We all have at least one professor who never assigns specific paper topics or prompts for assignments due in their class. This is especially common once you get to your upper-level courses. These professors want to see your creativity and originality when it comes to choosing a paper topic.
Depending on who you are, being asked to come up with your own college paper idea is either a dream come true or your worst nightmare.
I tend to fall somewhere in between. I’m frustrated by the lack of structure, but I also like the creative freedom. As a communications major, I’m pretty used to coming up with my own college paper ideas at this point. Here are a few tried and true tricks to help you develop your own college paper ideas.
1. Analyze The Prompt Or Topic Guidelines
Before you even think about choosing your topic, you need to understand what your professor expects from the paper. Make sure you’re clear on the paper's overall purpose, the required length, and the expectations when it comes to using outside sources for information.
You must understand the purpose of the paper. Analyze the prompt and determine whether your paper is supposed to be an argument, an analysis, or something else entirely.
Sometimes, the prompt just seems too vague for you to even understand where to start. Don’t be scared to ask your professor for more clarification if there’s something on the rubric or in the prompt you don’t understand. Most professors want you to succeed in their classes. They’ll be more than happy to provide some insight.
2. Write About What You’re Interested In
There’s almost nothing worse than having to write a 5,000-word paper on a topic you couldn’t possibly care less about. When you’re given the freedom to choose your own topic, use it to your advantage. Choose something you actually want to write about! You still need to stick to the general parameters and guidelines provided by your professor, but you can still choose a subject you’re at least mildly intrigued by.
When I’m assigned a paper and am expected to choose my own topic, I sometimes make a list or a mindmap of things I’m interested in writing about. Then, I do some brainstorming to see how I can relate my interests to the topic. Here’s an example of what a typical mindmap looks like for me.
3. Make Sure Your Chosen Paper Topic Isn’t Too Broad
You’ll end up running into some serious issues if the topic you choose is too broad or vague. For one thing, it’s going to be much harder to support an extremely vague thesis with specific ideas and sources.
It’s also nearly impossible to avoid making sweeping generalizations about a topic when the topic is too general. Failing to adequately support your thesis and leaning on heavy generalizations in a paper are two major pet peeves most professors have.
This is where having something like a mindmap, or at least a written list of ideas, comes in handy. Let’s say you’ve decided you’re interested in writing about the fashion industry for your economy class. Cool topic, but it’s so broad. Depending on the prompt, you can almost always narrow down your ideas and make them much more specific.
Rather than writing about the fashion industry in general, you could write about the effects of fast fashion on the US economy or trends in the eco-friendly fashion stock market.
4. Check Out The Available Sources On Your Paper Topic
Once you have a clearer idea of what you want to write about, start digging around to see what sources are out there that you can use to supplement your paper. If you can’t find enough solid information to back up your thesis, you’re going to run into problems once you start writing.
If you’re finding that there aren’t enough (credible) sources you can use for your paper, you might want to reevaluate your topic and change it up a bit. This will make your job as a writer easier. Having a substantial list of reliable outside resources cited in your paper will also most likely earn you a better grade.
I will note here that you usually shouldn’t lean entirely on outside sources when writing your paper. Most professors want you to use those sources to supplement your paper and back up your argument. They don’t want you to summarize what others have already said or proven.
5. Ask Your Professor For Guidance
I sort of mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeating. Your professor’s job is to help you learn and build your critical thinking and writing skills. Unless you have a really terrible professor (which is another issue entirely), they will almost always be willing to help you brainstorm and refine your ideas.
You should not, however, expect your professor to do the work for you. The whole reason they’re asking you to choose your own topic in the first place is that they want to see your creativity. They also want to see that you’re capable of doing independent thinking and research.
If you’re stuck on choosing a topic, schedule an appointment with your professor. When you arrive at that appointment, you should bring your brainstorming list of ideas. Then, your professor will probably talk through some of those ideas with you. They'll help you weed out the not-so-great ones and land on the ones that have real potential.
In the end, they’ll probably still tell you that the topic is up to you. They'll give you some strong advice you can use to make your final decision, though.
Coming up with college paper ideas seems daunting, I know. As long as you put in a little work and schedule a few brainstorming sessions, you should be well on your way to choosing an awesome topic that will really impress your professor.
Plus, you’ll have fun writing the paper! Well, it’ll at least be more tolerable— “fun” is subjective.
Have you ever been tasked with choosing your own paper topic? How did you decide what to write about?