Essay Structure + How to Answer CIE A-Level Source Paper

Written by Aaron

The Cambridge A-Level History source paper is one of the most challenging exams you will face. The time pressure is real — you don’t have the luxury of innovating on a structure — you have to go in hot and get working immediately.

So, what structure should you use? And how should you approach the paper generally? This CIE History revision guide will help you answer those questions.

Let’s start with a few basic tips then explore how you can structure your answer to the CIE Source Paper.

Tip: If you’re looking for advice on Paper 2, I suggest this brilliant guide from Mr. Allsop’s History (link).

Basic Tips

1. Get your timing right

This is crucial. The CIE History exam is meant to push you to the limits. There’s no point discussing essay structure if you don’t have your timing down to perfection. I’ve written a separate guide on exam technique for the source paper here.

2. Different section, different structure

In the CIE exam, you’ll face two sections: A and B. Section A is short (~20 minutes) and will ask you to compare and contrasts two sources. In exceptional cases, they may ask you to compare half one source with another source (in this case, they’ll give you 1 long source with two viewpoints, and 2 shorter sources. This has happened, but it’s not a big deal).

The structure for A is very different from that of B, which requires you to use all 4 (or 3) sources to derive a conclusion to a question. To master both sections, you’ll need a separate strategy for structure for both.

3. Don’t be generic in Part A

One problem the CIE examiner report has noted is that students tend to make a generic comparison in part A. The question will always ask you to compare two sources with regards to a specific viewpoint. From the CIE examiner report:

The question is not a general comparison of the two sources.  The focus has to be on Britain’s attitude towards the Italian invasion of Abyssinia

Similar comments apply to different questions in part A.

Structuring Your Source Paper Essay

In this section, I’ll discuss one way of structuring your essay for Part A and two ways for Part B.

Transitioning into A-Levels can be rough. For most of your IGSCE/high school life, you’ve been taught that there’s a fixed way to structure things. But in A-Levels, this isn’t the case.

This doesn’t mean all essay structures are equal. There are better essay structures, and there are worse ones. But what is more important is how you adapt these structures to your writing/thinking style.

In other words, don’t take my advice as the only way to do things. Rather, innovate and build upon it to make a structure you’re comfortable with.

Part A

  • Intro
    • Keep short and simple. Point out if the sources mostly disagree/agree, and may point out brief NOP (nature origin purpose) of the source
  • First Point – Similarities/Differences
    •  If I think the sources mostly disagree, I start with agreements first and vice versa
    • Outline views/arguments of both sources.
    • Use NOP to explain views, and explain similarities/differences in NOP of the sources.
  • Second Point  — Differences/Similarities 
    • Same as above, but for the other part.
  • Conclusion
    • Do the sources mostly agree or disagree? (Most important)
    • Why do they agree or disagree? (Somewhat important)
    • Which is more reliable? (Least important – can skip)

Part A is really just a speedrun. You only have 20 mins, so there’s not a lot of room for complex structure.

For your Intro you want to just achieve two things: say your conclusion (do they mostly agree or disagree? Remember, the question is to compare and contrast. Do this directly here). Secondly, point out some brief NOP (e.g. Source B is a cartoon, which may have shaped or been shaped by public opinion, whereas source C is a speech from a Minister who may have ulterior motives in the said speech) 

For your first point, start with the ‘dissenting view’. If you think they mostly agree, then quickly highlight the differences between both sources in your first point instead. Outline the disagreement, explain their positions quickly, then use some NOP to evaluate and explain.

How do you use NOP here? Simple — either explain why they might disagree (e.g. source X is a internal memo, which would reveal the true beliefs of the politician, whereas source Y is a public speech which has to be carefully constructed to appeal to certain parties. This may explain why they differ in views, despite coming from the same person)


Evaluate reliability by saying things like given that a an internal memo is likely to reflect what the individual in question truly feels and thinks, it is lskely to be a more reliable source, and hence does more to prove that Britain did indeed feel bla bla bla”

Do the same for your second point. Just flip it around and talk about the similarities (if you discussed differences first).

Your conclusion should reiterate whether you think they mostly agree or disagree, then give a brief justification. You can also briefly sum up the reasons as to why they mostly agree/disagree + which source is more reliable, but bear in mind you don’t have a lot of time.

Part B

For part B, there are two approaches to structure I will share.

