Ask a professor: dump the five paragraph essay

student study
Digging deeper is part of the deal when it comes to college writing. / Thinkstock

I am here today to liberate you. From what? From the tyranny of the five-paragraph essay that reigns over most high school careers. Sometimes it’s called the 3.8-paragraph essay, but whatever the formulaic essay format that became the default for any “formal” writing you did for school, it’s over. Now that you are in college, five paragraphs are no longer necessary, or even practical, for the kinds of writing you will need to do.

This isn’t to say that organization and structure, thesis statements and conclusions, evidence and research, are no longer relevant. But it means that college writing gives you the opportunity to go further and deeper into a subject than was ever allowed in the rigid confines of five-paragraphs.

At the end of the day, what professors are looking for throughout your college education, is to see students begin to think deeply and differently about a given subject or topic, to start asking hard questions about them and begin to try and answer them.

In high school, you were often called upon to give reports: book reports, lab reports, history reports and so forth. You did some research (also known as Google), and then dutifully copied these pieces of information and facts into a document or a PowerPoint to be repeated back to the teacher and the class. In college, that is only the beginning.

Take for example a high school essay on World War II: a five paragraph report would dutifully record the important dates, the major reasons behind the war, when the US got involved and why as well as how and when the war ended. A college essay requires that you go deeper. You have to answer more than the simple facts and dig into deeper historical questions and back them up by solid research. Why did the USA only get involved after Pearl Harbor, rather than before? What were the conditions in Europe leading up to Hitler’s rise? What lead Japan to attack Pearl Harbor? What are the complexities involved in the US Internment Camps?

Asking questions, making connections, digging deeper: all things that take way more than five paragraphs to accomplish.


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