College writing courses-- particularly those offered to freshmen --are designed to teach students how to write well across a range of disciplines and genres. Students are encouraged to expand their intellectual curiosity and develop their written communication competencies, while using sound grammar, structure and style. Instructors can support such end goals by choosing essay topics that are both relevant and engaging and giving constructive and timely feedback.


Like most of us, students like to talk about themselves. That’s probably why so many college writing courses include memoir assignments. According to the Boston College English department, memoirs can focus on a significant event, person, object or life theme. Prompts can ask students to speak about collections they have and explain their significance or about people who have had profound influences in their lives. Instructors might also add contemporary spin to the memoir assignment by asking students to consider their own life events against current event topics. A possible prompt: At the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, several people ran toward dangerous situation to help others. Have you ever placed yourself in harm’s way to protect another?


Although college assignments often ask students to do more than just summarize, the summary is still an important tool to gauge a student’s comprehension. Essays based on a synopsis of what a student has read, be it a favorite book, short story or scholarly article, give students a chance to retell a writer’s story in the student’s own words. Summaries can also offer useful lessons on how to avoid plagiarism as professors can point out when a student’s work too closely resembles the original.

Course Specific

Themed college writing courses often offer students a wide area of subjects to explore. In the university writing program at The George Washington University, students might be studying ecology, music, art, film, humor, and even zombies. Essay topics can thus be as varied as the courses which inspire them. While one student waxes poetic about contemporary song lyrics, another might be offering up a biography of William Shakespeare. In a course entitled “All You Need Is Love?” at GWU, students are asked to consider the ethical dilemma of evil and human interactions in modern society.


One of the most important lessons of college writing is the research assignment. To teach students how to investigate, synthesize and write on a variety of academic topics, students are often given mini-research projects. They might be instructed to write a biography of a favorite character from history. Or students could choose a topic trending in social media and expand upon the small snippets to which they are exposed to daily. Professors might ask art students to compare works of art or artists or have political science majors study a vote currently being presented in Congress.

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