Hello! I am Vernon Yian from the Class of 2016. In this (long) write-up, I detail how my friends and I had tackled the History Paper 1 (20%), Paper 2 (25%), and Paper 3 (35%) components, some strategies for revision, and exam techniques unique to IB History. For each Paper, I will first introduce the requirements and answering techniques before outlining a suggested overall approach.


Paper 1 (20%), 1 hour, 25 marks

Paper 1 is a source-based paper consisting of 5 sources (Source A to E), which usually comprise 4 textual sources (interview transcripts, book and newspaper excerpts, diary entries etc.) and 1 pictorial source (propaganda posters, satirical cartoons etc.).

Question 1 (5m) consists of parts (a) and (b):

  • 1(a) (3m) requires 3 factual answers that can be lifted word-for-word from the source
    • No evidence or paraphrasing is needed; and 3 focused, short-sentence answers are sufficient
  • 1(b) (2m) requires 2 inferential arguments which requires a clearly-stated point and evidence from the Source.
    • Usually, 1(b) requires inferences from the pictorial source

Question 2 (6m) requires 6 compare-and-contrast observations spread evenly in combinations of: 3 Compare, 3 Contrast; 2 Compare, 4 Contrast; or 4 Compare, 2 Contrast

  • The most efficient answer, to save writing time, could be structured like the following:
    • Both sources are similar as (insert point of comparison); Source A states “(insert evidence)” and Source B states “(insert evidence)”
    • E.g. Both sources are similar in that economic prosperity occurred under Deng’s rule; Source A states that “agricultural and industrial yield rose 200%” and Source B states that “China underwent an economic boom as GDP skyrocketed”

Question 3 (6m) requires 2 sets of OPVL (Origin, Purpose, Value, Limitations) evaluations of 2 sources

  • Origin and Purpose account for 1 mark in total (getting either one incorrect would not earn you the 1 mark even if the other is correct)
    • Origin requires you to copy the providence of the source word-for-word
  • Value and Limitation account for 1 mark each
  • As the source-type is predictable (e.g. a book extract will almost definitely appear), using the OPVL table—which preempts best responses—is immensely useful

Question 4 (8m) requires a 2.5 to 3 side “mini-essay” using ALL sources, and additional information not in the sources.

  • All sources need to be used and quoted explicitly in order to obtain at least 5 marks—this does not mean that quoting the source without a discernible argument will definitely secure 5 marks.
  • To obtain 6 marks and above, additional information you have learnt about the topic should be incorporated!

Overall Approach:

Given how the questions are mostly focused on the sources and not on prior information, Paper 1 generally does not require you to memorise as much information as Papers 2 and 3. Instead, the most challenging factor is time, as many find it hard to complete the paper, let alone precisely. As such, time management is the key strategy for Paper 1, and knowing what to look out for makes the Paper easier to manage.

  • Possible Time Allocation and Order of Answer:
    • Reading Time — 5 min to be spent on Question 1
    • Question 1(a) and 1(b) — 5 min
    • Question 3 — 10-12 min
    • Question 2 — 3 min detailed reading + 15 min writing
    • Question 4 — 1 min planning + 25-30 min writing
  • Procedure

During the reading time of 5 min, you should focus on mentally highlighting the answers for 1(a) and (b) so that you are able to attempt them immediately, hence it should be completed under 5 minutes. I usually then attempt Question 3 (OPVL) after to ease into the gear of writing/thinking, as the OPVL is easier to manage than Question 2. If you have memorised the OPVL table, Question 3 can be done as fast as you can write the points out.

Question 2 is the most challenging component as it requires in-depth observation and analysis, which you would not have time to perform before. Therefore, while you would ideally be writing continuously for Question 1 and 3, Question 2 requires you to pause and pick out the 6 points of comparison/contrast, hence the need for the 3 min detailed reading time. Use a highlighter (e.g. green for comparisons, yellow for contrasts) to make the process easier.

Ideally, you should have 25-30 min left to attempt Question 4—of which you should spend briefly arranging the structure of your essay (e.g. how each Source agrees/disagrees with the question)

  • Additional Suggestions
    • Be aware of the general narrative (e.g. what Deng’s Four Modernisations refer to, and TWE can it be considered a success) which can help frame your argument for Question 4 as you know what to look out for in the Sources to support a known argument
    • Due to the policy of positive marking, you can try to write one more answer for Question 1(a) and (b), and more comparisons/contrasts for Question 2 than necessary, just to play safe!
    • Go straight into identifying answers for Question 1 during the reading time—you can afford not to read the other Sources in detail
    • Start the paper with the mindset that Paper 1 puts the speed of your thinking and writing to the test, rather than your knowledge of historical fact


Paper 2 (25%), 1hr 30min, 2 essays of 20 marks each

Paper 2 requires 2 full-length essays of 5-6 sides in length, fully explicated with a detailed structure.

Overall Approach:

Personally, I have found two general ways to efficiently produce a decent-scoring essay: the essay structure approach, and the essay factor approach. You should ideally be equipped with a synthesis of both.

  • Essay Structure Approach

This involves memorising a set answer/essay structure for common and straightforward questions. Such questions include “Analyse the factors that led to the rise of Hitler to single-party rule”, which does not require you to commit to analysing Hitler’s rise with relation to a specific factor. Therefore, having already memorised an essay, you can rewrite it entirely. However, this can only apply to broad questions that do not limit you to a given factor. Questions that include a given factor should be attempted with the Essay Factor Approach.

  • Essay Factor Approach

This involves memorising individual factors, instead of an essay structure, for questions that commit you to evaluate a given factor. Such questions include “TWE was Hitler’s rise to power due to ideology”, which requires you to first address the role of ideology, followed by other factors—which would render irrelevant a pre-memorised essay that deals with economic circumstance first, for instance.  As such, memorising individual factors allows you to manipulate your argument by shifting factors around, so as to fit the question.

