Practical Application: Choosing an Essay Topic and Beginning Research

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

When writing a college essay, it's important to choose a good topic and to find quality sources. This practical application will take you through the process of figuring out the best topic for you and evaluating sources to make sure they're reputable.

College Composition

Writing an essay is an essential college skill. The course College Composition covers the conventions of essay writing and the types of essays. But how do you actually write an essay? When given a choice of prompts, how should you choose one? And how do you conduct research for your essay?

To answer these questions, let's take a look at how to choose a prompt and research an essay. We'll practice these skills together and then you'll have a chance to choose and write an essay on your own. This practical application lesson will both help prepare you to write your first essay, and get you started on the Expository Essay required assignment for this course.

Choosing a Prompt

The first part of writing an essay is to choose a prompt. Often, you're given two or more prompts and asked to write an essay on one of them. In this case, choosing the right prompt can make a difference when it comes to writing a so-so essay or a great one.

For example, consider these two prompts:

  • What were the direct and indirect causes of World War I?
  • How has communication changed in the past 30 years?

Either one of those prompts can lead to a decent essay. But that doesn't mean you should just choose one at random. Instead, consider those prompts in light of the following three questions:

  • What are you interested in? If you're a history buff, you might be drawn to the first prompt. In contrast, if you're really into social media, you might prefer the second one. Writing an essay is a difficult process, so choosing a topic you're interested in can help you get through the tough spots.
  • What prompt do you know something about? Let's say that you recently read a book about the causes of World War I, but you don't really know much about communication. Choosing a topic that you already know something about provides a good foundation for essay writing.
  • Which prompt might have more quality resources associated with it? For these two prompts, there's probably enough information available on both of them. But sometimes, you might see a prompt that's so obscure or narrow in focus that you might not be able to find enough sources to help you write your essay. In that case, it's probably best to choose a different prompt.

In this case, the third question doesn't really apply, as we're likely to find quality resources about both topics. So we should focus on the topic we find more interesting and/or the topic we know the most about. For example, if we're more interested in World War I and know more about it, we should choose that prompt.

Choosing a Prompt for Your Essay

Now that we have a sense of how to choose a prompt, it's your turn to practice with the required Expository Essay assignment for this course. Check out the prompts below:

  • How has the decline in the honeybee population affected farmers in the United States?
  • How do 'hybrid' cars (ones that use both gasoline and electricity) differ from traditional (gasoline-only) cars?

Now, evaluate the prompts based on the criteria mentioned above. Does one prompt seem more interesting? Are you already familiar with one of the topics? Does one seem like it will have more reputable sources? Ask yourself these questions and decide on one of the prompts. Just because you choose one of the prompts now, doesn't mean that you have to stick with it. If you realize you're not as interested in honeybees after starting to research them, you can still switch to writing about hybrid cars.

Beginning Your Research

Once you've chosen a prompt, it's time to begin your research. But research involves more than simply typing your topic into a search engine like Google and clicking on the first link that comes up.

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