Should I take CIE A Level History? (Part 1: The CIE History Syllabus)

Written by Aaron

This post is targetted at students who are considering taking the CIE A-Level History syllabus.

I want to do my best to give you a good picture of how taking the subject feels like, and to answer questions that most students have when contemplating taking up the subject.

I’ve broken this guide down into a few sections — feel free to skip to the section that is most relevant to you.

  1. How the Syllabus Works + What You Will Learn
  2. Reasons To Take (or Not Take) History
  3. Private Candidates / Self-Studying History
  4. FAQs — Is it Difficult? Will it Help me in Uni? Etc.

How the Syllabus Works + What You Will Learn

The way I see it, the entire point of the CIE syllabus is to teach you 3 distinct things:

Subject Knowledge: You will learn in detail events in History and understand better than most other people who don’t take History.

Critical Thinking: This where A-Level History is really set apart from GCSEs — no more pointlessly memorising historical events. Instead, you really learn how to critically evaluate the past. You’ll learn how to assess arguments made by historians, evaluate evidence from history, and create your own arguments to forward your own thoughts on History.

Essay Writing: This is a super-useful skill, especially if you are taking Humanities / Social Sciences in university. Again, this is where A-Level History pushes you much further than in high school — you will learn how to structure your essays in a compelling fashion, and the specifics of how to take your thoughts and crystallise them in written form.

Scoring well in CIE History also means mastering the above 3 skills over time.

You can find a list of textbooks + other resources for CIE History here. I’ve added some commentary where necessary to help you decide what you need.

AS Level

You take two papers — Paper 1 (known as the ‘Source Paper’) and Paper 2 (the ‘outline study’).

Paper 1 (Source Paper)

Summary: You receive 3-4 ‘sources’. These are actual speeches / newspaper cartoons / magazine articles etc. from History that talk about a specific issue. You will need to assess and evaluate these sources to answer an exam question.

Your Options: You can choose to learn one of three topics.

  • European Option: Liberalism and Nationalism in Italy and Germany 1815 – 1871
  • American Option: Origins of the Civil War 1846 – 1861
  • International Option:  the Search for International Peace 1919 – 1945

If you’re taking History at a school, your teacher will probably make this choice for you.

If you’re taking it as a private candidate, you have free reign to decide. I personally would recommend the International Option, but I’m biased since I took it for my own A-Levels *wink wink*.

Personal Thoughts

This was a really fun but stressful paper to take. It feels very ‘applied’ — like all the facts and dates you learn actually come in useful, because without them, it becomes hard to crack the puzzle behind the sources.

It can feel amazing when you figure out a link in the sources, like “Damn — this source is from May 1937, but Event X happened in June 1937 so this person hasn’t experienced it yet!” or like “Hey, this guy is a Foreign Minister for Britain — of course he’s going to say that…” The more historical context you add to your toolkit, the more interesting it becomes to dissect the sources.

But it can also be a very, very stressful paper — you have 1 hour to evaluate 4 sources and write 2 essays. Your brain will have to get whirring fast, and you have to hit the ground running if you want to finish on time.

You can get resources for the Source Paper here.

Paper 2 (Outline Study)

Summary: This is a standard history paper — you write 4 essays altogether (2 short essays, 2 long essays). The short essays (Part A) are simple and mostly ask you to describe the cause behind an event. The long essays (Part B) are more challenging and require you to craft your own argument and viewpoint in response.

Your Options: There are 3 Options as usual. Within each Option there are 4 sub-topics. You don’t need to learn all 4, but you must learn at least 2. There’ll be one exam question (part A and B) on each topic, so you will write one short (part A) essay and one long (part B) essay for each topic.

I’ve listed the topics for each Option below.

European Option: Modern Europe 1789 – 1917

  • France 1789 – 1814
  • Industrial Revolution
  • Origins of WW1
  • Russian Revolution

American Option: History of the USA 1840 – 1941

  • Expansion of US Power 1840 – 1930
  • Civil War and Reconstruction 1861 – 1877
  • Gilded Age and Progressive Era 1870s to 1920s
  • The Great Depression and New Deal 1920s to 1941

International Option: International Relations 1871 – 1945

  • International Relations 1871 – 1918 [basically build-up to WW1, Imperialism, USA/Japan as World Powers)
  • International Relations 1919 – 1933 [basically Post-WW1 peace treaties, Interwar diplomacy, American isolationism]
  • International Relations 1933 – 1939 [basically dictators in Italy/Spain/France and build-up to WW2]
  • China and Japan 1919 – 1945

Personal Thoughts

This is slightly less rushed compared to Paper 1, but only marginally. You have 90 minutes to write 2 short essays and 2 long essays. Most of this paper comes down to (i) knowing your facts and (ii) using those facts to explain things or flesh out an argument.

