Bonus Material: 5-step thesis machine and essay checklist

If you want to write a great argumentative essay, then these are the foolproof steps to do it.

Grab this guide to help you craft a strong thesis statement and check that you haven’t forgotten a crucial part of your essay.

Or skip to the bottom for a list of fantastic argumentative essay ideas that have been vetted by a Princeton grad and professional editor who has taught writing at Notre Dame. 

Keep reading to learn more about what an argumentative essay is, and how is it different from other types of academic writing? What are the most important features of an effective argumentative essay? How do you write this kind of essay—where should you start, how do you make sure that you have an argument, and what are the most common pitfalls?

In this post we’ll cover:

Download the guide to a great thesis statement and essay checklist

Bonus: download our 5-step guide to creating a great thesis statement and essential essay checklist.


What is an argumentative essay?

An argumentative essay is a common assignment in many high school and college classes. But many students don’t know how to write a great argumentative essay!

In order to avoid some of the most common pitfalls, it’s important to know what this kind of essay is not

We can divide academic writing into three broad categories:

  1. Analytical: analyze the tools an author uses to make their point
  2. Research: delve deeply into a research topic and share your findings
  3. Persuasive: argue a specific and nuanced position backed by evidence

An argumentative essay falls into the third category. It’s crucial that your essay presents an argument, not just a series of facts or observations!

In elementary or middle school, you may have been assigned a version of this assignment—something like “write a persuasive essay arguing for a bigger allowance from your parents.” 

Maybe you wrote a five-paragraph essay explaining why you deserved an allowance for completing your weekly chores, the ways in which your current allowance limited your ability to join your friends in social activities, and examples of some of the educational things you’d spend your increased allowance on.

This is the more mature version of that assignment. The goal is to present a nuanced argument with deep thinking. Often the essay explores an ethical question.

a great essay presents nuanced arguments with deep thinking

Keep reading to learn our foolproof way of confirming that you have something that’s arguable. Our hand-picked list of 99 essay topics below gives a great starting place!

For example, you might start with the question “is animal testing ethical?” 

The idea is not to give a simple yes or no answer, but dig into the complexities of the question. Are there circumstances where it would be okay, but not other circumstances? 

Maybe you draw a distinction between animal testing that is part of efforts to find cures for serious human illnesses versus animal testing to develop cosmetics. So instead of just answering yes or no, you give a more nuanced answer.

In this example, you might even further qualify your position. Maybe you think that animal testing for medical research should be subject to careful regulations.

Or maybe you think that only certain animals should be involved in testing. Are tests using fruitflies okay? How about horseshoe crabs? Mice? Dogs? Primates? 

How about genetically modifying the animals as part of the testing?

Is animal testing for certain kinds of medical research more ethical than others?

See how there are a lot of different directions you can take this in beyond just “yes” or “no”? This is what will make your writing more mature and interesting!

For an academic argumentative essay, you will then need to support all of your points with evidence from reputable sources (we’ll explore this more below). Remember, your opinion is a component of the essay, but it’s also supported by evidence.

student writing

The skills that you build when you’re writing an academic argumentative essay will be incredibly useful throughout your life. They’re applicable in nearly any job that you can imagine! 

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 73.4% of employers want a candidate with strong written communication skills. Writing skills are in high demand for employers in every industry and can be crucial to your future success, even if you’re in a STEM-based career.

Download our 5-step guide to creating a great thesis statement and essential essay checklist.


Elements of a good argumentative essay

What makes a good academic argumentative essay?

A good argumentative essay should open with an engaging introduction. 

A well-crafted introduction makes a smooth funnel that starts more broadly and smoothly zeroes in on the specific argument:

  • It begins with some kind of “hook”: this can be an anecdote, quote, statistic, provocative statement, question, etc.
  • It gives some background information that is relevant to understand the ethical dilemma or debate
  • It has a lead-up to the thesis
  • At the end of the introduction, the thesis is clearly stated
essay intro funnel

Check out examples of great introductions here.

Crucially, a good argumentative essay has a strong, clear thesis.

