College English: Choosing an Essay Topic

College Advice

In college you may often find that assignment prompts seem incredibly vague when you compare them to your high school assignment prompts.  Some instructors may not give out assignment prompt sheets at all, but simply list something on the syllabus such as “Short Paper 1, 5 pages.”  Any other instructions will come verbally in class (and you may have to remind the instructor to do this) and may likely be something to the effect of “Write about one of the texts we’ve studied.”

Since choosing their own topic is often new to incoming students, a prompt like this can be scary.  Even a more specific one that might as you something like “Choose one of the texts we’ve studied and analyze it in light of Text Y” may seem overly vague.  What exactly does the instructor want you to say about Text X in light of Text Y?  What is the answer?

Strictly speaking, there is no answer, or at least not one correct answer.  Your instructor wants you to make a specific and original claim, but what that claim is, is up to you.  You’ll want to make this claim as narrow as possible.  It is true that a topic can be too narrow for you to get any mileage out of it when writing.  For instance, if you ask a “yes” or “no” question or a question that has a specific answer such as “How many states went blue in the last election?” you can’t really write five to eight pages in response.  However, most students struggle by writing too broad a statement, not too narrow, so you’ll want to focus on gaining more specificity, not less.

Start out by thinking about the specific text you are working with.  Make a claim about that text and what it does, and why what it does is interesting or important.  You don’t, for example, want to write about “feminism throughout history” or “how technology has changed the world” or “how attitudes towards sin and guilt have changed since medieval times.”  You don’t have space in your essay to provide evidence for a claim that covers all of history or even a few centuries of history.  If you want to write about feminism or technology or guilt, write about it in the context of how it’s presented in the texts you have studied in your course.

An easy way to help direct your essay as you try to narrow it is to eliminate all opening phrases such as “From the beginning mankind has…” or “Throughout history…” or “From the dawn of time…”  It’s true that writing models ask you to begin an introduction with a broad claim and then narrow it, but broad is in relative terms.  If, for example, you’re talking about an Elizabethan play, you could begin broadly by talking about Elizabethan drama in general.  But you wouldn’t talk about drama from the dawn of time.

Once you’ve narrowed your topic to your specific text and made a specific claim about what that text is doing, you want to add to your thesis statement by telling your readers why it is important to look at this.  For example, you may have narrowed your topic from gender roles throughout European history to gender roles in the short story you read in class.  However, it’s not enough to say something like “Short Story X suggests traditional gender roles are outdated.”  You should continue on to say how it does this in an interesting or provocative way, how the text plays on other texts or positions itself against them, or why it’s important to look at this story doing this thing.  You may find your thesis is more than one sentence.  That’s okay.  You want to make it complex and specific, and taking more room to do that will only benefit your argument.

If you’re still not sure what a good essay topic is, go speak to your instructor.  Go prepared with specific questions, not just “What do you want from me?” or “I don’t understand the assignment.”  If you do, you risk them repeating the assignment prompt to you in different words because it’s difficult for them to say more than “Write about this text” without telling you exactly what to write.  And they don’t want to do that.  They want to give you space to write about something you care about.  They want you to feel you are able to be creative and bring something new to the table.  So instead, bring a proposed topic or abstract for them to critique.  They can then give you specific feedback on that and help you think of ways to make your claim more specific and more complex.

If you do all this and your draft is returned with feedback that says something like, “I think this is your main argument here,” or “You should focus your paper on this part or this claim,” take the feedback seriously.  Rewrite your paper around that claim.  This is your instructor helping to reveal to you the really interesting argument currently hidden in your paper.  If you keep going with the claim you currently have your paper centered around, you will likely get a lower grade than if you work with the claim your instructor sees as more interesting or more relevant to the assignment prompt.

Remember, the vagueness of college assignment prompts is meant to give you room to explore ideas you find exciting.  Your instructor wants you to take risks and be creative.  There’s no secret topic the instructor really wants you to write about, a secret topic you must read their mind to discern.  Try to find the vagueness freeing, and see what you can do with it.

Krysta 64


One thought on “College English: Choosing an Essay Topic

  1. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    Good post! I’m going into my second year of uni and I still struggle with how broad essay questions are. Sometimes I love the freedom, but it can be kind of overwhelming, especially when I’m not sure if my interpretation of the question is valid. Your advice is really good, so thank you for that! I always try to bring really specific questions to my seminar leaders – what I struggle with is actually accepting their answers, because usually they tell me that I should include more of X and less of Y, but I want to do it the other way around, so I end up ignoring their advice – which is really stupid.


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