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Hsc Ancient History Essay Structure

Short answer responses are undoubtedly a major part of any HSC Ancient History assessment task or exam. While longer questions such as essay questions are the ones which are worth the bulk of the marks, nailing short answers will go a long way to you gaining that extra few marks and achieving that elusive Band 6.

In this article, I’ll thoroughly explain to you the process of breaking apart a question and analyzing it thoroughly to ensure you write a top-notch response.

So let’s jump straight into it!

Pay close attention to the Key Verb

This is something that is criminally overlooked by many students. It’s natural to skim-read a question when under exam pressure, but by doing so you’re placing yourself at a massive disadvantage.

The key verb provides you with valuable information on how to answer a question. It tells you in what form you structure the response and how detailed the response should be.

Key verbs are the words at the very fore-front of the question. Examples of common ones found in Ancient History are:

  • Explain- means that you must analyze thoroughly and put in a fair amount of detail into the answer. Be as thorough as you can.
  • Identify-means that you must simply state. No explanation or detail needed for identify questions.
  • Assess- requires a detailed response but more importantly, you must make a judgement at the end of it. If you do not, you’ll lose marks as the question isn’t answered.
  • Compare- means that you must analyse both sides of an argument and highlight the similarities and differences. A table is a great way to answer compare questions.
  • Describe- means that you must go through the main features and characteristics of a particular thing. Often used in questions where there are ancient buildings or artefacts involved. Since there are many buildings and artefacts in the course, you’ll see this key verb a lot!

So as you can see, the key verbs are all uniquely different and actually provide you with great information on how to answer a question before you even get started.

Ignoring key verbs is one of the most common mistakes made by students. You will lose marks if you do not abide by what the verb requires. Fortunately, it’s also one of those mistakes that’s easily fixable. Just pay close attention to them and highlight immediately.



Use of Given Sources in the Response

Sources are to Ancient History what techniques are to English. The use of sources is absolutely vital in HSC Ancient history and they must be highlighted and used effectively.

You must ensure that you extensively use the source specified by the question. No matter how knowledgeable you might be on the topic, never make the mistake of neglecting the given source.

For example, consider the following question from the core topic of the HSC Course:

“Outline the purposes of public buildings in Pompeii. Refer to Source C and your own knowledge of specific buildings.”

As you can see, the question specifically states that you must refer to Source C. This is independent from your “own knowledge”, which could include other sources. There is also a specific way to introduce the given source.

Introduce the given source first and foremost. Also provide a description of what is actually in source C. An example of the above statement is this “…as shown by Source C. Source C shows an image of the public building in Pompeii known as …..”.

By specifically naming and providing a description of the given source, you’ve ensured that the requirement of the question is fulfilled and that you’ve extracted as much information as possible from the given source. Using the given source(s) effectively is vital to getting full marks in an Ancient History response.

Of course, you’re free to add in any other source from your own knowledge that you deem necessary. Which leads us into the next step…


Using your Own Knowledge

As stated, you must pay attention and give respect to the given sources. They’re there for a reason and must be analysed as much as possible.

For questions that require you to also use your own knowledge, use any other source(s) that you think will contribute to the response and add in relevant historical facts and/or information.

Note that not all questions require you to use your own knowledge. Some questions purely just need you to answer using just the given source.


Too long? Need a Summary?

Following these 3 tips will ensure that your short answer responses are of the highest quality.

  1. Pay very close attention to the key verb. Learn the definition of the common ones.
  2. Respect the given sources. Name, describe and extract as much information from them as possible.
  3. Have a firm grasp of the content. Using your own knowledge means referring to relevant historical facts and sources.


Good luck!