The thesis should be:

  • Arguable: it’s not just the facts—someone could disagree with this position
  • Narrow & specific: don’t pick a position that’s so broad you could never back it up
  • Complex: show that you are thinking deeply—one way to do this is to consider objections/qualifiers in your thesis

We’ll talk more about how to craft a good thesis below, and you can download our 5-step worksheet to make a great thesis statement. 

The body of the essay should have at least three paragraphs.

These be clearly organized, and each paragraph should have a distinct idea. Together, the paragraphs cover all the points raised in the thesis. They should be in a logical order that best supports the argument. 

Each paragraph contains:

  • Transition from the previous sentence: this can be just a word or phrase, or it can be 1–2 whole sentences
  • Topic sentence: the main idea of the paragraph, taken from one “chunk” of your thesis
  • Specific piece of evidence, which is normally either a quote or a paraphrase from one of your sources (use 2–3 pieces of evidence per body paragraph)
    • Context: introduce your piece of evidence and any relevant background info
    • Explanation: explain what the quote/paraphrase means in your own words
    • Analysis: analyze how this piece of evidence proves your thesis
    • Relate it back to the thesis: don’t forget to relate this point back to your overarching thesis!
  • Summarizing sentence: restate topic sentence

Keep reading for more tips on how to use evidence effectively in your essay.

Your essay should also have a conclusion.

The conclusion should summarize your entire argument without being redundant. It should also point to the larger significance of the issue.

So to recap, your essay needs:

  1. An engaging introduction
  2. A great thesis statement
  3. Organized paragraphs with evidence from reputable sources
  4. A conclusion

Make sure your essay has all of these parts! Download our detailed checklist to make sure your essay avoids the most common mistakes.

To see how all these parts work together, check out our examples of great argumentative essays. 

student taking notes

5 steps to develop a great thesis for an argumentative essay

Having a great thesis statement is a make-or-break component of an argumentative essay.

In order to write a great thesis statement for an argumentative essay, use these five steps:

  1. State the topic (check out our list of great topics below!)
  2. Turn it into a debatable issue
  3. Provide a rationale for your position
  4. Add qualifier(s) to refine your position
  5. Reverse your statement to confirm it’s arguable and to anticipate possible counterarguments

(Adapted from Sheridan Baker, The Practical Stylist.)

birds arguing

Using this method with our example of animal testing, we might write:

  1. The idea: Animal testing
  2. Your position: Animal testing should only be used in certain circumstances. 
  3. Give a reason for your position: Animal testing causes suffering or injury to animals, which we should avoid as much as possible—but this is outweighed by the enormous potential for scientific discoveries.
  4. Add nuance and detail to your position: The ethical problems with animal testing are outweighed by the potential to advance cures for both animal and human diseases, but animal testing should be carefully limited to only applications that reduce suffering and disease, not for cosmetic or recreational applications.
  5. Check that it’s arguable and someone could argue the opposite side: Animal testing causes suffering to animals, which is unethical, and can often be misused for profit.

Download our 5-step worksheet to help guide you through these steps to write a great thesis statement!


How to use evidence in an argumentative essay

Using evidence to support your points is key to making an academic argument. 

When you were in elementary or middle school, perhaps you did a version of this assignment with just your own observations and opinions. 

When you’re writing a more advanced essay, however, you want to support your ideas with evidence from reputable sources.

research on a laptop

One of the big differences between a research paper and an argumentative essay is that you don’t need to do your own original research with primary sources. Original research would be things like running experiments, administering surveys, deciphering ancient inscriptions, interviewing people, or reading archival material.

Instead, you can rely on secondary sources. These are publications of other people’s research or analysis

For an academic essay, you want to make sure that your secondary sources are reputable.

How do you know a source is reputable? One good indication is that it’s published in a book by a major publisher (like Penguin), especially an academic publisher (like Princeton University Press, Harvard University Press, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press. . . basically anything with “university press” in the name!).

Another good kind of source is articles published in major academic journals. Some famous journals are Nature (all science), The Lancet (medicine), and The American Historical Review (history).

