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Historical Essay: What is it?

A history essay starts with an argument or position you first form in your thesis statement, and that you then add to and support with evidence arranged in the body of the essay. Your conclusion then needs to respond directly to your thesis statement.


What is a historical essay?

A history essay is not exactly the same as a regular essay. The parts are similar: It has an “introduction” which includes your “thesis statement“, which is then supported by evidence you collect and put together in the “body” of the essay. You also need to sum things up in a “conclusion” that responds directly to your thesis statement.

While planning, researching, thinking about and writing your history essay, there are a few tips to remember (See tabs above).

History needs time

Historians like you need consider the “chronology” of events in time. In other words, you need to know what time period you are talking about, and you need to make that clear to your reader. How long ago you are talking about? What came before and after the events you are describing? When was this all happening? What do you call that time period?

The pictures above (by are from a film on how to prepare for an exam by Timelining the different time “periods”.

History needs historical contexts

The “context” for your essay means what else is going on at the time. You should be clear about that in your introduction and keep it in mind throughout the essay. For example, what were the economic, political, social, territorial and cultural changes that were happening? How was the world was changing then? What major events surround the time you are writing?

The pictures above (by are from a film on how to prepare for an exam by Timeline-ing the different time “periods”.

Historians use documents

Try to use different “primary source” original documents from the time period. And when you use “secondary sources” written by other historians that you find in books, newspapers, on websites, etc., make sure you indicate that these are secondary sources. In both cases, make sure the reader understands who wrote those documents, and their point of view.

The above documents (photographs, posters, newspapers) were taken from three excellent websites that offer primary source documents:

Note that in some cases (like on Exams!) you may be given document files, from which you must get your information and decide on the topics of your essay. Remember to pay attention to headings for these historical documents, and consider closely which parts of the original document has been chosen for you.

Historians think like historians

Historians examine the causes and the consequences of events. This is more precise than just the context; these are the reasons why something happened, and the things that happened afterwards because of it.

Historians also try to determine what has changed and what has stayed the same, and again, they try to explain why.

And like you, they state their opinion. You can do the same in your essay, and you can state why your opinion differs or is the same as other writers.

When you are writing a history essay, try to remember these strategies. Another good source for strategies is The Historial Thinking Project at

The above image (s) were taken from the McCord online exhibit entitled Urban Life through Two Lenses, specifically from the photographic pairing entitled “View of the Montreal Habour” (Public Domain)


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