Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Theme

One of the major transitions between high-school writing and college writing involves a wider set of options of how to organize an essay. Choosing the right structure is up to you, and depends on the application of critical thinking skills to select the best fit for your purpose.

In high school, the SAT and other standardized testing formats value a very formulaic, rigid approach to essay writing. Some students who have mastered that form, and enjoyed a lot of success from doing so, assume that college writing is simply more of the same. The skills that go into a very basic kind of essay—often called the five-paragraph theme—are indispensable. If you’re good at the five-paragraph theme, then you’re good at identifying a clear and consistent thesis, arranging cohesive paragraphs, organizing evidence for key points, and situating an argument within a broader context through the intro and conclusion.

In college you need to build on those essential skills. The five-paragraph theme, as such, is bland and formulaic; it doesn’t compel deep thinking. Your professors are looking for a more ambitious and arguable thesis, a nuanced and compelling argument, and real-life evidence for all key points, all in an organically structured paper.

Figures 1 and 2 contrast the standard five-paragraph theme and the organic college paper. The five-paragraph theme, outlined in Figure 1, is probably what you’re used to: the introductory paragraph starts broad and gradually narrows to a thesis, which readers expect to find at the very end of that paragraph. In this idealized format, the thesis invokes the magic number of three: three reasons why a statement is true. Each of those reasons is explained and justified in the three body paragraphs, and then the final paragraph restates the thesis before gradually getting broader. This format is easy for readers to follow, and it helps writers organize their points and the evidence that goes with them. That’s why you learned this format.

Figure 2, in contrast, represents a paper on the same topic that has the more organic form expected in college. The first key difference is the thesis. