Selecting a Topic

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Selecting a Topic

Choosing a topic for an essay is an often overlooked aspect of the essay writing process, which can be a fatal mistake for students because choosing a topic can be pretty tricky.

Insert topic_checklist.png Sometimes, you are given a few choices and must choose to write on one of those choices, sometimes you have no choice, and sometimes you are given total control over topic choice, within the parameters of the assignment.

The first step is to make sure that you understand which of those categories you fall into and then to begin to make some ground rules for yourself from that point forward. If you are only given one choice of topic, then you simply begin there. That often is not the case.

Even when choosing from a selection of topics, you should consider your options. First, you want to pick a topic that interests you, but that alone should not be the deciding factor. You need to also carefully consider whether or not you think you have enough to say about it to write a full essay on it without having to resort to padding or submitting an essay that does not meet minimum length requirements. You also need to consider your feelings on the topic. If you are too passionate about something, it can be hard to write a persuasive essay that does not feel too overbearing or insulting to the audience. That is not to say it cannot be done, but if you are one of those people who loathes cats, then writing an essay about why dogs are better than cats aimed at cat lovers could present some real challenges for you. Your audience is smart and will pick up on anything condescending or hateful towards their point of view.

The most challenging part of choosing your topic comes when you are given a category and then must select your own topic to write about from within that category. For example, an essay prompt might read:

Higher education has become plagued with issues over the past fifty years, forcing educators to wonder whether or not postsecondary education is poised on the brink of a revolution that will change the very fabric of higher education in America. Choose one of the issues faced within the world of higher education today, and make a case for the best solution to that problem.

The prompt clearly tells you that you must pick a controversial topic related to higher education today and then write a persuasive essay on the best solution to that problem. So, a persuasive essay on why schools should cut down on standardized testing would be inappropriate. Why? It is inappropriate because it falls into elementary and secondary education, not higher education where standardized testing is not used. Would a better topic then be to discuss three different problems faced by educators in postsecondary education? Nope. Even though that fits the category, it is not making an argument and thus does not meet the requirements of the prompt.

Topics that would fit include essays on how to make higher education more affordable to students, making a case for why greater or less emphasis on online education would be helpful, making the argument that more emphasis on technical school style approaches to education makes sense for some fields that are currently taught in the more traditional approach, or arguing for or against affirmative action.

Once you choose a topic, make sure that the best scope has been applied. It cannot be too broad: postsecondary education must make a concerted effort to become more cutting-edge. Well, that is debatable, but it is so broad that an entire book could be written about it. This topic needs to be narrowed down into something that can be examined in about five to six paragraphs. It could be narrowed down to: universities must be prepared to utilize the types of technology that have been part of their incoming students’ world since birth and must be prepared to help those students learn how to expand their knowledge of those tools and through those tools. Topics can also be too narrow. If you are writing your essay and discover that you have run out of things to say at one or two paragraphs, it is too narrow. At that point, you need to revisit your topic to see how it can be expanded.

Purdue OWL: Choosing a Topic

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