How to Come Up With a Great Essay Idea
An important part of an online summer school is the opportunity to develop new academic skills, like essay writing. The process of producing a strong and compelling essay allows students to explore new perspectives, think critically, collaborate with others and learn from feedback.
For a compelling essay, it’s useful to begin by developing a unique essay idea to provide a foundation for the rest of the writing process.
Here are our practical tips and strategies for generating great essay ideas!
OxBright Essay Competition
The OxBright Essay Competition is a unique way for students to develop their essay-writing skills.
Designed for 15-18 year olds, the competition challenges students to look beyond the school curriculum and consider the future of their subject on a wider scale. It’s a fantastic way to supplement your time on a summer course, or complement your extracurriculars, while developing the writing skills required for university.
This process gives students the chance to think about the long-term future, challenge themselves beyond the school curriculum, and consider their chosen subject through a broader lens. All shortlisted entrants are also invited – free of charge! – to attend one of OxBright’s online conferences in the autumn.
Since a strong essay is paramount to success in the OxBright Essay Competition, it’s important to come up with some great essay ideas to impress! This year’s essay question is:
Many believe we face daunting global challenges ahead. How can long-term thinking in the field of [your subject] foster optimism about the future?
So, how do you come up with a great essay idea?
Understanding the Essay Prompt
To begin, it’s important to thoroughly understand the essay prompt or question so you can answer it to the best of your ability.
It can be useful to interpret the prompt in a creative or unique way, to ensure your entry stands out from the rest. By brainstorming novel ideas and different ways of addressing the question, your essay is more likely to stand out from other submissions.
It’s also helpful to consider the type of response that’s needed to answer the prompt fully. For most essays, this will be an open-ended answer that should look beyond a simple “yes” or “no”.
To properly understand an essay prompt, start by breaking it down, pulling out the question’s key elements, and identifying the information that’s been given to you.
For example, in the 2023 OxBright prompt, the question makes the following explicit:
1. Many believe we face daunting global challenges
2. Optimism can be fostered by long-term thinking in a given area of study
Once the facts have been established, identify what original information you’re being asked to provide. In the OxBright prompt, these include:
1. The global challenges that may lay ahead
2. The area of study you’re choosing to pursue
3. How this subject can foster optimism in the long-term
After determining the information offered by the prompt, and the areas where you can showcase individuality, you should have a better sense of the question being asked, the background information that you need to include in your essay, and the specific angle you might want to take for your submission.
Conducting Background Research
A great essay idea requires you to have a working understanding of the question topic.
To gain this knowledge, you should conduct some background research on the topic or prompt. This can be done by finding and reading relevant primary and secondary sources like books, journals, scholarly articles and reputable websites.
There are a few ways to check the reliability of a source:
1. Has that source been cited by other scholars and if so, how often?
2. Has the source originated within an academic institution? This often indicates that the source has been created and vetted by experts in a given field, and may be indicated by a .edu website domain or the name of an academic publisher (e.g. Cambridge University Press).
3. Has the source been shared in a peer-reviewed academic publication (such as an academic journal or as a chapter in a scholarly book)? This often indicates that a source has gone through a thorough process of fact-checking, which will bolster its reliability.
Students can also gain new insights into a given topic by attending relevant academic conferences or annual meetings. Many of these are offered virtually, allowing students from various locations to attend.
Finally, as you develop your essay idea, try to note down key points, arguments and relevant information from the research process that you may want to incorporate into your essay.
Idea Generation Techniques
Once you’ve conducted your background research, you should begin to develop your specific essay idea.
There are a variety of helpful ways to generate essay ideas. These include:
Freewriting is a stream-of-consciousness exercise where you write down whatever comes to mind. As you write, you should find that your writing becomes increasingly focused, helping you to start drafting your essay.
2. Mind Mapping
A mind map is an easy way to brainstorm thoughts organically without worrying about order and structure, allowing you to visualise your ideas.
Listing is a technique that requires you to break the prompt or essay question into smaller components. This can help you identify the different directions your essay may take.
Exploring Different Perspectives
Coming up with a great essay idea should also involve considering various perspectives and backgrounds.
By considering multiple viewpoints on an essay topic, you can discover unique and original ways to address the question and offer a perspective that might pique the interest of a reader
When examining multiple viewpoints – many of which may contradict one another – students should research and analyse opinions across a variety of subjects and disciplines. The essay idea should never rely on just one opinion or stream of knowledge, but should consider both sides of an argument.
Essentially, the exploration of different perspectives encourages and utilises a student’s critical thinking skills, and presenting a nuanced and balanced argument will strengthen your essay and boost its credibility.
Seeking Guidance and Feedback
As you begin to draft your essay idea, it may be beneficial to seek guidance from teachers, mentors or peers. These individuals can offer new perspectives on the topic and ways to refine or improve your essay.
Seeking external guidance also gives you access to constructive feedback similar to what you’ll receive at university.
One potential way for students to gain external feedback is through an OxBright online research internship where you have the opportunity to work with a Mentor in your chosen field to co-author a research paper! It’s also a great way to further develop your writing skills.
Thinking of a great essay idea allows students the chance to think outside the box and explore unconventional approaches to a seemingly simple essay prompt. This offers the unique opportunity to cultivate a personal writing style and to think about prompts from a variety of perspectives.
Try to embrace creativity when constructing an essay idea – practise lateral thinking, using metaphorical connections and trying out different creative writing exercises. Many of these tools are easily accessible online.
Finally, remember to use your essay idea to demonstrate the originality of your argument and your unique contributions as a writer. A great essay idea can capture a reader’s attention from the very start of your essay, and is the best way to leave a positive lasting impression.
There are a variety of strategies that students can rely on to develop a great essay idea. These range from taking part in background research and accessing external feedback, to embracing a variety of perspectives and practising creative thinking strategies.
Try out some of these techniques in your own essay writing to find what’s most useful for you and your process!
Don’t forget to check out the OxBright Essay Competition for a great opportunity to try out your new techniques, gain useful constructive feedback, and develop your writing skills in preparation for university!
By Adam Kluge
Adam (he/him) recently completed his MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Oxford. His research exists at the intersection of law, politics, and history – and he welcomes opportunities to further explore these areas through personal and pedagogical practices. He completed his undergraduate degrees at Columbia University and will begin a PhD in Criminology at Oxford this autumn.
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