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If you get into the habit of thinking about the key issues in your course, rather than just absorbing whatever you are told or read, you will probably find you’ve already considered whatever issues examiners pinpoint in exams.

Every part of an essay is important, but the first paragraph is vital.

On reading a good first paragraph, examiners will be profoundly reassured that its author is on the right lines, being relevant, analytical and rigorous.

They will probably breathe a sign of relief that here is one student at least who is avoiding the two common pitfalls. The second is to write a narrative of events – often beginning with the birth of an individual – with a half-hearted attempt at answering the question in the final paragraph.

If, for instance, you are asked why Hitler came to power, you must define what this process of coming to power consisted of.

Is there any specific event that marks his achievement of power?Philip Larkin once said that the modern novel consists of a beginning, a and an end.The same is, alas, all too true of many history essays.Or if you are asked to explain the successes of a particular individual, again avoid writing the first thing that comes into your head. In so doing, you will automatically be presented with the problem of defining ‘success’. Do we have to consider short-term and long-term successes?If the person benefits from extraordinary good luck, is that still a success?If you immediately seize on his appointment as Chancellor, think carefully and ask yourself what actual powers this position conferred on him.Was the passing of the Enabling Act more important? Will you need to mention Hitler’s birth and childhood or the hyperinflation of the early 1920s?(‘Start with an earthquake and work up to a climax,’ counselled the film-maker Cecil B.De Mille.) More important is that you demonstrate your understanding of the question set.Here you give your carefully thought out definitions of the key terms, and here you establish the relevant time-frame and issues – in other words, the parameters of the question.Also, you divide the overall question into more manageable sub-divisions, or smaller questions, on each of which you will subsequently write a paragraph.


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