Essay writing guide for IB Diploma History

Timothy Hoffmann

One of our most experienced History tutors, Graham Lacey, is on hand to give you his top tops for conquering the (notoriously) most difficult IB subject of them all – History!

In the thirty years in which Graham has been in the teaching profession, the IB has been the driving force behind his work: He has not only continually taught History HL and SL throughout his career, but during his time as Deputy Head Academic at Sevenoaks School in the UK he helped to develop the programme and establish the school’s reputation as one of the top IB schools in the world. For all his commitment to managing and developing the IB programme, Graham remains deeply committed to teaching History, his passion for which he successfully infects his students.

Essay writing guide for IB Diploma History

Your IB History exam will consist predominantly of essay questions. It is therefore important that you learn the skills necessary to write a good essay. Here are some guidelines:

A. Types of essay question

  1. You will never be faced with a question that demands only a regurgitation of your knowledge, such as ‘What were the main events in Russia between 1917 and 1921?’ (See section B on this). There may be a straightforward question like ‘Why did the Bolsheviks come to power in 1917?, but take careful note of every word in the question; if it had read ‘Why and how did the Bolsheviks come to power in 1917?’ you would have had to devote half of the ‘main body’ (see section C) of the essay to the ‘why’ and half to the ‘how’ to answer the question fully.
  2. Look for hidden ‘sub-questions’ in an essay title; for example, ‘To what extent was Hitler responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War?’ A further question is implicit in the title: ‘What other factors contributed to its outbreak?’, even if the main weight of your answer should be on an examination of Hitler’s contribution. Sometimes both parts of a question are explicitly stated; still make sure you answer both.
  3. Whatever the question is ANSWER IT. (See section B)

B. The contents of an essay

  1. Whatever the title of your essay is, it is vital that you keep its contents relevant to the title. Always ask yourself when writing a sentence – is this contributing towards an answer to the question? If it is not, you are wasting your energy and time.
  2. The reason for irrelevant content is usually that it is narrative i.e. a regurgitation of knowledge and a narration of fact rather than an examination/analysis of the question. You are expected to explain, interpret, analyse, examine, historical events, and not just record factual information. The crux of a good essay is one that constructs an argument based on the foundations of thorough knowledge, or – as the IB put it – consists of ‘critical commentary’.
  3. Never make a claim, i.e. answer to the question, unless it is supported by firm, factual evidence. This is why factual knowledge is essential. But the facts are of no value in themselves; they are a means towards the end of answering the question and must be used only to provide support for your argument.
  4. Never feel you have to write a certain amount. Content is far more important than length, which is important only in the extent to which it affects content. You must finish your essay, at all costs; one eye on the clock will make this possible. Always allow yourself time, also, to read through your essay. In an exam, do not come to your last question and find you have only fifteen minutes to write it; this can make the difference between a good and a bad score. Give the same amount of time to each question – if, of course each carries the same number of marks.

C. The structure of an essay.

  1. A well thought out argument will be apparent to an examiner only if the structure of an essay is clear and shows that the writer has planned the essay, paragraph by paragraph, before starting to write it. It is therefore essential you know what you are going to say in each paragraph (and therefore how many there will be) before you start writing the first. Make a plan (on paper, not in your head) and stick to it.
  2. The structure of your essay should consist of:
    1. an introductory paragraph, perhaps clarifying the title of the essay, suggesting the direction in which you intend your argument to move, and at the end containing a general, but brief, summary of that argument.
    2. a ‘main body’, consisting of five or six paragraphs, each one with a clearly identifiable theme or label, e.g. foreign policy, or economic development, or consolidation of power, and which contain the specific ingredients of your argument supported, but not smothered, by factual information.
    3. a concluding paragraph which should not be a repetition of all the points you have made in your ‘main body’, but the final, clinching blow to your argument, drawing on the specific information and evidence you have provided in your ‘main body’, to provide a general summary, with finally a direct reference and answer to the essay question
    4. Move from the ‘general’ detail in your introduction to the ‘specific’ in your ‘main body’, back to the ‘general’ in your conclusion.
  3. Your sentence and paragraph construction should contribute to the clarity and precision of your essay. All sentences, and paragraphs, should be interlinked – each should follow naturally from the former and lead, equally naturally, on to the next.

D. Stylistic points

  1. Spell and punctuate correctly, and make sure your writing is legible.
  2. Avoid:-
    1. firstly’, secondly’, ‘twenty=fifth’ etc. and ‘this leads on to the next point’.
    2. In my opinion’, ‘I think’, ‘I feel’, ‘I will show’.
    3. Abbreviations e.g., 20’C, ‘Parl’, ‘rev’, WW2, (1917, in numerical form, is acceptable).
    4. Repeating the set question in your opening sentence or paragraph, or indeed asking any question.