bibliography.

Your assignment may be checked through Turnitin, a type of plagiarism-detecting software which checks assignments for evidence of copied material. If you have used a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, you may receive a high Turnitin percentage score. This is nothing to be alarmed about if you have referenced those sources. Any matches with other written material that are not referenced may be interpreted as plagiarism – for which there are penalties. You can find full information about all of this in the History Programme’s Quick Guide Referencing Guide contained in all course booklets.

Final suggestions

Remember that the easier it is to read your essay, the more likely you are to get full credit for your ideas and work. If the person marking your work has difficulty reading it, either because of poor writing or poor presentation, they will find it harder to grasp your points. Try reading your work aloud, or to a friend/flatmate. This should expose any issues with flow or structure, which you can then rectify.

Make sure that major and controversial points in your argument are clearly stated and well- supported by evidence and footnotes. Aspire to understand – rather than judge – the past. A historian’s job is to think about people, patterns, and events in the context of the time, though you can also reflect on changing perceptions of these over time.

Things to remember

  • Write history essays in the past tense
  • Generally, avoid sub-headings in your essays
  • Avoid using the word ‘bias’ or ‘biased’ too freely when discussing your research materials. Almost any text could be said to be ‘biased’. Your task is to attempt to explain why an author might argue or interpret the past as they do, and what the potential limitations of their conclusions might be
  • Use the passive voice judiciously. Active sentences are better!
  • Be cautious about using websites as sources of information. The internet has its uses, particularly for primary sources, but the best sources are academic books and articles. You may use websites maintained by legitimate academic and government authorities, such as those with domain suffixes like .gov .govt .ac or .edu
  • Keep an eye on word count – aim to be within 10% of the required length. If your essay is substantially over the limit, revisit your argument and overall structure, and see if you are trying to fit in too much information. If it falls considerably short, look into adding another paragraph or two
  • Leave time for a final edit and spell-check, go through your footnotes and bibliography to check that your references are correctly formatted, and don’t forget to back up your work as you go!

Other useful strategies and sources

  • Student Learning Development , which offers peer support and one-on-one writing advice (located near the central library)
  • Harvard College’s guide to writing history essays (PDF)
  • Harvard College's advice on essay structure
  • Victoria University's comprehensive essay writing guide (PDF)
  • AskOtago Service Portal Pātai ki Otāgo
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MML: History essay writing

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You will be required to write essays in a range of sub-disciplines within the Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos. This resource outlines expectations for History essays, which may vary according to which languages you are studying. Whether you are writing a 'pure' History essay or relating historical context to studies of literature, this resource will help you to improve your writing.

You can also access separate resources for Literature writing and Linguistics writing.

What makes a 'good' History essay? 

How do i interpret an essay question , planning your essay, writing your essay, how do i write with authority , language and spelling, how do i 'actively argue'.

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  • Licence: All rights reserved ©
  • Created: 2016-07-11T14:28:11+01:00
  • Last Updated: 2016-07-11T14:42:14+01:00

The History Handbook contains essential information on writing essays, presenting your work, and avoiding plagiarism. Make sure you read it. It can be accessed at

This handout addresses important issues that require further attention and thought.

What are the Specific Features of an Essay in HISTORY?

In your life you will write in order to accomplish many different goals. Different tasks will require different writing styles, and different ways of structuring your thoughts. You would for example write a newspaper article in a particular way, summarising the important points of the story at the beginning, to command attention but also to allow the reader easily to skim the newspaper. You would structure a novel in quite another way, to communicate other types of ideas and information, and to meet the specific expectations of readers.

A History essay is another particular form of writing, with its own rules and requirements that reflect the nature and purpose of the discipline of History.

In general, in a History essay you will attempt to convey to the reader your own ideas about a very specific subject, in the form of a reasoned, logical and balanced argument. History as a discipline involves understanding that there are many valid perspectives on any one issue. Different people at the time you are writing about had a range of viewpoints on the world around them. Part of the task of the historian is to exercise powers of empathy and reflect the diversity of those past perspectives. Thus you must write a balanced essay which discusses a range of different viewpoints and interpretations. However, at the same time the historian must acknowledge that she is writing from her own particular viewpoint. Thus in your essay you must make it clear what your own viewpoint is, and argue the case for why this is the most useful way of seeing the subject, supporting your arguments with evidence .

Essays titles are often designed very carefully, and phrased so as to encourage you to argue a case on a particular issue. Titles will often take the form of a question, and will focus on controversial or difficult aspects of a topic. If you are given the opportunity to design your own title for an assignment, then make sure that you set out a question that provokes an interesting, rather than bland and descriptive, answer. It is vital that you answer the question, or address the issues raised by the title, as explicitly as possible.

At all times, your essay should focus on analysis and argument – NOT narrative or a simple chronology of events. Why? Because you are trying to write in the style of a scholarly academic historian. You are NOT trying to write in the style of a popular historian, or attempting to write a section of a textbook, or just telling a story.

You can think of this point in terms of two distinct ways of writing history (‘historiography’) that developed in Classical times:

The Western tradition of historiography was created in a remarkably short time by two men. Herodotus invented the idea that […] history-writing should be analytical, not merely narrating but also searching for the causes of things, and the idea of weighing evidence and recognising that it comes in different categories with different degrees of reliability (what you have seen, what you have read, what you have been told).