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Aditya Krishnaswamy sometimes found writing in the HSC tiresome, but is very fond of it nonetheless. Completing the HSC in 2015, he found that his experiences studying HSC Advanced Maths and English, Physics, Chemistry and Ancient History were begging to be shared with keen school-goers with the hunger for success. About to study Advanced Engineering at the University of Sydney, Adi hopes his time tutoring in two organisations as well as his time studying in 3 different countries across 2 continents in his 19 years of life can help you get through the pressurised odyssey that is the HSC. A lifelong follower of numerous sports (namely cricket, American football and rugby league), he might even be able to educate the sporty side of you!



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History subjects are always remembered for their long essays, but their short answer questions are easily forgotten even though they are just as important. But have no fear – all it takes are 5 easy steps to master Ancient History Short Response!

Being a heavily essay based subject one may asked where can short answer questions be found?

Short answer questions appear in:

  • The Core ­— This is the Pompeii and Herculaneum section located at the beginning of your exam. The Short answer questions will vary from 2- 10 marks. In these short answer questions it is likely that you will be asked to discuss a topic with reference to a chosen source and your own knowledge. Your 10 mark question will always refer to at least one source.
  • Ancient Societies — In this section a source will generally be provided for question d) the 15 marker. You will then have other short answer questions that do not relate to a source but occur earlier in that section.

Now that you know where short answer questions will appear. We’ve prepared a 5 Step Plan/Checklist for helping you to get top marks with this style of question

Step 1: Identify what the question is asking

Whenever a question is posed in ancient history it will always start with a verb for example describe. The first thing you should be doing is making sure you know these ‘key words’ back to front, their meaning and how to answer a question with that verb.

The full list can be found using this link or you can see them in action with Maddi’s article on Hit Verbs for HSC Success. 

Once you know the key word highlight or underline the topic the question asking about.

“Using Source A and your own knowledgedescribeleisure activities in Pompeii.”

As it is a ‘describe’ question, you will then need to ‘provide characteristics and features’ of leisure activities. As it has two components, you will essentially need to do the following:

  • provide characteristics = a quality belonging typically to a person, place, or thing and serving to identify them.
  • provide features = a distinctive attribute or aspect of something.

Step 2: Link the question to a syllabus dot point

Once you have successfully identified what the question is asking link it to a syllabus dot point. This is helpful as it allows you to access information from that syllabus point to more deeply and thoroughly answer the question.

From the example in step 1 the accompanying dot point would be:

leisure activities, food and dining, clothing, health, baths, water supply and sanitation.”

Linking it to a dot point also gives you a hint about what should be included in your answer as that’s the knowledge BOSTES wants you to have on that topic.

Step 3: Create a rough draft

This step is most useful for questions that are worth 5 marks or more.

Jot a simple plan in the margins of the exam booklet to help you structure your ideas, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy just what immediately comes to mind.

Creating a plan for longer questions is also helpful as it encourages you to stay on task and not deviate from what the question is asking.

Below I’ve written a very quick draft to the question in step 1 to help you see how easy it is (this took me like 3 seconds so it won’t waste any precious exam time).

Step 4: Write your answer

This step is fairly straight forward, all you need to do is use your plan to write a response in the provided space. Make sure you are being as clear as possible and that your argument is following a logical pattern.

Below we’ve included a sample of what a response may look like.

Red indicates characteristics whilst blue indicates features. 

Step 5: Check that you have fully answered the question  

In this step read through your answer quickly but in detail (don’t skim read). Make sure your response is answering the question posed and contains an explicit reference to the source, for example ‘Source A reveals…’. While you are doing this double-check that you are using the correct terminology and proper grammar.

With these 5 steps answering short answer questions is a breeze. Remember that the HSC isn’t going to ask you anything that’s not on your syllabus. So know each point in detail and practise writing responses to achieve your best result.

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Milana Gusavac thought she had seen the end of HSC until she realised that others out there needed help surviving year 12 just like she had. Now she’s a member of the Art of Smart team while perusing her studies at the University of Sydney, studying a Bachelor of Psychology. When not learning or helping others Milana can be found with her nose in a book or marathoning TV shows.

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