As we run up to exam season, many of you will now be completing your NEAs (non-examined assessment) and exam content, and starting to focus on exam technique. You may be thinking about how you will tackle the dreaded 20-mark essay questions. Essay questions are very much like marmite for students. Some love them as they get the chance to explore key geographic theories and showcase their knowledge and understanding, which may not be possible in lower-stakes questions. However, others may struggle to formulate their geographic ideas or structure them in a way that makes a convincing argument.

In my experience, all A Level geography students must be systematic and structured in the way they write their long-form answers. This approach ensures that students cover all the necessary content while also demonstrating the geographic skills that examiners are assessing.

Examiners use both AO1 and AO2 to evaluate students in essay questions. AO1 requires students to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of places, environments, concepts, processes, interactions and change at various scales. AO2 deals with the application of knowledge and understanding in different contexts to interpret, analyse, and evaluate geographical information and issues. The strongest students can produce answers that balance the two aspects in their responses. If you weigh your answers too far toward knowledge recall and simply state facts, figures, and case study knowledge without doing anything with the knowledge (this is where command words are essential), you will not be able to achieve the highest levels described in the level descriptors.


What should I do before attempting an A Level Geography 20-mark essay question?

Before you attempt essay questions, I suggest you take a look at the mark schemes for some past paper questions. It is important to focus on the level descriptors as these are what the examiners will use to assess your answers. Pay attention to the language they use to describe what they are looking for, and when you start your attempts, consider whether your language and writing style match the descriptors. The exam board mark schemes are available on the PMT A Level Geography past papers webpage.

Another place to look before attempting essay questions is the assessed sample answers produced by the exam boards (e.g. AQA Paper 1 Hazards Example Responses). These are available on the exam board websites and show a range of pupil responses to exam questions. They come with a helpful commentary that explains how the pupils gained marks, highlights the importance of a well-structured response, and provides insight into what examiners are looking for when assessing your answers.

A Level Geography students learning how to write 20-mark essay questions.

Where to start – command words

As mentioned above, it is very important for students to be systematic in their approach to answering 20 markers. The first thing students need to understand is the command word. Without knowledge of what the command word means and what it is asking you to do, you will not be able to fully engage with the question. To find out the meaning of different command words, you should visit your exam board’s website and look in the specification.

Essay questions tend to use the command words “to what extent” or “assess”. According to AQA, if the question includes the “to what extent” command word, you should “Consider several options, ideas or arguments and come to a conclusion about their importance/success/worth”. On the other hand, if it is an “assess” question, you should “use evidence to weigh up the options to determine the relative significance of something. Give balanced consideration to all factors and identify which are the most important.”

BUG the question

Command words can help guide you in how to structure your answers and the skills you need to exhibit. During KS3 and KS4, you may have been told to BUG the question, where B stands for box the command work, U for underline key terms, and G for glance back at the question.

I would encourage all A Level students to continue to use this strategy, even for longer essay questions. It will help ensure that you are answering the question you are being asked, rather than the question you wish you were being asked.

Should I plan an A Level Geography 20-mark essay?

Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.

It is crucial for all students to plan their essay writing before they start answering a question. An essay question requires you to write for a sustained period, and if you don’t have a clear plan for what you’re going to write, you may lose focus on your points and arguments and not fully answer the question.

I suggest that all A Level students write a brief plan before attempting the question. This plan should outline the introduction, including key terms to define and any case studies to introduce, the main argument in each of your paragraphs, and finally, the contents of your conclusion. Spending just five minutes on this will save you time in the long run and help keep you on track to answering the question fully.

Students in uniform sitting an exam in the school hall.

How should I structure an A Level Geography 20-mark essay?

A good structure is key to success in essay writing. A clear structure enables you to answer the question coherently and reduces the chance that you will lose the key focus of your points. All of the exam boards recommend following the structure outlined below:

  • Introduction
  • Main body of the answer (three to four key arguments)
  • Conclusion

In academia, this is sometimes known as the hourglass essay. An hourglass essay starts with a big idea, narrows down to a specific question, and then widens back out to explain why that specific question is important in the grand scheme of things.

Introduction

The introduction of your essay should account for approximately 10% of the total essay length, and it’s an excellent opportunity for you to impress the examiner. Your essay introduction should give a broad view of the essay themes and provide a definition of the key terms that you have underlined in your question. It is also the place to introduce a case study location. A strong start to your essay is crucial as it demonstrates to the examiner that you have a clear understanding of the geographic content you’ve been studying.

Main body

Once you have written your introduction, you can then get on to answering the questions. While the introduction mainly covers AO1 (knowledge and understanding of geography), the main body of your answer should cover both AO1 and AO2 (analysis and evaluation in the application of knowledge and understanding).

As before, the way you structure the main body of your answer is very important, and you must form your points clearly and coherently. During my teaching and tutoring, I have seen many ways of forming these arguments/points, but the two most effective methods I have seen are using PEEL or PEACE paragraphs.

  • Point
  • Evidence
  • Explanation
  • Link
  • Point
  • Example
  • Application
  • Criticise
  • Evaluate
A Level Geography teacher helping student with 20-mark essay question.

Everyone is different, and everyone has their unique writing style. My advice to all A Level students is to try both methods when beginning to tackle essay questions and determine which one works best for you. I would also recommend completing PEEL/PEACE paragraphs and asking for feedback from your teacher or tutor.

The main body of the essay should consist of three to four arguments that cover the views for the specific question. Those who can link back to the question but also between their paragraphs will have the best chance of performing well in their essay questions.

Conclusion

After completing the main body, you now need to finish your essay with a conclusion. Just like the introduction, this should be roughly 10% of the total essay length. The main aim of the conclusion is to bring your essay to a close and essentially answer the question you have been asked. In the conclusion, you should summarise your argument and avoid introducing any new information. It is simply a chance to express your own thoughts and opinions while bringing your essay to a close.

The quality of a conclusion is often a key indicator of the overall quality of an essay. Although it is a short section of the whole piece of writing, it provides a platform to showcase several important geographic skills such as analysis, summarising, and creating synoptic links.


Overall, it is very important that you give yourself enough time to complete your essay questions during your examinations and that you follow the structures discussed above. If you follow these guidelines, you will see an improvement in the quality of your essay responses.

If you’re in Year 13 and in need of additional help, PMT Education runs Geography A Level Easter Crash Courses for AQA and Edexcel. Whether you need support with exam technique or want to revise key sections of the syllabus with the help of an experienced tutor, these courses will equip you with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to excel in your summer exams.

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Dave F.

Dave is a qualified teacher with 10 years of experience teaching GCSE and A Level Geography. He has worked as an assistant faculty leader for Humanities and a professional mentor for new and trainee teachers. He has also been involved with the supervision and guidance of NEAs. Dave currently works in higher education and trains geography teachers across the North West of England. He is also a tutor at PMT Education, with experience running highly successful geography courses.