Thucydides then […] removed most of the ethnography and geography that Herodotus had included and focused intensely on the study of political and psychological process under the pressure of extreme events, expressed through narrative. He thus created a concept of history that was to predominate until the 20th century; that is, of history as story, with, typically, an emphasis on politics and war. Outside the academy that is still what history means to most people. [1]

Follow Herodotus, not Thucydides.

Your essay needs to be structured so as to make your analysis and argument stand out. It should include three substantive parts:

  • Introduction

In the Introduction you set out your own arguments and show how you will develop them over the course of the essay. You should ensure that your arguments directly answer the specific question that has been set. You may also wish to use your introduction to define any terms or phrases which are integral to the essay and which may require clarification. Where possible, in a short essay keep your introduction to a single paragraph. If you have multiple paragraphs in your introduction, make sure to answer the question and set out your argument in your first paragraph.

The Body of your essay will be composed of multiple paragraphs, and will develop the ideas set down in your introduction. Each paragraph should in general deal with one main point, which is clearly and logically connected with the paragraphs and points that precede it and follow it, and thus contributes to the overall flow of your argument.

The Conclusion of your essay must show how you have fulfilled the promise of the introduction, how you have supported your arguments, and how you have answered the specific question that was set. You may also use the conclusion to acknowledge any ambiguities or points of debate that must remain unresolved.

You should aim for a clear, concise and accurate writing style. You should avoid using overly complex language, and make sure that you know the meaning of all the words that you use. Short sentences are often better than long ones.

Only include material that is relevant to your argument. Avoid vague, general statements, and include only points and ideas that help you answer the question.  Use just enough evidence (examples, case studies, statistics) to back up your argument, but do not fall into the trap of providing evidence merely for its own sake. 

Quoting, Paraphrasing and Avoiding Plagiarism

In the course of your essay, you will wish to refer to the views and ideas of other historians. This will allow you to bring in the range of viewpoints that a good essay requires. To do this, you will need to read scholarly books and articles. Do NOT rely entirely on textbooks or lectures for your material.

The History Handbook includes detailed guidance on using footnotes and a bibliography to acknowledge where you have referred to the work of other historians and where you have borrowed words and ideas from them. You must use these referencing tools properly to avoid plagiarism.

When you quote, make sure you do so accurately, using exactly the same words, punctuation etc. used by the original author. Include quote marks around the words being quoted. Insert a footnote, and in your bibliography add an entry for the source.

You do not want to quote too much. As a rough guide, you should have no more than one quote per paragraph. Avoid long quotations. Wherever possible, paraphrase – put the ideas of other people into your own words. According to Diana Hacker, ‘A paraphrase reports information in roughly the same number of words used by the source, [but does not borrow] extensive language from a source [...] you must restate the source’s meaning in your own words.’ [2] So you should change the structure of the sentence, as well as the words being used.  When you paraphrase, you MUST also include a footnote and an entry in your bibliography, just as you would for a quotation. This shows that you are not trying to pass off someone else’s ideas as your own.

Here are some examples: 

Original Quotation

‘With his treasury overflowing with American silver, the King of Spain could credibly aspire to world domination. What else was all that money for, but to enhance his glory?’ [3]

Unacceptable Paraphrase

According to Ferguson, with a treasury overflowing with American precious metals, the King of Spain could reasonably hope for world domination. Why else did he want all that money, but to give him more glory?

This is unacceptable as a paraphrase, because a) there is no footnote reference to the original source, b) it uses too many of the same words used by the original author, and c) it adopts much the same sentence structure. Using Ferguson’s words and ideas in this way would amount to plagiarism.

Acceptable Paraphrase 1

According to Ferguson, the Spanish King hoped for glory and world domination, as he had grown rich on silver from the Americas. [4]

This is an acceptable paraphrase, as when you compare it with the original you can see that it uses both different wording and a different sentence structure. It also includes a footnote reference to the original source.

Acceptable Paraphrase 2

The Spanish King had grown rich on American silver, which he saw as a means to increase his political power in Europe and overseas. [5]

This is also acceptable. Although it is not such a close paraphrase as paraphrase 1, it is clearly coming from the same source and thus needs the footnote.


  • Included an introductory paragraph? This should avoid vague general statements and instead show the reader how you intend to answer the specific question set, and what your overall arguments are.
  • Made sure that every paragraph of your essay is directly relevant to the specific question set, and that you explicitly tell the reader how the material in that paragraph relates to your overall arguments?
  • Either paraphrased in entirely your own words the ideas you are citing from books and articles, or used quotation marks whenever you have included direct quotes from these books and articles?
  • Included full footnote references BOTH for paraphrased ideas cited from books and articles AND for direct quotes from books and articles? And a bibliography at the end?
  • Finished with a full concluding paragraph that explicitly answers the specific question set, summarises your own overall arguments, and points to any further important issues that you think your essay has raised?
  • Proofread your essay thoroughly and eliminated all typos?
  • Formatted your essay, and particularly your footnotes and bibliography, as specified in the History Handbook?

[1] Richard Jenkins, ‘Bottom’, London Review of Books , 9 August 2001.

[2] Diana Hacker, A Pocket Style Manual (Boston, 1993), pp. 84-85.

[3] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003), p. 7.

[4] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003), p. 7.

[5] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003), p. 7.

Set license


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