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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

How to Choose a Topic: Overview

A guide on choosing a topic from the Undergraduate Library

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Struggling to figure out what to write on? Ask your instructor! Talk your topic over with them and figure out if you should broaden or narrow your focus, and if you have answered enough of the "Ws" to formulate a research question or thesis. 

Need help with your research? Ask A Librarian!

A UGL Quick Guide: How to Choose a Topic

Starting Points

When choosing a topic to research, there are a few key aspects to keep in mind:


  • Pick a topic you are interested in. If you aren't interested in it, you probably won't get very far in the research process.
  • Pick a topic that is of interest within your class. What is a recurring theme or topic in your class? How has a reading been fundamental for your thinking? Try to connect with something that you think you can either go deeper into, or take further.

Broad vs. Narrow

  • It can be tempting to pick a topic that is broad and seems easy to research. Keep in mind that sometimes these broad topics come with hidden pitfalls, and can be difficult to research due to the amount of information about them.
  • If you narrow down your topic too far, you may have a problem finding sources during your research. Try to make sure that your topic is broad enough to do research on.
  • To strike a happy medium between broad and narrow, try picking a specific angle, section, or aspect of a broad topic, or looking at how a narrow topic is influenced by other factors, or how it influences other factors in your field.
  • Start early by talking with friends, professors and T.A.'s, and librarians. Speaking with others can help clarify your questions, and provide direction.

The "W" Questions

  • Who  Who are you talking about? Why should the reader know about them? Also, who is publishing the articles you are looking at? Who is doing the research on your topic?
  • Where  Where is your topic being researched? Where is your topic relevant? Where are people talking about your topic? Are there specific places where your topic takes place or influences?
  • When  When is your assignment due? When did the majority of research on your topic get published (especially important in the sciences)? Are you in a position to compare historical and contemporary information?
  • Why  Why is your topic being researched? Is it an important, urgent issue? Why do you like your topic? Why do you want to do research on it? What about it is interesting to you?
  • How  How are you going to do your research? How will you phrase your thesis or research question? How will you focus your topic?

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