More accessible sources might be in other national magazines or newspapers, like The Atlantic, The Economist, or The New York Times.

library research

How do you gather evidence for your essay? When you’re reading sources and taking notes, think:

  • What is the author’s main argument? Supporting arguments?
  • What specific evidence does the author use to support that argument?
  • How does this argument relate to the argument in other sources? Does it agree/disagree or complicate the argument in other sources?

When you’re selecting your evidence, make sure that it directly supports the argument of that paragraph and the essay in general. 

Once you have your evidence gathered, you need to analyze it! You can’t just dump evidence on your readers without explaining its significance to your sub-point and your overall argument.

If you’re representing an author’s perspective, or if the quote is especially strong, quote it directly with quote marks: “  ”. As much as you can, try and quote only part of a sentence, and interweave it with your own writing.

The rest of the time, paraphrase the evidence in your own words. 

Make sure to cite your sources! There are lots of different citation styles. Which style is most appropriate will depend on which field you’re working in. Usually your teacher/professor will tell you which one to use. If it’s not clear, it’s always a good question to ask your instructor.

(You still cite when you paraphrase, unless it’s common knowledge that you find in virtually all the sources you read.)

student typing

How to write analysis

A balanced essay will have at least two sentences of analysis for every one sentence of direct quotation. For our essay about animal testing, this might look like:

“Whenever possible, animal testing should be avoided. Fortunately, advances in technology have made many alternatives to animal testing possible. For example, the polio vaccine, which has saved millions of human lives, used to be made in the kidney cells of monkeys, which meant that tens of thousands of monkeys died each year to produce the vaccine. However, by the 1970s the live monkeys had been replaced by cells in culture, which meant that many monkey lives were saved (Bookchin and Schumacher, 2005). An added benefit of this newer technique is that it also eliminated the risk of contamination with animal viruses (Taylor, 2019). Similarly, the vaccine against yellow fever used to be checked on live animals, but in the 1970s this was replaced with a cell culture test (World Health Organization, 2007). Scientists have also been able to avoid using animals for testing because our understanding of the diseases themselves has improved. For example, scientists used to perform a “particularly unpleasant” test using mice to check batches of insulin which involved sending mice into convulsions (Taylor, 2019). Since every batch of insulin needed to be tested on 600 mice, tens of thousands of mice were involved in the testing every year in the UK alone. Now, however, scientists know how to measure the components of insulin directly, and the mice are no longer needed (Taylor, 2019). Through these advances in scientific understanding and techniques, researchers have been able to reduce the amount of animal testing without compromising important work for human health.”

You should introduce your evidence by providing some context. Next, present your evidence. Then explain what it means and how it supports your argument. 

For a really great paper, you can also show how different sources relate to one another! Use transition words or phrases throughout your paragraphs to guide the reader along your thought process.

Your analysis should be:

  • Nuanced and specific
  • Takes into account multiple perspectives and ideas; draws distinctions and connections among them
  • Backed by evidence all relating back to the argument

For more mature writing, avoid clunky phrases like “On page 12, McKitterick states that. . . ” or “This evidence reveals that. . . ” Instead, try to weave the evidence into your writing seamlessly.

Wondering what this looks like when you put it all together? Check out our examples of great student essays.

student writing


99 great topic ideas for argumentative essays

All of these essay ideas have been vetted by a Princeton grad to confirm that they’re actually arguable. That means that they all would make great starting points for argumentative essays!

Use our foolproof 5-step guide to turn one of these ideas into a great thesis statement!

Student issues

  • Should sodas or other unhealthy food be banned at schools?
  • Should students hold jobs?
  • Should gym class be required?
  • Are parents responsible for childhood obesity?
  • Should schools require uniforms?
  • Should schools have tracking (honors classes, AP classes) or should classes be the same for all students in the same grade?
  • Should college athletes be paid?
  • Should children be allowed to play sports that have been proven to have a high risk of permanent brain damage from concussions? Is it ethical for adult athletes to be paid to play these sports?
  • How much should parents get involved in their child’s physical education? Is it ethical for young athletes to compete at the highest levels? (e.g. Olympic athletes who are under 18 years of age.)
  • If social media has been demonstrated to have harmful effects on mental health, should minors have unregulated access to it?
  • Should media for children and teens be regulated?
  • Should college be free of cost? Should future income be tied to the cost of a college degree?
  • Should public preschool be a right for all children?
  • Should all students receive free breakfast and lunch at school?
  • Should the school day start after 9am?
  • Should school libraries ban certain books?
  • Is marketing designed for children ethical?
  • Should the legal drinking age in the US be lowered to 18?

