Real Life Academic Essay Prompts

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Updated, March 2, 2017 | We published an updated version of this list, “401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing,” as well as a companion piece, “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.” We also now have a PDF of these 200 prompts.

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What issues do you care most about? What topics do you find yourself discussing most passionately, whether online, at the dinner table, in the classroom or with your friends?

Our annual Student Editorial Contest invites you to write an evidence-based persuasive piece on an issue that matters to you. To help jump-start your brainstorming, we have gathered a list of 200 writing prompts from our daily Student Opinion feature that invite you to take a stand.

Though you won’t be limited to these topics for the contest, you’ll see that our list touches on every aspect of modern life, from politics to sports, culture, education and technology. We hope the range inspires you, and we hope the fact that each question links to at least one related Times article gives you a starting point for finding evidence.

So skim the list below to think about the topic you’d most like to take on.

For more information, here are links to our spring 2014 editorial-writing contest, a list of winners from that contest and a related lesson plan on argumentative writing.


Education

  1. Is Cheating Getting Worse?
  2. Should Students Be Able to Grade Their Teachers?
  3. Does Your School Hand Out Too Many A’s?
  4. Should Middle School Students Be Drug Tested?
  5. Should Reading and Math Be Taught in Gym Class Too?
  6. How Seriously Should We Take Standardized Tests?
  7. How Well Do You Think Standardized Tests Measure Your Abilities?
  8. Do You Spend Too Much Time Preparing for Standardized Tests?
  9. Should Schools Offer Cash Bonuses for Good Test Scores?
  10. Should We Rethink How Long Students Spend in High School?
  11. Do Schools Provide Students With Enough Opportunities to Be Creative?
  12. What Are You Really Learning at School?
  13. How Important Is Arts Education?
  14. Does Gym Help Students Perform Better in All Their Classes?
  15. Who Should Be Able to See Students’ Records?
  16. Are Children of Illegal Immigrants Entitled to a Public Education?
  17. What Is the Right Amount of Group Work in School?
  18. Is Your School Day Too Short?
  19. Do You Think a Longer School Calendar Is a Good Idea?
  20. Should the Dropout Age Be Raised?
  21. Should Students Be Allowed to Skip Senior Year of High School?
  22. How Does Your School Deal With Students Who Misbehave?
  23. Should Schools Be Allowed to Use Corporal Punishment?
  24. How Big a Problem Is Bullying or Cyberbullying in Your School or Community?
  25. How Should Schools Address Bullying?
  26. Should Schools Put Tracking Devices in Students’ ID Cards?
  27. What Do You Think of Grouping Students by Ability in Schools?
  28. Do We Need a New Way to Teach Math?
  29. Does Class Size Matter?
  30. Should All Students Get Equal Space in a Yearbook?
  31. Is Prom Worth It?
  32. How Important Are Parent-Teacher Conferences?
  33. Should All Children Be Able to Go to Preschool?
  34. Should Colleges Use Admissions Criteria Other Than SAT Scores and Grades?
  35. What Criteria Should Be Used in Awarding Scholarships for College?
  36. Do You Support Affirmative Action?
  37. Do College Rankings Matter?
  38. How Necessary Is a College Education?
  39. Should Engineers Pay Less for College Than English Majors?

  40. Technology and Social Media

  41. Are the Web Filters at Your School Too Restrictive?
  42. Does Technology Make Us More Alone?
  43. Are You Distracted by Technology?
  44. Do Apps Help You or Just Waste Your Time?
  45. Do You Spend Too Much Time on Smart Phones Playing ‘Stupid Games’?
  46. Has Facebook Lost Its Edge?
  47. Does Facebook Ever Make You Feel Bad?
  48. Should What You Say on Facebook Be Grounds for Getting Fired?
  49. Should People Be Allowed to Obscure Their Identities Online?
  50. What Should the Punishment Be for Acts of Cyberbullying?
  51. Is Online Learning as Good as Face-to-Face Learning?
  52. Do Your Teachers Use Technology Well?
  53. Should Tablet Computers Become the Primary Way Students Learn in Class?
  54. Can Cellphones Be Educational Tools?
  55. Should Computer Games Be Used for Classroom Instruction?
  56. How Young Is Too Young for an iPhone?
  57. Should Companies Collect Information About You?
  58. Would You Trade Your Paper Books for Digital Versions?
  59. Are Digital Photographs Too Plentiful to Be Meaningful?
  60. Do You Worry We Are Filming Too Much?
  61. Would You Want a Pair of Google’s Computer Glasses?
  62. How Would You Feel About a Computer Grading Your Essays?
  63. What Role Will Robots Play in Our Future?
  64. How Many Text Messages Are Too Many?
  65. How Much Do You Trust Online Reviews?

