Saturday, September 24, 2016

How to Choose a Winning College Essay Topic

Sorry it's been a while since this blog was active. There are some big changes afoot in Greg Gildersleeve Land, including a new Power Club website. Meanwhile, I'm returning to this blog and expanding the focus. Since all writing is connected (at least in my mind), and good writers should be able to do a variety of things, I'm including some non-superhero and non-how-to-be-a-writer topics. 
This first offering addresses something that vexes college students everywhere. It originally appeared on the Grantham Blog. Enjoy.

Writing a persuasive paper or a researched argument can be a daunting task for online students, particularly when you’re given the freedom to choose your own topic.  What topic should you pick when the sky is the limit?
So, you pick a hot subject of the day. You go online, find sources both for and against the topic, write your paper, make sure everything is cited properly, and sit back in anticipation of the A that is surely yours.
Then the paper comes back.
“I got a C!”  What’s up with that?
You did everything the instructor wanted, didn’t you?
Well, yes and no.                     
From someone who has graded hundreds of papers, here are three factors to consider when choosing an essay topic.
Hot Topics are Lukewarm
The problem with selecting a “hot” topic is that you must have something new to say about it.  When instructors ask for an argument, they are not looking for a summary of what other sources say or a rehash of others’ arguments.  They want you to bring something new to the academic conversation.
No “Safe” Topics
To write well, you must take risks.  Writing means exposing some aspect of your soul, your thinking, or your inner world to an audience who is going to react to it. 
For example: When I was in college... I was (and still am) a huge fan of Star Trek.  However, I grew up with the notion that a science fiction television and movie series was not worthy of “serious” discussion in school.  Then, during my freshman year, I took an upper-level course called Transformations of Myth through Time.
One of the required readings was Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In this influential scholarly work, Campbell identifies the paradigm of the hero—a universal pattern that occurs in the heroic literature and mythologies of diverse cultures throughout history.  To me, this paradigm sounded eerily familiar: It reminded me of the back story of Star Trek’s iconic Vulcan character, Mr. Spock.  
So, I wrote a paper showing how Spock’s fictional history could easily be plugged into Campbell’s paradigm. Comparing and contrasting a popular modern character to ancient and universal themes increased my own understanding and appreciation of Star Trek.  It also held significant implications for readers.
Guess what?  I got an A.
When you write a college-level essay, you must look beyond your immediate audience (your professor) and consider who, in a larger context, should read your words.
“Safe” topics won’t take you there.  They ask nothing of the reader because they ask nothing of you, the writer.
Dare to Be Original
Select a topic in which you have a deep, personal interest.   Better yet: draw a topic from your own life—something that excites or annoys you.  A topic you care about is one you will invest the time and effort to research.  It is one you probably already know a great deal about.  It also has significant consequences for your audience, should they accept your viewpoint.
That isn’t to say your topic must be earth shaking.  In fact, the smaller, “quieter,” and off-the-wall topics sometimes work best.
Look for connections between your own life and interests and the material you are studying.  Write something original. Write something you would want to read.
Apprehensive about whether or not the topic will go over well with the professor?
Ask first.  Professors don’t bite. They love it when students save themselves (and the professor) time by troubleshooting a topic first.
Keep in mind that your professor has probably read hundreds or thousands of papers on those hot topics that have been covered to death.  Dare to be different.

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