Problems With the Five Paragraph Essay and Ways To Write a Better Kind of Essay (2023)

Elizabeth Guzik

Basic College Writing Tips

Welcome to College: Say Goodbye to the Five-ParagraphEssay

Many students learned in high school to write what is commonly knownas the five paragraph essay. This handout is designed to help yousee the weaknesses of that syle of essay and to help you learn to writesomething more complex that that formulaic essay. The Five ParagraphEssay consists of (surprise!) five paragraphs that follow a very structuredformat. The first paragraph contains a one sentence (or maybe a twosentence) thesis statement, which is followed by three sentences that brieflydescribe what will be discussed in the three body paragraphs. Thesethree sentences are sometimes referred to as the pathway, since they showwhere the paper will go. There may then be a transitional sentenceto 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 argumentsof 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 writingthat many students find helpful. However, once you reach the collegelevel, the weaknesses outweigh the strengths. The five paragraphessay encourages students to engage only on the surface level without attainingthe level of cogency demanded by college writing. In its broad, overarchingstyle, it has a tendency to encourage overly general thesis statementsthat lead to poorly developed and unfocused papers. And its formulaicnature makes it prone to produce papers with stilted organization.Not to mention that it is next to impossible to write five pages of onewithout repeating yourself. The only time the five paragraph essaymay be useful in college is when you are writing answers to brief essayquestions on exams. In timed situations that do not allow you tocome up with a complex organization, the five pragraph essay format canbe helpful to structure your ideas if you are easily overwhelmed by thenumber of points you have to make.

So, if you're not allowed to write the kind of essay your high schoolteachers 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 makea great working thesis for the kind of argumentative, thesis-driven paperthat you are asked to write in college. Here’s an example inanswer to the prompt, “What fundamental change would improve high schooleducation ?”.

High school educationhas several problems which must be solved to prepare America’s youth forthe challenges of the 21st century. Overcrowded classrooms mean thatstudents do not receive the individualized attention that they need tosucceed. Increasing rates of crime are making students afraid tocome to school, and preventing students from concentrating while they arethere. In addition, the lack of technological resources like stateof the art computers is preventing students from being competitive in theworkplace after graduation. These problems all mean that some studentsare 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 aresult. . .

OR

High schools across the country arebulging at the seams. As increasing numbers of Americans realizethat education is necessary to attaining the American dream, our schoolsgrow more crowded. At the same time, budget cuts have causedschools to cut back on the number of teachers. As thenumber of teachers has dropped, and classrooms have become more crowded,the quality of education in our public schools has declined. Witha 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 to20 students would allow more students to get the instruction they needto become productive members of society, which is the most important goalof high school education in America today.

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


5 Para EssayCollege Essay
High school education has several problems which Solving theproblem of overcrowding wouldallow more
must be solved to prepare America’s youth forthe students toget the instruction they needto become
challenges of the 21st century.productive members of society whichis the most
important goal of high school education in Americatoday.
This thesis states the obvious. It is so general thatThis statement narrows the topic down to a specific problem:
just about anything you threw into the essay could be usedovercrowding. It also states why overcrowding is a problem.
to support it – but you would end up with a very unfocusedThe sentence implies that overcrowding is preventing at least somestudents
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 collegeessay express concern about what else to put in the introductory paragraph.Certainly, the five paragraph essay gives you a clear formula for whatelse to include in the introduction. However, to excel at collegewriting, students need to think about the function of the introductoryparagraph. Introductory pararaphs are designed to give readers apreview of the essay topic and introduce the writer's point of view onthe subject. You do not need to have one sentence in the introductionfor each paragraph in the paper. You simply need to give enough ofan overview of where you are going to give readers a sense of the overallarc of your argument. An introduction is kind of like a movie preview--ittells the reader enough that he or she knows what to expect, but it doesnot give a scene by scene breakdown of the movie.

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

5 Para EssayCollege 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 seekingan education.
4. Conclusion3. Budget cuts mean fewer teachers in schools, which reduces the qualityof classroom instruction.
4. Teachers get burned out when classes are overcrowded.
5. In overcrowded classrooms, too many students get lost or slip throughthe cracks.
6. Conclusion suggesting what the result of solving the problems mightbe for society.

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

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