  66. Arts and Media: TV, Music, Video Games and Literature

  67. Why Do We Like to Watch Rich People on TV and in the Movies?
  68. Do TV Shows Like ‘16 and Pregnant’ Promote or Discourage Teenage Pregnancy?
  69. Does TV Capture the Diversity of America Yet?
  70. Is TV Too White?
  71. Is TV Stronger Than Ever, or Becoming Obsolete?
  72. Does Reality TV Promote Dangerous Stereotypes?
  73. What Current Musicians Do You Think Will Stand the Test of Time?
  74. What Artists or Bands of Today Are Destined for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
  75. What Musician, Actor or Author Should Be a Superstar, but Hasn’t Quite Made It Yet?
  76. Will Musical Training Make You More Successful?
  77. Should Video Games Be Considered a Sport?
  78. Should Stores Sell Violent Video Games to Minors?
  79. Can a Video Game Be a Work of Art?
  80. Do Violent Video Games Make People More Violent in Real Life?
  81. When Should You Feel Guilty for Killing Zombies?
  82. What Game Would You Like to Redesign?
  83. What Were the Best Movies You Saw in the Past Year?
  84. To What Writer Would You Award a Prize?
  85. Do You Prefer Your Children’s Book Characters Obedient or Contrary?
  86. Where Is the Line Between Truth and Fiction?
  87. Can Graffiti Ever Be Considered Art?
  88. Do We Need Art in Our Lives?
  89. What Makes a Good Commercial?
  90. Why Did a Cheerios Ad Attract So Many Angry Comments Online?
  91. Does Pop Culture Deserve Serious Study?

  92. Gender Issues

  93. Do Parents Have Different Hopes and Standards for Their Sons Than for Their Daughters?
  94. Is School Designed More for Girls Than Boys?
  95. Is There Too Much Pressure on Girls to Have ‘Perfect’ Bodies?
  96. How Much Pressure Do Boys Face to Have the Perfect Body?
  97. Do Photoshopped Images Make You Feel Bad About Your Own Looks?
  98. Is It O.K. for Men and Boys to Comment on Women and Girls on the Street?
  99. What Should We Do to Fight Sexual Violence Against Young Women?
  100. How Do You Feel About Rihanna and Chris Brown Getting Back Together?
  101. Do Fraternities Promote Misogyny?
  102. Why Aren’t There More Girls in Leadership Roles?
  103. Why Aren’t More Girls Choosing to Pursue Careers in Math and Science?
  104. Should Women Be Allowed to Fight on the Front Lines Alongside Men?
  105. Do You Believe in Equal Rights for Women and Men?
  106. Are Women Better at Compromising and Collaborating?
  107. Do Boys Have Less Intense Friendships Than Girls?

  108. Sports and Athletics

  109. If Football Is So Dangerous to Players, Should We Be Watching It?
  110. Should Parents Let Their Children Play Football?
  111. Should College Football Players Get Paid?
  112. When Do Pranks Cross the Line to Become Bullying?
  113. Has Baseball Lost Its Cool?
  114. Are Some Youth Sports Too Intense?
  115. Is It Offensive for Sports Teams to Use Native American Names and Mascots?
  116. Where Should Colleges and Sports Teams Draw the Line in Selling Naming Rights?
  117. Should Colleges Fund Wellness Programs Instead of Sports?
  118. Is Cheerleading a Sport?
  119. How Big a Deal Is It That an N.B.A. Player Came Out as Gay?
  120. Should There Be Stricter Rules About How Coaches Treat Their Players?
  121. Should Athletes Who Dope Have to Forfeit Their Titles and Medals?
  122. Should Sports Betting Be Legal Everywhere?
  123. Should Home-Schoolers Be Allowed to Play Public School Sports?
  124. Would You Want a Bike Share Program for Your Community?

