essay topics
Try and avoid cliches. Honestly, you're doing yourself and the teacher a favor. (Illustration by Natashna Anderson, School of the Art Institute of Chicago)
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essay topics

And some things to keep in mind so you won’t have to.

For the last two years, I’ve worked as a consultant at my school’s writing center, and in that time had the opportunity to meet with dozens of students in English 101 working to write their assigned essay topics. Thanks in part to required visits, first-year English students are some of our service’s most regular visitors, and over time the more experienced consultants have grown familiar with a specific set of papers that tend to pop up again and again.

These papers often have many great qualities, but also the potential to make a professor cringe before they even begin reading. If you’re hoping to make a good impression on your 101 professors — either in the interest of a grade or out of compassion for your teacher, who very well may be an overburdened adjunct with 60 other projects to read — be wary of these essay topics.

1. The Legalize It Paper

In almost every first-year writing class, a researched, argumentative essay will be a part of the curriculum. Your teacher will present it as an opportunity to really dig into something that matters to you and take a stand. For some students, who are perhaps experiencing the liberating effects of being away from home for the first time or might just have considerable experience with the subject matter, the defense of a drug often seems like an obvious choice.

Arguing to legalize weed can appear to be a slam dunk: it’s a current issue, the internet is overflowing with reasons why and it’s a slick way to let everyone in class know you’re totally down to blaze.

Unfortunately, your professor has almost definitely seen this paper before. If they’ve been teaching intro-level writing classes for long enough, it’s probably come across their desk a dozen times or more. Your own spin on the topic may be well-written and make a legitimate case for legalizing weed, but that can’t save it from being so familiar.

Changing the laws around weed isn’t a stale topic only because so many students have written about it, but because “everyone” has been writing about it for over a decade. The qualities that at first make the topic seem so great — that it’s contemporary and has already had so much research and writing done around it — can become serious drawbacks.

At this point, anyone who’s been paying attention at all knows about marijuana’s medical applications, that it’s much safer than alcohol, that it’s non-addicting … the list of rote arguments goes on.

And, most likely, your teacher knows how easy it is to find all these arguments with a single internet search. A coworker of mine, who also teaches first-year writing, described the “Google test” as a criterion she uses for evaluating the amount of effort that went into a student’s research. If the core of your argument can be built around the results of a single Google search, your topic may need some more refinement.

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2. The Generic Climate Change Paper

This is another research paper that might produce a small groan from your professor upon reading the title. Over the last 20 years, increasingly distressing reports about how damaged our environment is have become routine, so it makes sense that climate change would come to mind when searching for essay topics. It’s a big, serious issue, that everyone has a stake in. But so often, these papers wind up being a slog to read.

You’ll notice we’re talking specifically about a “generic” climate change paper here, a specific subset of all the different things you could write on the subject. A defining trait of such a paper is its being too broad. Climate change is a huge issue, with many different sources and impacts, any of which could probably be the focus of a strong paper.

Typically, a generic paper will take on way more than could ever be covered in five or seven pages and wind up with a superficial gloss of its subject that generally conveys some practice or industry is hurting the environment and needs to be stopped.

The other weakness of the generic climate change paper is its tendency to play matters very safe. Its central claim is that humans are damaging the environment, and risking devastating consequences in the process, which today isn’t so much an argument as a fact that’s accepted nearly unanimously by the scientific community.

In 2018, the BBC made the decision to stop including the views of climate change deniers in their coverage of the environment, a choice many claimed was long overdue. The conversation around global warming has evolved, and simply seeking to establish that it exists and that humans are largely responsible for it is no longer too meaningful or interesting of a claim.

3. The Greek Life Paper

While every English 101 class is different, there’s a decent chance you’ll wind up writing a little about yourself during the semester. These essay topics present the opportunity to talk about your own experience — a subject you likely have some expertise in — and give your audience the chance to read something that’s new to them. So, it’s a shame when students choose a subject that so many U.S. college professors are already familiar with: Greek life.

As with the Legalize It paper and the Generic Climate Change paper, it’s reasonable that someone would gravitate towards Greek life when mining their own experience for something meaningful. It’s exciting to be in the midst of rushing and joining a fraternity or sorority, and a personal writing assignment is a chance to funnel some of that energy into schoolwork. However, it’s worth considering that your audience might not share your enthusiasm.

The Greek Life paper suffers from the same flaws as the two varieties of essay topics already discussed — the information it offers is likely quite familiar, and your professor has probably seen it before. Considering that over 800 schools in the United States and Canada have some kind of Greek system, it’s very possible your professor has been exposed to Greek life, if not participated in it themselves. So, a paper describing what it’s been like becoming a member of a Greek organization could come across as a little dull.

The beautiful thing about personal essays is that they draw on material few others have access to, from a perspective no one else can claim. The concrete details of our own experiences will almost always be novel to readers, and a lot more interesting than we think. But choosing to focus on something so commonplace in the university setting can undercut this power and turn something that could be refreshingly individual into a snoozefest.

If you were planning to plant your flag in one of these essay topics, and are now feeling a little deflated, you don’t need to. As has been said, none of these subjects are boring or unworthy of attention; in fact, they all have the potential to be incredibly rich. It all comes down to the attitude and approach being brought to the material.

The papers considered here are overly broad, or too dependent on well-worn facts, or both. They need to be narrowed down to one small piece of the bigger picture, that an average onlooker wouldn’t be able to pick out on their own. This means more research and refinement, or more reflection if you’re writing about yourself. Basically, it means more work.

It’s hard to commit to this kind of work if you don’t care that much about your subject, however. Before you dive into research about some topic under the umbrella of climate change, it’s important to consider why you’ve chosen it at all. Is it what you’re interested in, or what you figure your professor is interested in?

Another coworker of mine at the writing center, who also teaches English 101, explained that sometimes, “Students think if you give the instructor what they want, politically or morally, then they’re safe.”

A paper about something that you’re sincerely interested in will almost always be better reading than a paper guessing at what your professor cares about. The same coworker went on to say, “If you’re emotionally invested … that comes across on the page … if you’re not writing something that’s important to you, it’s not going to be important to anyone else, and you can’t fake that.”

So, really, you should write about whatever you want. But if you do reach for one of these staples of the intro-level writing class, be sure it’s something you really care about, and be ready to put in the work necessary to convince your professor that they should care too. As they pull your essay from the pile on their desk and start to read, they’ll silently thank you.

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