One of the most common issues beginning college students have is difficulty coming up with compelling essay topics. Many students’ natural inclination is to choose subjects they think they are “supposed” to write about, such as highly debated topics they hear in the news (think gay marriage or medical marijuana), or the specific examples their instructors mention in class. Don’t give in to this urge! The best essay topics are those that you are most interested in, and most willing to research deeply.
While the common topics we hear argued on television day after day might be easier to write about before doing research, they won’t really challenge you and are likely boring and tedious for your instructor to read since she probably sees them rehashed semester after semester. Also, the example an instructor mentions in class is just that–an example. Some students think if the instructor mentions a topic it indicates the instructor really likes it and the student will win points for choosing a topic the instructor likes. Probably not! It’s more likely that writing your paper based on the teacher’s example will make it look like you couldn’t come up with an original idea.
So, how can you come up with an original, interesting, smart, detailed essay topic?
Step one: Brainstorm the top five things you like the most. Students often compartmentalize, separating their personal lives and interests from their academic lives and interests. Unfortunately, this can lead to really boring research topics that students don’t care about. You know all the fun, cool stuff you like in your everyday life? There are researchers studying it in an academic way, and you can write about it for school as long you know how. You might not know how yet because you haven’t done the research, and that’s okay.
At this step, simply brainstorm a list of things you like the most, even if they are things that sound non-academic such as chocolate chip cookies, instagram, dogs, Netflix, and breakdancing. For each topic you come up with, brainstorm as many related topics as you can think of. For chocolate chip cookies, this might include boutique sweets shops, sugar addiction, and comfort food. (Note: the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has an excellent list of brainstorming exercises you can do to help expand upon your original topic.)
Step two: Pick the lens through which you want to view your topic. This might already be decided for you depending on the assignment and the class. If you’re in an ethics class, for example, you probably have to write about ethical issues surrounding your topic (i.e., should chocolate chip cookies and other sweets be sold in public schools?). Other classes, however, particularly writing courses, might allow you to approach the subject through the lens of any discipline. Marketing and advertising experts will focus on how to best sell chocolate chip cookies, while those in the medical field will focus on how chocolate chip cookies affect human health. (Note: the USF Writing Studio helps with “pre-writing,” which includes brainstorming topics and how to frame your paper. Make an appointment if you’re getting stuck on this step.)
Step three: Start skimming the academic literature. Visit the USF libraries homepage and search for your topic, limiting the results to academic and peer-reviewed sources. This will help you find ways scholars have studied and written about your topic. Try limiting your search topic by keywords indicating the lens through which you want to view the topic. For example, if I want to study how chocolate chip cookies make people feel, I might search “chocolate chip cookies mood,” or “chocolate chip cookies psychology.” If these limit my search to too few results, I might decide to expand my topic from “chocolate chip cookies” to “cookies” in general, or “dessert,” if “cookies” still returns too few results.
After doing a few searches, you will probably have a good idea of whether or not your favorite topic is one that has been researched before. (Note: almost everything has been researched before, so if you’re having trouble finding results, consider contacting a USF librarian for help.) If the first topic you brainstormed isn’t returning enough results, try the second topic you brainstormed, or one of the first topic’s subtopics.
Step four: Settle on an awesome topic and dig in. Once you’ve found a topic or subtopic that you are interested in and that has some solid-looking scholarly articles about it, make your decision to stick with it and continue doing research. This is also a good time to draft a thesis statement. You don’t want to simply use the first few articles that pop up as your sources and begin writing about them. Be sure to skim the abstracts of several articles and choose those that will best fit your thesis.
Final tip: Once you find a topic or two that excites you, write about these in more depth and from different perspectives in each class you take. You can write about different facets of chocolate chip cookies for classes in business, psychology, economics, biology, and more. With that approach, instead of simply doing assignments for the sake of the class, you are building expertise that you can take with you when you go into the job market or to graduate school. Of course, if you find that you hate writing about your chosen topic, that’s a good sign that it’s time to pick a new one, in which case you can begin the process over again at step one.