Choosing a Prescribed Essay Title

How to decide on which essay to write

The prescribed essay titles (PTs) for TOK are released about six months before you are due to complete your essay.

Clearly, it is important to choose one quickly to give yourself as much time as possible to write it. But it is even more important to choose one wisely, so that you are fully engaged, and possess the necessary knowledge, skills, and examples to write it effectively.

It’s hard to give generic rules about choosing an essay title, because every PT list is different, every school will have covered different topics, and every student is unique. What appeals to you may not appeal to others. However, the following principles can be used to help you decide which title to select.

Be guided, but not dictated, by your initial ‘gut reaction’.

Certain titles may seem vague and abstract, and hard to get your head around, in which case, you’ll be reluctant to choose them. On the other hand, certain titles may seem to ‘talk to you’, and appear more viable. This is a valid first reaction, but you shouldn’t dismiss anything at this point, or decide for sure on the one you’ll write.

Your teacher will probably run an ‘unpacking’ session with you, looking at each PT, thinking about which key words and terms need pinning down, and giving you a clearer understanding of what each title is looking for.

During this 'unpacking' session, you should reflect on how your initial feelings about the PTs have developed, either in a positive or a negative way.

After this, you will probably be able to focus your choice.

Image: Arce, Ricardo. Unsplash, 2019.

Think about how you might structure your essay.

A TOK essay is built around arguments and counterarguments, with a ‘sustained relevance’ to the title. If the title is asking you to consider two areas of knowledge (AOK), the basic structure for your essay would be an argument and counterargument for your first AOK, then the same for your second.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How easy is it for you to construct this discussion?

  • Do you have a good idea of which AOKs you will choose?

  • Can you see how you might explore them?

If it’s easier to apply this thinking to certain PTs above others, then these are likely to be the ones that will work best for you.

If the PT does not specify the number of AOKs, you have a little more leeway, and could structure it around a big argument and counterargument (referring to more than two AOKs in each one), or around three or more smaller arguments.

How easy is it to plan your structure? Again, if you can see the way ahead clearly, this may be the PT for you.

Now you’re ready to meet with your teacher for your first interaction.

This is when you should nail down the PT you’ll be tackling. Talk to your teacher, and be honest and open with them. Outline the process you’ve gone through, and explain how you propose to answer the question.

Don’t expect the essay to be easy; you should be challenged by the title you’ve chosen. But that’s fine; indeed, you can even explicitly acknowledge that you’ve wrestled with difficulties within your essay.

This assessment is meant to be a challenge, so if it seems straightforward, you probably need to think harder!