Animal rights

  • Should animal testing be banned?
  • Should animals be kept in zoos?
  • Is having pets ethical?
  • Should wild animals be allowed to be kept as pets?
  • Should you adopt a pet from a shelter or buy a specific breed from a breeder? 
  • Can eating meat be justified?
  • Is animal hunting ethical? 

Politics and human relations

  • Should smoking be illegal? Smoking in public? Smoking around children?
  • Should drug possession be decriminalized?
  • Should some items be taxed more than others? Is there anything that should be exempt from sales tax?
  • Are knock-off fashion “dupes” unethical?
  • Should museum items be returned (repatriated) to the country where they were created?
  • Should charities and humanitarian aid organizations use images of graphic suffering in their advertising campaigns?
  • Is it acceptable to risk harming others in order to benefit one who is clearly in need? For example, is it okay to drive over the speed limit because you need to help someone get to the hospital who is in urgent crisis? What if you cause a crash on the way to the hospital because of dangerous driving? 
  • Should there be any limits to lawyer-client confidentiality?
  • Is the death penalty ever warranted? Should the death penalty exist?
  • Is torture ever justified?
  • Is it ever right to steal, even if you have a great need?
  • Is it unethical to be extremely rich?
  • Should unpaid internships be legal?
  • Should companies be required to meet diversity quotes for their hiring practices?
  • Should parental leave be equal for all parents, regardless of who gives birth?
  • Should the minimum wage be raised?
  • Can war be ethical?
  • Should nuclear weapons be banned globally?
  • Should all new cars be electric?
  • Should we impose population controls? Should people have children, if that greatly increases one’s carbon footprint?
  • Should countries that produce disproportionate carbon emissions and other environmental damage have to help other countries with the effects of climate change?
  • Should individuals be able to sue the government when the government has failed to provide a basic standard of living?
  • Should we invest in military weapons development? 
  • Should we land machines, or humans, on planets, comets or other extraterrestrial bodies in order to study them?
  • Should we explore space colonization?
  • If people engage in risky behaviors, should they be charged a fine if they need to be rescued? (For example, swimming in the ocean at night while drunk.)
  • Should we distribute universal income?
  • How much control should the state have on the press?
  • Should law enforcement be able to work undercover? Is working undercover deception?
  • Should law enforcement be able to use tracking data from phones?
  • Should people serving prison sentences be allowed to vote?
  • Should gender quotas be used in government elections?
  • Can modern societies still be held accountable for what their nation did in the past?
  • Should public transit be free?
  • Should social media companies be regulated?
  • Should everyone have access to the internet for free?
  • Should elections be decided by popular vote? Should citizens over age 18 be legally required to vote?
  • Should certain kinds of speech on social media be banned?

Tech, AI, and data

  • Should tech devices come with an addiction warning label?
  • Will AI help the world or hurt it?
  • Should there be financial penalties for buying soda or other unhealthy foods?
  • Do people have a right to privacy online?
  • Should our data be used to determine insurance policies or legal consequences? For example, should we create a diabetic insulin implant that could notify your doctor or insurance company when you make poor diet choices, and should that decision make you ineligible for certain types of medical treatment? Should cars be equipped to monitor speed and other measures of good driving, and should this data be subpoenaed by authorities following a crash? 
  • Should law enforcement be able to access someone’s online data or phone with a warrant?
  • Can hacking ever be morally justified?

