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Choosing a College Essay Topic

Often your college essay project can be derailed right away by the prospect of choosing something to write about. Some professors give out sheets with suggested topics, or even a mandatory list of topics to choose from. Others hand out a list of topics they’d like you to avoid (typically extremely controversial, vague, or done-to-death arguments, especially in introductory composition classes). Still other professors offer little to no help at all, aside from a one-sentence assignment scrawled semi-legibly on the whiteboard.


Despite the great variation among the assignments you receive, you’ll likely to be expected to turn in essays of comparable quality in all of your classes. So how do you generate high-quality essays in response to prompts that range from frustratingly vague to irritatingly specific? There are some strategies you can employ to come up with a college essay topic that will meet your professor’s requirements without boring you to death.

Understanding the Assignment

First, make sure you understand the assignment. College professors often have manners of speaking and writing that can be a bit jarring to a first-time freshman or a newcomer to their discipline. Paragraph-long sentences, five-syllable words, and witticisms that really aren’t all that witty are all likely to grace your instructor’s assignment sheets. Your first task is to distill that down into a concise, coherent list of expectations. Does the essay have a required theme? A required length? A required number of sources? Is there a specific audience or purpose you should be writing for? Is there something in particular your essay needs to demonstrate to meet the assignment’s requirements?

Think about who you’re addressing when you try to choose a topic, as well as what your essay is supposed to accomplish. Is it for your professor, your classmates, or a wider audience? Are you arguing or explaining? Are you doing a lot of research or just writing an opinion piece? All of this will influence your topic choice, as well as the language and structure of your essay. The length of the assignment and the depth of research and analysis your professor expects will also influence the topic choices available. You want to choose a topic that’s appropriate in scope to these requirements: don’t take an idea you can’t say much about and try to stretch it into ten pages, and don’t try to cover a huge topic in three.

Generating Ideas

Even if you’re told to write an essay that’s just supposed to demonstrate some amount of critical thought about anything vaguely related to the course, there’s still some strategy involved in choosing a topic. Go back through your notes and previous assignments in the course to see if anything stands out as good fodder for an essay. If it’s a composition course or something whose topic is entirely open-ended, think about your interests, your experiences, and your major. Is there anything there that you want to research or explain?

If nothing jumps out at you, keep thinking, but expand the scope outward beyond your classroom life. When I was asked to write argumentative essays, I would keep track of everything that got me angry, frustrated, or excited between when the essay was assigned and when my topic choice was due. I often found something in the news or in my everyday conversations and interactions that led me to an essay topic for a college paper.

Brainstorming by yourself or with another person can also be an effective technique for generating topic ideas. Begin writing down everything that comes to mind, or sit down with someone who won’t find discussing homework utter torture, and talk through things that interest you or might work in your paper. Your professor or your campus writing center can be good resources for this, too—unsurprisingly, many people in higher education love to talk about ideas. If you do it right, this part can even be fun, especially when you finally find an essay topic that grabs your attention and demands that you start researching it.

Once you have a good topic idea, you’ll want to check to make sure it works. Ask your professor if appropriate, talk it through with a friend, and do some preliminary research to make sure you’ll be able to find adequate sources and that someone else hasn’t already done a better job of saying what you wanted to say. This step can save you a lot of trouble down the road in the writing process.


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