  125. Politics and the Legal System

  126. What Local Problems Do You Think Your Mayor Should Try to Solve?
  127. If You Were Governor of Your State, How Would You Spend a Budget Surplus?
  128. When Is the Use of Military Force Justified?
  129. What Is More Important: Our Privacy or National Security?
  130. Should the U.S. Be Spying on Its Friends?
  131. Do You Trust Your Government?
  132. What Do You Think of the Police Tactic of Stop-and-Frisk?
  133. Do Rich People Get Off Easier When They Break the Law?
  134. Should Rich People Have to Pay More Taxes?
  135. Do Laws That Ban Offensive Words Make the World a Better Place?
  136. Is It Principled, or Irresponsible, for Politicians to Threaten a Shutdown?
  137. Do Leaders Have Moral Obligations?
  138. Do Great Leaders Have to Be Outgoing?
  139. How Should We Prevent Future Mass Shootings?
  140. Should Guns Be Permitted on College Campuses?
  141. Would You Feel Safer With Armed Guards Patrolling Your School?
  142. What Is Your Relationship With Guns?
  143. Do You Support or Oppose the Death Penalty?
  144. When Should Juvenile Offenders Receive Life Sentences?

  145. Parenting and Childhood

  146. Do We Give Children Too Many Trophies?
  147. When Do You Become an Adult?
  148. When Should You Be Able to Buy Cigarettes, Drink Alcohol, Vote, Drive and Fight in Wars?
  149. Should the Morning-After Pill Be Sold Over the Counter to People Under 17?
  150. Should Birth Control Pills Be Available to Teenage Girls Without a Prescription?
  151. Is Modern Culture Ruining Childhood?
  152. Are Adults Hurting Young Children by Pushing Them to Achieve?
  153. How, and by Whom, Should Children Be Taught Appropriate Behavior?
  154. What Can Older People Learn From Your Generation?
  155. Do ‘Shame and Blame’ Work to Change Teenage Behavior?
  156. How Should Children Be Taught About Puberty and Sex?
  157. Is Dating a Thing of the Past?
  158. How Should Parents Handle a Bad Report Card?
  159. Should Children Be Allowed to Wear Whatever They Want?
  160. How Should Educators and Legislators Deal With Minors Who ‘Sext’?
  161. Do You Think Child Stars Have It Rough?

  162. Health and Nutrition

  163. Is Smoking Still a Problem Among Teenagers?
  164. Are Antismoking Ads Effective?
  165. Is Drinking and Driving Still a Problem for Teenagers?
  166. Do You Think a Healthier School Lunch Program Is a Lost Cause?
  167. How Concerned Are You About Where Your Food Comes From?
  168. Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?
  169. Do You Prefer Your Tacos ‘Authentic’ or ‘Appropriated’?
  170. Should the Government Limit the Size of Sugary Drinks?
  171. Should Marijuana Be Legal?
  172. Should Students Be Required to Take Drug Tests?

  173. Personal Character and Morality Questions

  174. Do Bystanders Have a Responsibility to Intervene When There is Trouble?
  175. Should You Care About the Health and Safety of Those Making Your Clothing?
  176. Can Money Buy You Happiness?
  177. Does Buying and Accumulating More and More Stuff Make Us Happier?
  178. Are We Losing the Art of Listening?
  179. Do People Complain Too Much?
  180. Can Kindness Become Cool?
  181. Which Is More Important: Talent or Hard Work?
  182. How Important Is Keeping Your Cool?
  183. When Should You Compromise?
  184. Is Your Generation More Self-Centered Than Earlier Generations?
  185. Can You Be Good Without God?
  186. Have Curse Words Become So Common They Have Lost Their Shock Value?
  187. What Words or Phrases Should Be Retired in 2014?
  188. What Words or Phrases Do You Think Are Overused?
  189. Should Couples Live Together Before Marriage?
  190. How Important Do You Think It Is to Marry Someone With the Same Religion?
  191. How Long Is It O.K. to Linger in a Cafe or Restaurant?
  192. Does Keeping a Messy Desk Make People More Creative?
  193. How Important Is Keeping a Clean House?

