AQA Philosophy top band essay structure (21-25 marks)

AQA Philosophy

Note that this is for AQA Philosophy, not AQA Religious studies.

Essay structure is very important as it determines half your whole grade. People tend to think that 25 mark questions are very difficult, that getting 21 or above in the exam is really hard and rare. It’s certainly rare, but it’s not as hard as people, including many teachers, actually think.

The key mistake a lot of teachers make is to think that getting full marks requires an essay that is really philosophically advanced and complex. For better or worse, this is not true. It simply requires hitting all the mark scheme criteria of intent, back and forth evaluation (robust defence), integration and weighting. Many teachers get the intent part fine, but not so much the rest of them.

This page contains detailed explanation of how to hit those other mark scheme criteria.

The mark scheme criteria for the 21-25 band mark range

  • The student argues with clear intent throughout and the logic of the argument is sustained.
  • The student demonstrates detailed and precise understanding throughout.
  • The conclusion is clear, with the arguments in support of it stated precisely, integrated coherently and robustly defended.
  • Arguments and counter-arguments are stated in their strongest forms.
  • Reasoned judgements are made, on an ongoing basis and overall, about the weight to be given to each argument. Crucial arguments are clearly identified against less crucial ones.
  • Philosophical language is used precisely throughout.

Essay structure

Your introduction

  1. Outline the argument/theory in question.
  2. State your intent

Three sections of this structure:

Part 1: A view on the question. An argument/theory/philosopher either for or against the question.
If part 1 is a criticism, do integration and then weighting/cruciality

Part 2: A criticism of the view in part 1. Integration and (unless done in part 1) weighting/cruciality

It is then optional to go back and forth some more with a defence of part 1 and then, again optionally, a counter to that defence, etc (with integration).

Part 3: Give your judgement as to which argument is correct and why. Explain the consequence of that argument being correct regarding the aforementioned weighting/cruciality for your intent.

Part 4: Link back to the question using the language of the question. Make sure this paragraph ends in a way that coherently fits with/justifies your Intent.

Your conclusion

Sum up the part 3 evaluative judgements of each section and show how they coherently lead to your conclusion (intent). If applicable, remark which of the arguments were more or less crucial for reaching you conclusion than the other(s) (Weighting/Cruciality).

Explanation of the mark scheme criteria


‘The student argues with clear intent throughout and the logic of the argument is sustained.’

Intent refers to your intended response to the question, for example to an ‘assess Theory X’ question, your intent might be to argue that it is false.

The intent must exist ‘throughout’ the essay, meaning stated in the introduction, conclusion and the end of each paragraph.

Sustaining the logic of the (your) argument means that each section must be ended in a way which fits your intent. If your intent is to show Theory X false but end a section dealing with one of its issues with the evaluative judgement that Theory X can be adequately defended from the issue, then that does not fit your intent and the logic of your argument (that Theory X is false) would not be sustained if you left the section like that. So, you either need to add another step showing how Theory X actually does not survive the issue for some further reason, OR you must explain how Theory X surviving this issue does not change your intent/argument because of some other issue you dealt with previously or are about to deal with next. Or, if possible, you could show how in responding to that issue, Theory X opens itself up for some other more fatal criticism.


‘The conclusion is clear, with the arguments in support of it stated precisely, integrated coherently and robustly defended. Arguments and counter-arguments are stated in their strongest forms.’

‘Integrated coherently’ means that whenever you are writing a criticism, you are making it clear exactly how it undermines what it is criticising.

This must always be done in part 2 but sometimes you might use a criticism for part 1 so it would have to be done there too. You might need also it for part 3 if that involves a criticism. Whenever you use a criticism, you should do integration.

It’s not enough simply to learn a criticism. and then plug it in. You must then explain how that criticism being true undermines what it is attacking. You must write the response and then explain how it responds. This will often be a simple matter of identifying which premise or which part of a theory it undermines, but there are a variety of ways that criticisms attempt to undermine a theory and you need to show understanding of that and its implications.

An argument could:

  • Attack a premise of the theory. You should identity how crucial that premise is and the consequence for the theory/argument of it being successfully undermined.
  • Establish that the arguments for the theory fail, which might leave the theory unproven, unconvincing/unjustified or lacking in evidence rather than disproven and false.
  • Undermine one part of or aspect of a theory and you’d have to decide whether that makes the whole theory false, depending on how important that aspect was to it.
  • Show that the theory has some practical limitation which makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to implement. The question of whether this makes the theory false would then have to be decided.
  • Prove that the theory leads to something negative like solipsism, scepticism, nihilism or anarchy. A theory which leads to any of those three is sadly not necessarily for that reason false! Though take care, there might be reasons why it should be considered false for leading to something negative, at least in some respect which you could get credit for explaining.
  • Be a deductive, inductive or abductive argument.

Integration also refers to having an integrated understanding of your whole overall argument at the start, throughout and end of your essay.

Integration can also mean connecting paragraphs together by pointing out some reason why it’s logical to bring up the content of the next paragraph given the one you’ve just written, either due to the content or cruciality. However, this will not always be possible and should not be thought of as a requirement in every paragraph.


‘Reasoned judgements are made, on an ongoing basis and overall, about the weight to be given to each argument. Crucial arguments are clearly identified against less crucial ones.’

Individual cruciality. Each section should start with an argument for or against the question, followed by a criticism of that argument. You might then optionally do further back and forth of defences and counter-defences, etc. Every step involves an argument, then.

To get the marks for cruciality, you must state how crucial an argument is or how much weight it has. This is most easily done regarding issues/criticisms.

In an essay you will evaluate multiple different issues/criticisms of the argument/theory in question.

You might conclude that the issues all fail, all succeed or that some fail and some succeed. That is not the same thing as weighting/cruciality. The cruciality/weighting of an issue/criticism is different from evaluating its success or failure.

Every issue/criticism should be integrated, so that it is clear exactly how it attacks whatever it is attacking.

Individual cruciality/weighting follows from that.

An issue which attacks a foundational premise is going to be critical and imply that the truth of the argument/theory in question is at stake. It will be potentially fatal.

An issue that undermines one of the arguments for a theory or claims that it leads to scepticism or is not the best explanation might only show that the theory is unattractive or unconvincing or that we have no reason to believe it or something like that.

Explaining the individual cruciality of an issue essentially involves highlighting what is at stake if that issue succeeds. You will then go on the separate matter of evaluating whether the issue succeeds.

The weight to be given to each argument. Making reasoned judgements about the weight to be given to each argument also involves making sure to highlight the strengths of an argument/theory. Bringing out the full strength of each argument/theory, including the ones you ultimately argue against, is important. Explain why an argument/theory is convincing to some philosophers, even if you end up evaluating that it does not succeed.

Relative cruciality. How crucial an argument is in comparison to other arguments that have a similar aim. For example if you evaluate multiple issues, are some more crucial than others?

This could be done in section 2 or 3, in the conclusion, or before the conclusion.

Points about cruciality should also be involved in the conclusion. Your conclusion must logically follow the cruciality of the various arguments you considered and then whether you evaluated them to succeed or fail.