Elizabeth Guzik
Basic College Writing Tips

Welcome to College: Say Goodbye to the Five-Paragraph Essay

Many students learned in high school to write what is commonly known as the five paragraph essay.  This handout is designed to help you see the weaknesses of that syle of essay and to help you learn to write something more complex that that formulaic essay.  The Five Paragraph Essay consists of (surprise!) five paragraphs that follow a very structured format.  The first paragraph contains a one sentence (or maybe a two sentence) thesis statement, which is followed by three sentences that briefly describe what will be discussed in the three body paragraphs.  These three sentences are sometimes referred to as the pathway, since they show where the paper will go.  There may then be a transitional sentence to the next paragraph, which discusses the topic of the first pathway sentence.  The next two body paragraphs develop and detail the next two pathway sentences.  The conclusion, the fifth paragraph, restates and summarizes the arguments of the essay, sometimes beginning with the phrase, “In conclusion.”

The strength of the five paragraph essay is that it is highly structured, and fairly easy to teach.  It provides a very formulaic style of writing that many students find helpful.  However, once you reach the college level, the weaknesses outweigh the strengths.  The five paragraph essay encourages students to engage only on the surface level without attaining the level of cogency demanded by college writing.  In its broad, overarching style, it has a tendency to encourage overly general thesis statements that lead to poorly developed and unfocused papers.  And its formulaic nature makes it prone to produce papers with stilted organization.  Not to mention that it is next to impossible to write five pages of one without repeating yourself.  The only time the five paragraph essay may be useful in college is when you are writing answers to brief essay questions on exams.  In timed situations that do not allow you to come up with a complex organization, the five pragraph essay format can be helpful to structure your ideas if you are easily overwhelmed by the number of points you have to make.

So, if you're not allowed to write the kind of essay your high school teachers taught you, what exactly else are you supposed to write?  The easiest thing to remember is that with a few sentence level changes, each pathway sentence from a traditional five paragraph essay would make a great working thesis for the kind of argumentative, thesis-driven paper that you are asked to write in  college.  Here’s an example in answer to the prompt, “What fundamental change would improve high school education ?”.

High school education has several problems which must be solved to prepare America’s youth for the challenges of the 21st century.  Overcrowded classrooms mean that students do not receive the individualized attention that they need to succeed.  Increasing rates of crime are making students afraid to come to school, and preventing students from concentrating while they are there.  In addition, the lack of technological resources like state of the art computers is preventing students from being competitive in the workplace after graduation.  These problems all mean that some students are falling behind.
When students fall behind, they need the attention of an instructor one on one to catch up.  Because classrooms are so crowded, teachers are overworked.  As a result.  .  .


High schools across the country are bulging at the seams.  As increasing numbers of Americans realize that education is necessary to attaining the American dream, our schools grow more crowded.   At the same time, budget cuts have caused schools to cut back on the number of teachers.    As the number of teachers has dropped, and classrooms have become more crowded, the quality of education in our public schools has declined.  With a higher workload, burnout among even the best teachers has increased, and fewer people see teaching as the desirable profession they once did.  Solving the problem of overcrowding by strictly limiting class size to 20 students would allow more students to get the instruction they need to become productive members of society, which is the most important goal of high school education in America today.

Can you see the difference between the two parargraphs?  Let's take a closer look:

5  Para Essay College Essay
High school education has several problems which   Solving theproblem of overcrowding would allow more
must be solved to prepare America’s youth for the   students toget the instruction they need to become
challenges of the 21st century. productive members of society whichis the most
important goal of high school education in America today.
This thesis states the obvious.  It is so general that This statement narrows the topic down to a specific problem:
just about anything you threw into the essay could be used  overcrowding. It also states why overcrowding is a problem.
to support it – but you would end up with a very unfocused The sentence implies that overcrowding is preventing at least some students
essay.  Also note the use of vague wording –  from getting the education they need to
“several problems.”  Finally, a college paper must take a  “become productive members of society,” which the thesis
position that a rational person would disagree with.   itself identifies as a primary goal of high school education.
What rational person would not agree with this sentence? There are lots of rational people who would choose another
problem as the worst obstacle facing high school education.
There are also lots of rational people who would argue for a
  different primary goal of high school education.

Many students when transitioning from the 5 paragraph essay to the college essay express concern about what else to put in the introductory paragraph.  Certainly, the five paragraph essay gives you a clear formula for what else to include in the introduction.  However, to excel at college writing, students need to think about the function of the introductory paragraph.  Introductory pararaphs are designed to give readers a preview of the essay topic and introduce the writer's point of view on the subject.  You do not need to have one sentence in the introduction for each paragraph in the paper.  You simply need to give enough of an overview of where you are going to give readers a sense of the overall arc of your argument.  An introduction is kind of like a movie preview--it tells the reader enough that he or she knows what to expect, but it does not give a scene by scene breakdown of the movie.

Even though a more complex essay will not have a one to one correspondance of setences to paragraphs, readers can still make a good guess about what will be included in that kind of essay.  Here is what an outline for the essays that follow each of those thesis statements and introductory pararaphs might look like:

5 Para Essay College Essay
1.  Overcrowding interferes with instruction. 1.The primary goal of a high school education is to make all students, not just a certain select few, 
2.  Increasing crime makes students afraid/unable to work. into productive members of society.
3.  No tech resources means not prepared for work force. 2. As jobs become more competitive, more people need and are seeking an education.
4.  Conclusion 3. Budget cuts mean fewer teachers in schools, which reduces the quality of classroom instruction.
  4. Teachers get burned out when classes are overcrowded.
  5. In overcrowded classrooms, too many students get lost or slip through the cracks.
6. Conclusion suggesting what the result of solving the problems might be for society.

Obviously, the second essay is going to come out longer and more complex than the first.  This seems counterintuitive to many students at first glance.  You would think that an essay with three main points would be longer than one with one main point.  The difference is that the college essay asks you to ask more probing questions--to examine the hows and whys behind each point and push your analysis further.