Medical ethics

  • Is healthcare a fundamental human right? Should universal healthcare be free?
  • In cases of terminal illness, do you think that a patient should be able to request medically assisted suicide?
  • Should terminally ill patients who have exhausted all approved drug therapies be able to access drugs that have not been approved for sale by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (commonly called “Right to Try”)?  
  • Under what conditions should people be kept artificially alive?
  • How should we decide who receives organ transplants? Is it ethical to de-prioritize a transplant candidate who smokes cigarettes, for example? 
  • Should there be any limits to doctor-patient confidentiality?
  • Is it ethical for medical study participants to be financially compensated?
  • Is it ethical for blood, plasma, or bone marrow donors to be financially compensated?
  • Should uninsured patients be offered free clinical trials?
  • Is it ethical for individuals who donate genetic material for fertility purposes (e.g. egg or sperm donors) to be financially compensated?
  • Should vaccines and medications be patented? Should individuals or corporations be able to profit from vaccines and medications? 
  • Should individuals or corporations be able to profit from healthcare?
  • Is plastic surgery ethical?
  • Should vaccinations be mandatory for everyone?
  • Should medical personnel collect healthy tissues of a deceased person without their consent?
  • What are the ethics of extremely expensive medical treatments? What if the treatment is not curative, but only extends life for a few more months?
  • As medical data becomes increasingly less “non-identifiable”—i.e. with AI, bigger data, and increasing knowledge of genetics it is less possible to guarantee that research study participants will remain anonymous—what are the ethical implications? 
  • Now that whole genome sequencing allows prospective parents to check the risks of conceiving children, what are the ethical obligations for the best interests of future possible children on the part of the prospective parents? If you know that your children will inherit a serious disease, should you have biological children? Should social policies govern such decisions? Should those policies protect parental procreative liberty or enhance social responsibility for the best interests of those future possible children?
  • Is it ethical to collect extra samples from a patient (for example, an extra vial of blood) before obtaining consent to be enrolled in a study? (Assume that in this scenario the sample would be discarded if the patient declines to enroll in the study.)
  • If, in the course of an unrelated medical or scientific study, a genetic predisposition to a certain illness or condition is discovered, should the study participant be notified? Does it matter if the findings are medically actionable or not? For example, “In a specific study, researchers were performing NGS on tissue banked samples of healthy controls and colon cancer patients to validate an assay. The use of healthy controls in a study like this is not uncommon; however, what happens if one of the healthy controls tests positive for a mutation that predisposes to colon cancer using an unvalidated research assay? The samples were obtained from a tissue bank and the researchers were unclear about what the informed consent stated about returning incidental findings, raising the question whether to contact the subject and if contact is attempted, how to do it.” 
  • Should parents decide medical treatment for their children? Should parents be allowed to opt out of medically-advised treatment because of personal beliefs?
  • Should parents who are researchers be able to enroll their own children in their research study?
  • Should DNA be used for genealogical research?

Bioethics

  • Should we create synthetic forms of life? Should we let them loose in the world?
  • Should we use geo-engineering to attempt to combat global warming?
  • Should we create genetically-modified organisms (like food crops)?
  • Should we resurrect extinct species?
  • If we had the ability to eliminate aberrant thought patterns and enforce social conformity through technological or pharmacological means, would it be the right thing to do? Or do people have an inalienable right to be themselves, provided they pose no immediate risk to themselves or others?
  • Are human enhancements ethical? Pharmaceutical, surgical, mechanical and neurological enhancements are already available for therapeutic purposes. But these same enhancements can be used to magnify human biological function beyond the societal norm. Where do we draw the line between therapy and enhancement? How do we justify enhancing human bodies when so many individuals still lack access to basic therapeutic medicine? Should neuro-enhancing drugs be legal? Is it ethical to improve memory functions with brain stimulation?

Bonus: download the essential essay checklist + 5-step thesis machine

Working on writing your own essay?

Grab our handy checklist to make sure that your essay has everything it needs! It also comes with our foolproof 5-step worksheet for creating great thesis statements every time.

Download the guide to a great thesis statement and essay checklist

Bonus: download our 5-step guide to creating a great thesis statement and essential essay checklist.


Emily

Emily graduated summa cum laude of Princeton University and holds an MA from the University of Notre Dame. A veteran of the publishing industry, she has helped professors at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton revise their books and articles. Over the last decade, Emily has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.