  194. Science

  195. Should Scientists Try to Help People Beat Old Age So We Can Live Longer Lives?
  196. Given Unlimited Resources, What Scientific or Medical Problem Would You Investigate?
  197. When Is It O.K. to Replace Human Limbs With Technology?
  198. Do You Think Life Exists — or Has Ever Existed — Somewhere Besides Earth?
  199. Should Fertilized Eggs Be Given Legal ‘Personhood’?
  200. How Concerned Are You About Climate Change?

  201. Other Questions

  202. Is It Wrong for a Newspaper to Publish a Front-Page Photo of a Man About to Die?
  203. What Causes Should Philanthropic Groups Finance?
  204. Should Charities Focus More on America?
  205. Should the Private Lives of Famous People Be Off Limits?
  206. Did a Newspaper Act Irresponsibly by Publishing the Addresses of Gun Owners?
  207. Would You Rather Work From Home or in an Office?
  208. What Time Should Black Friday Sales Start?
  209. Do You Shop at Locally Owned Businesses?
  210. How Much Does Your Neighborhood Define Who You Are?

Getting Real: Authenticity in Writing Prompts

By:Patricia Slagle
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 3
Date: Summer 1997

Summary: Teachers often strive to develop exercises in which students write "authentic" pieces for an audience beyond the teacher. Here Slagle demonstrates the next step: sending student writing to people outside the classroom.

 

Let's say that in the last year, three serious traffic accidents have occurred near your school at the corner of Sycamore and G Streets. Now, in your class it's time for a persuasive essay prompt, and one of your students decides to convince the reader (you) that it is high time to install stop signs at this dangerous intersection. The student does a more than capable job, performing on-the-spot observations at the inter-section, interviewing police officers, collecting anecdotes from students who have experienced close calls at this corner. This is "A" work, and when you hand back the papers you make the student aware of your enthusiasm for her arguments. But, alas, there are still no stop signs at Sycamore and G.

The problem, of course, is that you are neither the chief of police nor the mayor, and those are the folks who should be hearing these arguments. The obvious answer, but one that eluded me until fairly recently, is that the student should have communicated directly with these officials; she should have been encouraged to engage in what is these days called authentic writing. Authenticity is a key concept that I have learned to keep in mind when designing writing prompts.

Traditionally trained, I was not introduced to the concepts of audience, purpose, and form as integral components of writing assignments until I participated in a writing project. Previously I made writing assignments that required students to write academic pieces such as essays, themes, or reports. My students knew I was the only person who would read their finished work. They also knew that my primary reason for reading their writing was to assign a grade.

Now I ask students to write pieces for a genuine audience beyond the classroom, using a real-world form such as a letter to the editor. Their purpose is to communicate effectively with that reader, whether to persuade the reader to agree with their position on an issue, share their sentiments in a memoir, present their solution to a mutual problem, or explore many other possibilities determined by the student-writer. Writing for audiences beyond the teacher using publicly recognized forms such as letters to the editor, and writing for real reasons, produces more effective writing.

I want to describe some of the authentic writing prompts I have used. (I recognize that the very expression "authentic writing prompt" will strike some readers as an oxymoron. They would argue that "authentic" writing is generated by something the student feels compelled to say and thus cannot be prompted. To them, the strategies I suggest here may seem halfway measures, but I believe that, in teaching, change for the better usually begins with small, realistic steps.)

At the outset, I want to make clear what authentic writing, for me, is not. Sometimes we become creative in our lesson planning and ask students to assume the persona of someone else and write a piece from that person's perspective. They may become homeless persons, presidents, or characters in literature. Role-playing of this sort can provide a useful exercise, but it is not authentic writing. Authentic writing implies that the student is writing in his or her voice to a real living person or group about a matter of concern. A role-playing prompt may have valuable writing-to-learn potential, allowing a teacher to see how well a student understands a concept, but it allows little room for developing a personal voice.

