Undoubtedly, at some point during a college career, students are required to write a paper. Frequently, professors permit students to select the topic. Topic selection is a goldmine opportunity.
Often students fail to see the hacking opportunities of topic selection. Students believe all topics are made equal. They are not.
Professors, particularly those teaching a long time, have read dozens, if not hundreds of papers. The more common the topic, the more likely a professor is already well-versed in it. And that’s bad news for you. The professor can compare your paper against his or her existing, excellent understanding of the topic. It’s a bad idea to try to persuade someone who knows more than you. Plus, the professor can compare your paper to previous student submissions. Now, you are not only competing against your current classmates but also against all of the previous students who have submitted papers on the topic. This experience has sharpened the professor’s ability to ably distinguish an A paper from a C paper, which means there’s less wiggle room for you.
To further complicate things, a common topic desensitizes the professor from receiving your good points. There are no “ah ha” moments left. This means that the professor will have a tendency to glaze over your writing. “Please, do not write about why the NCCA should institute a football playoff system,” begged my former English professor. “I’ve read about it 100 times.” Fortunately, my English professor identified a landmine of a topic, but most professors will not be as forthcoming, which means you must be aware.
To cut down on writing time and to improve your final grade, invest a little extra time to find an uncommon topic accompanied by a variety of already-written material you can use (e.g. reports, studies). This will streamline the writing process and make it a breeze. Plus, you’ll position yourself to get a better grade along the way. This approach paid huge dividends for me in law school.
In my bankruptcy class, our exam was a take-home essay. We could write about anything bankruptcy related. But my professor was a bankruptcy wizard. He had taught bankruptcy for years and practiced as a bankruptcy attorney. He knew everything there was to know about bankruptcy…or did he? Most lawyers avoid international law like the plague. And when international law is taught at school, if at all, it’s usually in a standalone course. So I strategically chose international bankruptcy as my topic.
Halfway through the semester, our professor required us to submit our first draft. “Great topic,” he commented on my paper. “I don’t know much about this subject, so I’m excited to see where this goes.” Bingo. A professor who is looking forward to my paper because he doesn’t know much about the topic. Not only did I pique his interest, but I removed myself from the comparison game—a double win for me.
Ultimately, I received an A on the paper. The irony is that the paper was good, not great. And A’s in law school are typically reserved for only great work. But my paper didn’t offer some brilliant insight. I didn’t spend hours thinking about the implications of international bankruptcy. I simply just wrote about what the law was (an easy task because the legal cases I researched told me) and some of the issues that plagued bankruptcy courts (again, easy because the legal cases told me). My bankruptcy paper was one of the easiest papers I’ve ever written. And I got an A…in law school.
I remember one of my classmates—someone who is truly much, much smarter than I—complained how he got a B on the paper, even though he had worked very hard. “What was your topic?” I asked. His response: why the bankruptcy courts should adopt an alternative approach to a very, very common bankruptcy topic. The commonness of the topic meant my classmate had walked right into my professor’s specialty. Big mistake.