Though many of the essays you write as an undergrad tend to be direct responses to questions prepared by your professor, sometimes your best bet is to approach each topic with a question of your own: How do I make this essay my own?
You’ve been, by and large, taught the standard model of an essay: Introduction, Thesis, Body (coherent logic tying together evidence and ideas relative to the claim(s) of the Thesis) and Conclusion. But sometimes it’s hard to come up with a clear and insightful thesis—particularly when you have cursory knowledge of the topic; minimal interest; or simply struggle to understand it. Thus when I say making the essay your own, what I mean is answering the question(s) within a, let’s call it a subcontext, of an argument or idea that you’re interested in, knowledgeable of, or have direct experience with.
For example, your assignment is to read a famous politician or philosopher’s speech and answer a question that’s designed to promote analysis (i.e. What are some of the rhetorical tenants of their persuasive arguments? What does it illuminate about the social dynamics of the time period? And what role does the church play with respect to being the foundation of their logic?). Questions, essays, of this nature tend to serve as practical practice for students for the purpose of sharpening their rhetorical skills. Yet sometimes they appear to leave little room for the important process of going beyond surface-level analysis/summary and into the domain interpretation.
It’s rather common that when a student is asked to create a novel thesis out of what initially appears to be a container that can only fit large swaths of summary with only small segments of analysis, their thesis is in danger of not being a thesis at all. All writers in these situations can find that their paper has a repetitive Introduction, vague Thesis that can’t quite provide the structure for the paper to follow and a Body that is supported by fractured integrations of bits of examples/citations. Basically, the paper is fragmented.
Although you will find certain questions or topics that do not leave you struggling to form a strong thesis (marked by being easily identifiable, plausible and refined), no matter what you’re faced with as a student you have to sift through the assignments and bring the argument “closer to home.” There are many ways to do this. One way is find what you like. For instance, if you find religion to be a fascinating topic you can start to think about what insights can be elicited from the disciplines of psychology or history. This can lead to, say, coming to understand patterns (small examples of the historical trajectories) of religion’s role in politics. Thus you can back track and begin to form an argument that attempts to explain some connections as to why the politician or philosopher used religion in a multifaceted way to disarm his oppositions and call for action.
But the tricky part is sometimes doing all the extra research not only is not part of the assignment, but also impossible do to time restraints. Still, you don’t strictly have to think about this in terms of a large research paper because sometimes making an essay your own merely entails you taking a topic and lending your own memory, knowledge and experience.
Either way, the endpoint is to foster connections in order to better understand things. Starting with a little research right now, or being willing to incorporate your own knowledge, can serve as the essential practice for what you’ll be asked to do more and more as you pursue your degree. The sooner you pull away the seedlings of what you’re interested in, know, or are interested in knowing, the sooner you begin to teach yourself—germinating independent thought.