There’s not much wiggle room for creativity for the short essays — here you simply have to explain the causes behind an event, and then evaluate their importance.

The long essays are more challenging but also give more room for you to craft your own argument. The best essays call for you to have an opinion and defend it. This can be refreshing for some — you have space to ‘do your own thing’.

A2 Level

Again you take two papers — Paper 3 (Historiography) and Paper 4 (Depth Study).

Most people enjoy A2 far more than AS. Taking AS can be a big learning curve — especially if you’ve never done much essay writing before. But by the time you take A2, you’ll be used to it. There’s more space to ‘do your own thing’, the material is arguably more interesting, and the exam is faaaar less time-pressured.

Paper 3 (Historiography)

Summary: You will have to read an extract from a historian. This historian will try to make an argument on an issue — your job is to examine what the historian is saying and how they are choosing to make that argument. The idea behind this paper is to get you thinking about why different historians say different things about the same event.

Your Options: 

  • The Causes and Impact of British Imperialism 1850 – 1939
  • The Holocaust
  • The Origins and Development of the Cold War 1941 – 1950

Personal Thoughts

The content itself is fascinating (I took the Cold War option), and you’ll get to learn about different interpretations of history. So rather than ‘this is how we think about event X’, you’ll be exposed to ‘well, historians A B C and D all have different ways of seeing event X, because of reasons E F G”.

The exam, however, can be a bit mind-boggling at first, and you might struggle to identify what exactly the exam wants you to do. Once you do, however, it becomes more interesting and fairly simple.

You can check out my Ultimate Guide to the Historiography Paper here and more resources here.

Paper 4 (Depth Study)

Summary: You’ll write 2 in-depth essays over 90 minutes. This paper is all about your ability to create and carry your own original argument forwarding your own view on history.

Your Options:

There are 5 Options this time. Just like Paper 2, each Option has 4 sub-topics. You only need to learn 2 sub-topics. This time however, you want to only learn 2 sub-topics because the material gets very in-depth and there’s much to cover in each sub-topic.

Option 1: Europe of the Dictators

  • Lenin’s Russia 1918 – 1924
  • Mussolini’s Italy 1920 – 1941
  • Stalin’s Russia 1924 – 1941
  • Hitler’s Germany 1929 – 1941

Option 2: History of the USA 1945 – 1990

  • The late 1940s and 1950s [
  • The 1960s and 1970s
  • The 1980s
  • Foreign policy

The first three subtopics discuss economics + society + politics + civil rights issues for that unique time period. The fourth subtopic is basically learning the entire Cold War from an American perspective from 1945 – 1990.

Option 3: International History 1945 – 1991

  • The Cold War 1950 – 1975
  • The Cold War 1975 – 1991
  • China 1945 – 1991
  • Conflict in the Middle East 1948 – 1991

For the ultimate Cold War Combo, you can do Origins of the Cold War for Paper 3, then the two Cold War subtopics for Paper 4. They all mutually reinforce each other without getting dull (again, I’m biased here — guess which options I took…)

You can get Cold War resources here.

Option 4: African History 1945 – 1991 [November Exam Only]

  • Liberation from Colonial Control
  • Changes in African Political Structure After Independence
  • Social, economic and cultural trends after independence
  • Pan-Africanism, the United Nations and inter-state co-operation in Africa

Option 5: Southeast Asian History 1945 – 1990s [November Exam Only]

  • The impact of World War II
  • The achievement of independence and its consequences
  • Nation building
  • Regional developments

Personal Thoughts

This paper is awesome. You get 45 minutes just to write one essay. The time-pressure is off and you have a lot of space to develop and structure your own argument. Again, this will be both overwhelming and scary when you start off (especially if you aren’t comfortable with essays yet), but it becomes quite liberating once you’ve got the knack.

The underlying material really depends on what you end up choosing. Most students take either Europe of the Dictators or the International History options, given the topics are more focused and the resources for them more developed. This really depends, but I’d venture to say the pace of the course is slightly slower since you tend to take more time to really ‘get’ things, as compared to Paper 2 where you’re mostly skimming through events.

I hope this has given you a good ‘feel’ for the syllabus and what to expect when taking it.

If you have any questions or need advice, please email me at

Rest of the Series:

  • How the Syllabus Works + What You Will Learn
  • Reasons To Take (or Not Take) History
  • Private Candidates / Self-Studying History
  • FAQs — Is it Difficult? Will it Help me in Uni? Etc.