Don't Limit Your College Essay Format to Five Paragraphs

If you were a successful writer in high school, you're probably familiar with a very particular kind of essay.

We’ve all seen it. It’s the one that runs about five paragraphs, begins with an introduction (which includes a strong thesis statement), outlines three points of evidence that support the claim put forth in the thesis, and closes with a conclusion that summarizes the main points of your argument.

While the basic elements of the five-paragraph structure will serve you well throughout your time in college, an overreliance on the form can produce stale writing and predictable argumentation — and your grades may suffer as a result.

With this in mind, here are a few ways to bring your essay out of the realm of rote high school writing and into the world of standout, higher-ed academic prose. While a lot of this advice will pertain primarily to college classes in the humanities, the principles will hold true for just about any piece of persuasive writing in your future.

1. Think about your audience.

In their book They Say, I Say, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein claim that the biggest difference between academic writing and other kinds of prose is that the former is deeply engaged with other people's opinions. Rather than focusing solely on your own position, they say that academic writing should place the author (you) in conversation with other thinkers and writers.

The book makes a convincing argument, if only because it encourages young writers to think very clearly about whom they are writing for. Many high school essays are written for a vague audience: perhaps a “teacher” or “smart person.”

A hazy understanding of a paper’s intended audience leads to weak writing, especially when you’re trying to establish the stakes and context of your argument.

Try to be as specific as possible when imagining your audience. Instead of writing only for the person grading the assignment, think about specific parties who might be affected by or have a stake in your argument — including those who would disagree with you. Then work toward convincing them of your position while also winning over undecided readers.

Your audience may be a particular segment of society, a given peer group, or even a specific author — but in all cases it should be more specific and clear than your professor alone.

Spend as much time as you need — but not more — setting up the scholarly conversation going on with regard to your subject. Once you mention and explain some of the claims others have made, your reader will have a better sense of the way in which your argument fits within that space — and then you’re free to make a unique intervention and to put forth bold claims.

Being clear on who your audience is will enable you to be more deliberate and specific in your tone and the evidence you use. This will come across to the reader, and your essay will have a much stronger sense of purpose than it would if you felt unsure about whom your arguments were geared toward.

2. Expand your thesis statement — it doesn’t have to fit in one sentence.

Many young writers are taught to articulate their argument in a succinct way — usually in the final sentence of the first paragraph of an essay. Succinctness certainly isn’t a bad thing, and this is good advice for a particular kind of writing. A one-sentence thesis is an important first step toward understanding that academic essays should make a bold claim, front-and-center, and offer the reader a sense of the argument that will follow.

As you progress through college, however, you will be tasked with making increasingly complex arguments, the kinds that include more than one claim. This sort of argument may find support from several bodies of evidence, and as you try to introduce your reader to everything your paper is going to cover, your thesis statement will start to feel crowded.

Instead of jamming clause after clause into a single thesis sentence, you should feel free to articulate this statement across several sentences. Depending upon the length of the assignment, a thesis might even deserve its own dedicated paragraph. By not crowding this section of your paper with too many thoughts, your thesis will have more room to breathe while still acting as a roadmap for your reader.

3. Expand your developmental paragraphs.

Each paragraph in the body of your essay ought to contribute to the development of the argument you make in your thesis statement. It should begin with a topic sentence that states exactly what the paragraph is about, and it should elaborate on the evidence mentioned in the thesis statement at the start of your essay.

This does not mean, however, that all your evidence on a given point should be crammed into a single paragraph. Again, the arguments you'll be making at the college level are much more sophisticated than those you made in high school, and as a result you won't be able to deal with a supporting point in just a few sentences.

Instead of devoting a single paragraph to a single point of evidence (in the way that the five-paragraph structure calls for), your essay should include groups of paragraphs that each develop and comment upon different kinds of evidence.

Your first supporting paragraph might offer statistics that support your point, for example, while the next may respond to a quotation from an authority on the subject.

Offering different kinds of evidence to back up a single point fortifies your position from several angles, and creates a pleasing variety for your reader. This approach is generally a lot more engaging than a list of quotations from academics linked by a sentence or two of your own commentary.

4. Do more than summarize in your conclusion.

The average high school essay will use the conclusion to go back over the points made in the body of the essay, hitting all the salient features of the argument and restating the things the reader should take away from the paper. This approach ties up the loose ends of an essay and creates a sense that the author has closed the door on the subject. It suggests that there’s no more to be said on the topic.

A standout conclusion, however, will do almost the complete opposite. The last section of your essay should be an opportunity to expand the scope of your argument beyond what was offered in the preceding paragraphs, not a place to summarize the points already made. After all, you’ve already made those points.

Instead of reiterating information in your conclusion, assume that all the points in your essay are well-made, and that you've successfully convinced your reader of your position. With that confidence in mind, you should use your conclusion to remark on the broader implications of your argument, with the goal of leaving your reader thinking about your subject after finishing the piece. It also signals to your audience that you’ve engaged with the material enough to consider its broader implications.

From a practical standpoint, this might involve offering historical context that falls outside the scope of your paper; acknowledging areas of analysis you did not have time to explore but that might be fruitful for further essays; appealing directly to the world of your reader by offering a call to action; or even asking new, related questions of your audience — even though you won't be able to answer them.

If you think of your introduction as a door that invites your reader into the world of your essay, your conclusion should show her the way out, explaining how she can use the knowledge she's gained from your essay in her life and research.

Moving on from the formulaic five-paragraph essay can be tough to do, but you don’t have to forget everything you learned about writing in high school. Many of those organizational strategies still hold true in college, but you’ve got to be prepared to break from the constrictive five-paragraph form if you want to succeed in writing persuasive, varied, and compelling papers in college.

Find more articles by Corey Arnold and other writing advice on Noodle.

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