Essay Topics – Making the First Critical Decision

A college essay topic may or may not be freely determined by the student depending on the course and the professor. In fact, during one’s academic career, some essay topics will be very specifically assigned, generally assigned, or subject to the student’s total discretion.

Specifically Assigned Essay topics

When professors want all students to address the same college essay topic, they will be very specific with the assignment. Generally, this may occur more often in liberal arts courses such as English or political science. All students may be asked to develop one theme in a piece of literature; they may be asked to produce an opinion piece on a specific topic of controversy or a Supreme Court decision. In these circumstances, students will have no choice on the essay topics and must rely on their abilities to be creative and compelling in presentation.

Assignment of General Essay Topics

Again, general topic assignments are often given in the arts and humanities departments. A broader topic will be assigned, and within that topic, students are free to select what they believe will be interesting essay topics. For example, a sociology professor may provide a general topic such as the impact of poverty in urban environments. Within that category, the student is free to research and produce an essay on a chosen subtopic such as the impact of poverty on education, on family structure, or on crime. A bit of general research, such as reading a textbook, will enable a student to generate various essay topic ideas to choose from.

Open-Ended Essay Assignments

These types of assignments give students the ultimate freedom in choosing an essay topic. Assignments such as “Choose a current controversial issue and produce an opinion piece” fall into this category and provide the student with no specific categories of topics. Usually, the professor is interested in the essay type, not the topic, and evaluation will be based on the student’s ability to produce a narrative, an exposition, a comparison/contrast piece, etc. While students may initially like the thought of choosing an essay topic, they soon realize that the determination of essay topic ideas can be a bit difficult. These assignments require selection of interesting essay topics considering the type of essay assigned. Moreover, narrowing or broadening the essay topic ideas to conform to requirements of length, breadth, and depth can be quite a challenge. In open-ended essay assignments, choosing an essay topic becomes crucial to the overall success of the piece of writing.

The Process of Choosing an Essay Topic

Type and purpose are the two standards that affect the selection of essay topic ideas. Essay types fall into several categories. These are the following:

Explanatory, Definition, Descriptive, Process, Observational, Comparison/Contrast, and Interview: These essays will rely heavily on factual information and/or data without necessarily positing opinions. Some may require research while others may require the use of the five senses and figurative language. The purpose of these essay types is largely to inform the reader.

Critical Analysis, Argumentative, Persuasive, Response, Reflective, Position, and Evaluative: These essay types may require research and careful thought and presentation of ideas, opinions, and personal responses. The purpose of these types is to go beyond the presentation of basic information and/or data. These essay types provide the reader with insights, arguments, and “food for thought.”

Narrative Essays: Generally, a narrative is in its own category because it involves telling a story, whether that story is autobiographical or a piece of fiction. Personal experience essays are narratives; short stories are narratives. The purpose is not only to inform but to provide personal reflection and philosophies through the story-telling as well.

Admissions Essays: Essay topic ideas in this type are not of personal choice, for most admissions essays are a result of specific prompts. “What can you contribute to our academic community?” or “What life events lead you to your current career choice?” are typical admissions essay prompts, and the writer must reflect on his/her life experiences and present them in creative and unique ways.

Here are pages with topics for different types of essays, enjoy:

Determining interesting essay topics is a challenge. Within each essay type and purpose, the most important criteria for topic selection will be the passions, interests, and beliefs of the writer. Without an inherent interest in the topic, the finished product may be a “flat” piece of writing that lacks enthusiasm, and the reader therefore will ultimately be disappointed.