When I have asked students to write from a perspective other than their own, I have added yet another challenge to the one they were already facing by asking them to compose, revise, and edit. This is an unnecessary writing burden that can be avoided if I design prompts that allow students to write from their own knowledge and perspective in their own voices.

Consider two writing assignments. The first is: "Imagine you are the drama critic for your local newspaper. Write a review of an imaginary production of the play that we have just finished studying in class." This prompt asks students to assume the contrived role of a professional writer and drama critic. Most students, even if they happen to be familiar with drama reviews, would not be able to assume that persona successfully and therefore would produce a piece that had problems not only with voice but also with meaningful support and development. The result: the piece striving for authenticity would in fact be inauthentic.

I developed a more effective alternative: "Write a letter to the producing director of your local theater company in which you present arguments in an effort to persuade him/her to include a production of the play that we have just finished studying in class in the upcoming season." The student is expected to state and defend a position. Yet this prompt allows the student to write as herself, in her own voice. Writing in her own voice, she builds into her argument concrete references to personal experience. Of course, this prompt would constitute authentic writing only for those students who, in fact, would like to see the play produced. Note the naturalness with which Jeff, who was an advocate for Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, communicates with his audience:

Dear Mr. Jory, Recently we held an election for President of our country. We saw many examples of fighting, bickering, and debating between the candidates. All of this was intended to convince the American people to choose the "right" candidate for their leader. In George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, Ptolemy and Cleopatra are vying for power using verbal sparring and subtle threats in much the same way as today's presidential candidates. Why not show the public that the methods of political competition have not changed in two thousand years? Anyone who has watched the election closely would not only find this parallel intriguing but enlightening.

Jeff mailed his letter and in fact received a reply from the producing director that gave Jeff and his classmates insight into the director's play selection considerations. The producing director wrote that Caesar and Cleopatra was "simply too expensive for Actors' Theatre to perform because of the large number of people in the cast and what the stage setting demanded."

The director also invited our class to attend a dress rehearsal at the theater, an example of how a piece of authentic writing helped us build an authentic link to the community.

The basic question for the teacher in developing authentic prompts is, "How can I turn what could be an academic exercise into something real?"

After studying Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, I might once have asked students to respond to a typical prompt, a variation on "Write a literary analysis essay in which you analyze the strengths and weak-nesses of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities."

We English teachers have been giving such assignments for decades and decrying the unimaginative writing that results. But now, as a creator of authentic prompts, I had another idea: I pulled out Brian Ford's February 1993 English Journal article, "Choosing the Canon," and asked students to read it. I asked them to write to Ford stating "your position regarding his thesis that A Tale of Two Cities should be eliminated from the curriculum. Then defend your position with sound arguments and reasoning." Because I identified a concrete audience and specific purpose in the prompt, students were able to write without trying to figure out what they imagined I wanted them to say, which so often happened when I used nonauthentic analysis prompts. This time, students were clear about how to proceed in developing their pieces and free to write in their own voices rather than trying to emulate some imagined academic tone.

To my pleasant surprise, only a small minority of students agreed with Mr. Ford's thesis that A Tale of Two Cities should be eliminated from the high school curriculum. The following representative samples demonstrate the genuineness of the students' voices. This is not the style students adapt when they are writing what they think the teacher wants to hear. Andre's response:

You say the book is politically naive, but that is exactly what is needed at the point this book is taught. Most students who read this are also just learning about the history of France, including the Revolution. Many would be completely lost if this book was a complex analysis of French government. This book helps give a basic grasp of what went on during the French Revolution without seeming to be teaching.

Ryan finds A Tale of Two Cities attractive to modern teens in a way Ford has overlooked:

When one thinks of teenagers, what are some television shows that come to mind? Perhaps soap operas or "Beverly Hills 90210." Now ask: what are the elements of these programs that make them so appealing to teenagers? The answer is simple: romantic intrigue. A Tale of Two Cities has romantic intrigue in abundance.

