What to ask yourself when picking an essay question

When it’s time for assessment, some lecturers will provide one essay title or question. The reason for this is usually that the topic is so fundamental to the understanding of your discipline, that everyone needs to cover it in detail. On other occasions however, you will be given a selection of potential topics to choose from. How do you know what is the best one to go for? Ask yourself these questions!

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Is the question too broad or specific?

Have a look at each question and think about what they are really asking you. Broader questions that ask for a general overview rather than a discussion of a particular argument can actually be quite hard to answer, because so much information is available it is hard to narrow it down and make it into a compelling piece of writing. On the other hand, if the subject is too specific you might struggle to find enough information that will actually help you to meet the word count!

Has the topic been covered in class yet?

This might seem like a no-brainer, but if some of the topics have already been covered in class, you have a head start on these. You’ve already got a basic understanding of a topic, its themes and standpoints. You probably also have a recommended further reading list, and if you’re a particularly diligent student you also did some preparation reading ahead of the lecture! There’s no reason why you shouldn’t pick questions like these – you will still have to do plenty of extra reading on the topic to get a good mark, but a lot of the groundwork is already done for you in finding the key references.

Is this an opportunity to learn about something completely new?

On the flip side, you might see a question that is a bit left-field, or if you look ahead at your lecture topics, it’s not going to come up. This is an opportunity to discover something about your subject that is perhaps a bit niche or controversial. If this question takes your fancy, only go ahead with it if you know you are the right sort of student for this challenge. This is a real piece of independent learning, so you need to start early, find all the key research and make sure that you really understand the topic. If it’s particularly tricky it might involve a visit or email to your lecturer to clarify a few things. If the deadline is looming or you’re struggling to keep up with your workload, this probably isn’t for you.

Are there resources available?

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Most resources are available online now, and COVID-19 has forced most students to get by without being able to access the library. If your module is well-established, your library should be equipped to help you answer the question. You should have access to the key journal articles online, and there should be plenty of books covering the subject on the shelves. However, if you are studying a new development, there might not be many books or articles around for you to research, particularly if they are behind a paywall that your university doesn’t subscribe to. If after about half an hour of searching online you can’t find much information, it’s not too late to pick another topic. Another thing to consider is that if there is a question that is very general to the topic, a lot of people will be tempted to go with it and all the books might be gone by the time you get to the library.

Is it your lecturer’s area of expertise?

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In a research-led university, the idea is that lecturers are also active researchers and you get the benefit of learning about something directly from the experts who developed the ideas. If you see your lecturer’s name cropping up a few times in the reading list, that’s an indicator that they are right at the forefront of this area. The benefits of this is that if you get stuck you have access to the best person on the planet you answer your question! The disadvantage is that if you miss out something important, or misunderstand a fundamental concept, this is going to get noticed straight away. Writing about your lecturer’s niche is a bit intimidating, but can be very rewarding. Just make sure you put extra care into your work and your lecturer will hopefully be pleased that someone has taken the time to really understand their research!

Is it interesting?

This factor should not be missed out when picking an essay question! If you are going to spend hours researching and writing about a topic, it will be a much easier job if you find the subject matter interesting, and you’ll probably do a better job of it too.

If you’re still torn, it’s time to have a chat with your lecturer – you definitely want to do this sooner rather than later. Go with some ideas about how you might approach the question and you should come out with a strong plan of action!

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