Approach 1: Source-By-Source

  • Intro  
    • Outline which sources support the hypothesis (i.e. In Agreement), and their main argument.
    • Outline which sources do not support the hypothesis (i.e. in Disagreement), and their main argument.
    • Overall conclusion that will be argued (if possible)
  • First Source in Agreement (or disagreement) 
    • Outline and explain view of the Source
    • Use NOP to analyse the source
  • Second Source in Agreement (or disagreement) 
    • Outline and explain view of the Source
    • Cross-reference and identify corroboration with earlier source
    • Use NOP to analyse the source
  • First Source in Disagreement (or agreement) 
    • Outline and explain view of the Source
    • Cross-reference and identify corroboration/contradiction with earlier sources
    • Use NOP to analyse the source
  • Second Source in Disagreement (or agreement) 
    • Outline and explain view of the Source
    • Cross-reference and identify corroboration/contradiction with earlier sources
    • Use NOP to analyse the source
  • Conclude 
    • Overall what do the sources point towards to
    • For sources that disagree with your conclusion, undermine them
    • For sources that agree with your conclusion, buffer up their credibility

This structure is pretty self-explanatory. Most people do it this way, and it’s a quick and dirty way of getting the job done. To make it even simpler, you don’t need to have an overall conclusion in your first paragraph — sometimes it’s hard to think of it so fast.

Advantages of this structure: It’s simple, easy and fast to work with. I use this when I’m panicking and can’t use the second structure I’ll mention later

Disadvantages: It can be inefficient. There are usually links between sources, and if you go through each source individually, your structure may prohibit you from more complex argumentation.

Approach 2: The Running Argument

  • Intro 
    • Outline two contrasting views on the hypothesis (no mention of sources yet)
    • Outline overall conclusion you wish to prove
  • Paragraph 1: Explain Viewpoint You Actually Disagree With
    • Outline which sources back up this view
    • Explain their views
    • Cross-reference between the sources to highlight similarities in view
  • Paragraph 2: Evaluation of Sources in Paragraph 1 
    • This is where you use NOP to undermine the hell out of the sources that disagree with your viewpoint
    •  OR try to show that one source, when examined further, actually proves the view you agree with.
    • If a source is adamantly on the side you disagree with, use NOP to undermine its credibility.
    • Use NOP a lot here – the point of this paragraph is to evaluate and examine closer the sources used in the previous paragraph.
  • Paragraph 3: Explain Viewpoint of Sources You Agree with 
    • Outline which sources back up this view
    • Explain their views
    • Cross-reference between the sources to highlight similarities in view
    • Try to cross-reference even the sources from Paragraph 1 to show overall agreement towards your main conclusion
  • Paragraph 4: Evaluation of Sources in Paragraph 3 
    • Use NOP evaluation to show why the sources that agree with you are more reliable
  • Conclusion 
    • Reaffirm overall conclusion and summarise.

This is a tougher structure to master, but it works like a charm. It unleashes your ability to make complex arguments. Briefly, your intro sets up two opposing views and an overall conclusion (e.g. I will argue that overall, the sources show X)

You then start with the ‘dissenting view’. This means you talk about the view you think is wrong. So if you wish to conclude that overall, the sources disagree with the hypothesis, then discuss the agreements first. We do this because it’s easier to undermine what you disagree with later on throughout the essay.

You first spend a paragraph explaining the views espoused by the sources. Show you understand them, and use both (cross-reference) to prove the same viewpoint.

Your next paragraph is where you really milk the whole NOP thing. Examine their credibility. Remember, you disagree with these sources, so be harsh. Some tactics here include proving that a source that seemingly disagrees with you actually agrees with you when you analyse it further. Or you could just point out how unreliable it is etc.

Next, you do the whole explaining thing again, but for the remaining sources that agree with you. Outline, explain, and cross-reference to show you understand the overarching idea these sources are trying to espouse.

Then you do NOP again. This time, you agree with the sources, so use NOP to explain why you think they are relatively more credible than the sources you disagree with.

Then conclude! Reaffirm your conclusion. Summarise your overall argument, and tie your points together.

Why do we spend one paragraph explaining sources, then the next using NOP to evaluate them? Because that’s exactly what you’re being tested on! Whether you can understand the sources and evaluate them.

In other words, you’re really doing this:

Disagree – explain the sources
Disagree – evaluate the sources
Agree – explain the sources
Agree – evaluate the sources

This summarises how you can structure your source essay. Remember to practice! Especially when you use the second approach, you will struggle at first. You will become worst at essays before you become better.

This is normal and part of the process of branching out into more complex skills that you have yet to master. Just practice more and innovate to find what works for you while still allowing you to capture your potential with your structure.

Read also: Exam Technique for Source Paper