- By Jason Bacot
- Published 01/26/2011
For many students, getting started on a college essay is the hardest part of the process. Whether you choose your topic or it’s assigned to you, getting those first words on paper (or screen) can be a real challenge. But most students find that once they get started, it’s easier to keep going with the assignment. If you’ve been assigned a topic, you have your work cut out for you. Read the assignment thoroughly and make sure you understand what is being asked of you. When you are sure you understand the assignment, it’s time to start learning something about the topic. There’s nothing wrong with starting with the very basics if it’s a subject you’re not familiar with. If you have to come up with your own topic, there are a number of techniques you can use to narrow your topic to fit your assignment. Once you’ve narrowed your topic down appropriately, commit to it. There may be lots of good topics, but you don’t need to try to incorporate bits of everything into your essay. In fact, sometimes you have to make painful choices as to what to leave out.
You will have to come up with a “controlling idea” for your essay. This is a sort of generalized version of your thesis statement. It might be something like, “The American Transcendentalists were ahead of their time.” It’s important that your controlling idea reflect your thoughts on a subject. Having a heartfelt point of view can be very helpful in get
ting you started. Once you have your controlling idea, you should find concrete examples that will help you develop your point. Start by coming up with three to five of them. For example, your concrete examples for the topic mentioned above might include 1. They looked beyond the New England Puritan traditions. 2. They were heavily criticized, as those with new ideas often are. 3. Their beliefs were very influential on the later Romantic movement. Use a combination of techniques to lead you to a title for your essay and a thesis statement. Read opposing viewpoints to the one you’re developing so you can hone your rebuttals. This can be a great way to clarify your ideas. Brainstorming is great too. Spend ten minutes writing down ideas, no matter how ridiculous, and then go back and sort them. The technique of “freewriting” is another way to lead yourself to your thesis statement and title. Spend ten minutes free associating about your topic. When you’re done, reread it, and highlight examples and topics you find there. Additionally, you can approach your subject from a journalist’s point of view: answer the who, what, where, when, why, and how of your subject. This may not lead directly to a thesis statement, but it will ground you in facts you’ll need in your essay.
By the time you’ve done this research and these exercises, you should be able to come up with a working title and a sketch of a thesis statement. And once you have these, fleshing out the essay should come easier.