The first and most important part of writing a good history essay is to understand the question. Many students fail to reach their grade because they fail to grasp the question and terminology used. No matter how well an essay is researched and written, if it does not answer the question, the student will receive a poor grade. History essay questions are presented in numerous ways, and when a student is not focused on the terminology and the question structure, the essay can meander into an irrelevant narrative. Many questions appear at first to be simplistic reiterations of lectures or seminars, however, the questions that are set are generally to test the student’s ability to apply their knowledge and not necessarily to regurgitate facts. 1. Why were there so many revolutions in 1848? This question does not ask how many revolutions took place; neither does it ask how they took place. What the question asks is what revolutions took place and how are they connected together.
What were the common causes of the revolutions, not their independent, isolated variables, but how were they connected. 2. Do you consider that the policy of Tsar Nicholas I towards Turkey led inevitably to the Crimean War? When considering this question, it is important to note that although the question identifies Tsar Nicholas I’s policies as the subject for this essay, the involvement of other nations should also be included. The essay requires the student to describe the origins of the Crimean War and the part played by Tsar Nicholas I’s policies and that of France and Great Britain. The paper should endeavour to explain the variables leading up to the war and discuss to what extent the policies of Tsar Nicholas I influenced the actual timing of the conflict. In history essays isolating a topic from external factors is dangerous unless requested in the question. The student must assess the cause and effect of numerous variables but focus on Russia’s foreign policy particularly towards Turkey.
3. Compare the nationalism of Mazzini with that of Cavour. This question asks about nationalism, not individuals. The question should address Mazzini’s and Cavour’s nationalist policies and ideologies. A description of nationalism in context to other nationalist movements in Europe during this period should be used to identify the common meaning of nationalism, and Mazzini and Cavour should be placed in a comparative role according to this definition. A common mistake by students would be to muddy their essay with a narrative of both the key figures identified in the question. Furthermore, describing Mazzini and Cavour in isolation, without considering Europe and Italy, would equally reduce the grade. The subject of this question is nationalism and how nationalism was perceived, acted upon and delivered by Mazzini and Cavour. 4. What were the consequences for Germany of the Zollverein ? This is a straightforward question which would require a student to describe the political and economic development of Germany between the years 1830 and 1870 and how the Zollverein influenced it.
It would be up to the student to decide the extent of influence supported by relevant evidence. 5. How successful was Tsar Alexander II in solving the problems facing Russia during his reign? When attempting this question, the student must discuss the difficulties facing Russia at the beginning and end of the reign of Tsar Alexander II. Political, economic and social factors must all be taken into account. The essay should progress on the discussion whether or not Tsar Alexander II left any long term solutions. It is a straightforward question; however, the student should not deviate from the question and remain focused on Tsar Alexander II’s influence. 6. ‘Unfriendly and provocative.’ To what extent is this an accurate summary of Germany’s policies towards the European Powers between 1890 and 1914? With the debate on the origins of the First World War still being fought, many students fall into the trap of discussing war guilt and the events leading up to the First World War. However, this is not what the question asks. This question asks whether Germany’s policies were perceived as ‘unfriendly and provocative’. For this paper, Germany’s policies should be examined in context to how they would be perceived by the European Powers during that period. Furthermore, this question offers the opportunity to discuss the interpretation of the policies by individual countries. For example, did Great Britain feel provoked by Germany’s policies more than France did? It must not be forgotten that there are two words: ‘unfriendly’ and ‘provocative’. The paper could include a discussion on the powers experiencing the policies as ‘unfriendly’ rather than ‘provocative’.