Similarly Jill:

How do you propose to get a class full of teenagers, with their minds on dates and zits, rather than Dickens and Shakespeare, to read a novel, if it's boring? If we have to cut short our phone time, and read a book, the hook better be entertaining, or else it'll end up in the back pack, unread. For me, that didn't happen with A Tale of Two Cities. The book was so full of twists and turns, that it was hard to put down. At the end of each installment was a catch that made me want to read on. All the scandalous excitement in the novel made it very appealing to me and my classmates.

Very few, if any, of my literary analysis essay prompts have generated such genuine, authentic, natural, and readable responses.

Unlike our local theater director, Brian Ford did not answer my students. One of the real-world messages built into the authentic writing process is that even the sincerest communication may be ignored or other-wise fall through the cracks. On another occasion my students wrote letters to Steve Martin inquiring about his writing process in adapting Rostand's Cyrano for his screenplay Roxanne. Despite research into probable addresses, letters were returned as undeliverable or else we heard nothing at all.

Providing prompts that identify an authentic audience, purpose, and form for students before they begin composing is certainly not limited to literary response writing assignments. For example, sources abound in the newspaper: "Write a piece for the Bright Ideas column that appears daily in the Features section of our local newspaper." (This feature solicits contributions from readers.)

Shannon wrote:

It's been raining all day; therefore you'd rather stay in out of the mud. So much for being a couch potato because only re-runs are showing today. Now you are sitting home alone and bored to death. Here's an idea you may want to try: make a "Things To Do Kit."

Robbie's effort may have had the effect of increasing local sales of a certain soft drink:

Do you ever have trouble cleaning those big dirty windows outside? Well, if you're like me you do, and I have a tip for you that may be very useful in cleaning them. Take one cup of vinegar and mix it with 1/3 of a cup of baking soda. Even though it may sound weird, it's time to add an odd ingredient which, nevertheless, works. That weird ingredient is Coke, but you must make sure that it's a can of Coca-Cola Classic.

Yet another source of authentic writing has been our own school. My students developed a high school survival guide for freshmen. Carlos told a cautionary tale:

Do you know how to survive high school?? What do you need to know about how to survive? And how can you make surviving it simple for you?
Here's Bob. Bob is very excited about going to high school, but when he got there, things were not as he thought. Bob's grades began to fall, because he wouldn't get up early and come to school. During the times that Bob came to school, he often didn't feel like doing the work he was assigned. Bob fell a couple of months behind and never got caught up. . . .
School is not as hard as some people think. As you enter high school, you are going to have butterflies in your stomach. That's natural; don't panic. Remember your attitude makes all the difference in the world.

Another school-based prompt asked students to "develop a guide for English language learners students in which you explain various English-language idioms." Joe began his entry:

The English language can be confusing and tough to learn because there are so many expressions that need to be learned in addition to the basics. Idioms in particular can be very strange. For instance, the phrase "birds of a feather flock together" has nothing to do with birds at all. . . .

The ELL guide and the high school survival guide were not "published" in the traditional sense. However, I believe they both qualify as authentic writing as they were delivered to the intended audience in their class-room as a prelude to class visits. When the classes met together, the ELL students and my students discussed idioms in the various represented languages. The ninth grade students and my older students discussed high school expectations and pitfalls.

The ELL and high school survival guides have been cataloged and placed in the school media center for use by any students who would find them useful or interesting.

I do not intend to make authentic classroom writing sound easy or even always possible. I teach 150 students each day, and it is not possible to direct all student writing to a real audience or publish every-thing students write. But authenticity stays in the forefront as I have created my prompts, and be-cause it is remains an important goal, my ideas for authentic prompts continue to blossom. My students are writing more effectively, and when I read and respond to their essays I find the experience more interesting than tedious and sometimes, blessedly, even compelling.

Originally published in Volume 19, Number 3.

About the Author Patricia Slagle spent twenty-eight years as a public high school English teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, most frequently teaching challenged students in upper grades. Her numerous National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) presentations have covered various writing-related topics as well as her other interests: incorporating critical viewing skills in language arts instruction, and classroom management. She has served on the NCTE Executive Committee and as a program and convention chair. She currently works as a language arts consultant for textbook publisher McDougal Littell. She is affiliated with the Louisville Writing Project at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.


This article is featured in the NWP booklet 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing.

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