  • Synthesis

Using the Essay Factor Approach allows greater safety and fluidity, but compromises on time as you would be more unfamiliar with assembling a fresh essay (albeit from memorised factors) compared to if you had memorised an essay. To bridge both approaches, I had memorised the essay factors but also the general arrangement and stance I favoured. This general arrangement, returning to the Hitler example, refers to having a stance that prearranges the factors according to importance, allowing you to easily deal with the given factor. To illustrate:

Assuming your stance favours Economic Circumstances as most prominent,

Given factor in the exam question: Ideology

  • After explaining the significance of ideology, you are then able to make the connection to economic circumstance by means of arguing that ideology is LIMITED
  • By limiting the given factor, the imperative to establish a stronger argument is created, which is believed to be Economic Circumstances
  • Afterwards, you may introduce other factors (e.g. use of terror) to challenge the given factor, but to ultimately be subordinated to Economic Circumstances, allowing you to address the question by disagreeing with it while strengthening what you believe to be the stronger factor

The above is an illustration of a general idea of how the essay should flow, which is not to mean a memorising of an essay word-for-word! Having memorised the individual factors as well as the relationship between the factors (e.g. relative importance, limitations), the 5 min reading time should be used arranging the factors into an essay structure.

Additional Suggestions:

  • Clarify and consult teachers to verify your arguments and personal stance
  • Historiography can help provide direction but should not be used as factors. In other words, answering a question that has a thematic point as a given factor (e.g. role of ideology) with a historiographical point (e.g. Structuralist historiography) as a competing factor mismatches with the requirements of the question, which requires a thematic analysis. Instead, economic circumstance should be the competing factor, which can be then linked to the Structuralist tradition.
  • Be wary of the wording of the question, as it drastically changes its meaning. For instance, “TWE was Hitler’s rise to power due to ideology” treats ‘ideology’ as one of multiple factors to be analysed, whereas “Analyse the role of ideology in Hitler’s rise to power” centres around ‘ideology’ as the only factor, and the essay would comprise instead of in-depth knowledge of Hitler’s ideology and its limitations


Paper 3 (35%), 2hr 30min, 3 essays of 20 marks each

Paper 3 requires 3 full-length essays of 5-6 sides in length, fully explicated with a detailed structure. The overall essay-writing approach is similar to Paper 2.


  • Our school focuses on these 3 topics in Modern China:
    • TOPIC 4: Early modernization and imperial decline in East Asia — mid nineteenth to the early twentieth century
    • TOPIC 6: The Republic of China 1912–1949 and the rise of Communism
    • TOPIC 10: China: the regional superpower from mid twentieth century to 2000
  • 2 questions from each topic will be tested, and one can answer both the questions in a single topic. This means that 1 topic can be left unattempted (and hence unstudied).
  • Therefore, it is reasonable to identify the 2 topics that feature the most overlap with Papers 1 and 2, so as to minimize the need to memorise fresh information
  • The 2 topics are TOPIC 6, overlapping with the rise of Mao in SPS (Paper 2), and TOPIC 10, overlapping with Deng’s rule of the CCP (Paper 1). As such, it is conceivable to ignore TOPIC 4 entirely
  • Of course, spotting is risky, but the opportunity cost of studying a whole topic may be greater than said risk!


General Advice

  • Note-making
    • Scan or transcribe into point-form the high-scoring essays you or your friends have written. Having passed the scrutiny of the teachers with a decent mark, replicating it in an exam (should a similar question be tested) may yield good results as well!
    • HL History has an almost-impossible spread of content to be mastered by one person alone. If possible, divide work (e.g. essay structures, essay factor analyses) amongst small study-groups
  • Revision
    • Due to the time-constraints inherent in IB History, revision must not only cover content knowledge, but also the practice of writing essays under timed conditions. Physically writing essays (preferably with the same kind of pen) makes essay-writing a habit that will be become familiar enough to perform under actual exam settings
    • After regularly practicing timed essays, the daunting task of writing 3 consecutive essays in Paper 3 would gradually seem less impossible
  • Memorisation
    • The most effective way to memorise content differs from person to person, so it is important to find out a method that works best for you. Some had made extensive colour-coded mind maps while others simply highlighted photocopied essays. Personally, I prefer typing top-scoring essays into point form so that I am able to internalise the essay while adding my own points!
    • Taking short naps after revision has been proven to aid memory-retention, as sleeping allows the brain to process and encode the new information (also a good excuse to catch up on lost sleep)
  • Work hard
    • No way out



Knowing what the Papers require of the candidate is essential to doing well. While there is no substitute for hard work and brute memorisation, one can still strategize ways to increase efficiency, reduce strain, and secure decent results.

Ultimately, a 7 in History is equal parts mastery of content, intelligent use and organisation of available information during revision, and the unpredictable spur of the moment.

Dear readers, I’ve tried your patience for long enough – so all the best, and don’t give up!

Vernon Yian (6.17) is from the graduating batch of 2016.




Previous articleSurviving IB: TOK
Next articleAbroad: In Brown University
Year To Year AC
Year To Year is a student-run website dedicated to helping you to find out more about school and its banalities/trivialities/peculiarities. We value the unique experiences of seniors and alumni who have walked the journey before, and the wisdom they can impart. We are not formally affiliated to ACS (Independent), and do not reflect any official stance or viewpoint of the school. We are constantly looking out for passionate people interested in joining us as writers or designers to make a difference to the school community. Contact us at joinus@yeartoyear.ac to help out!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.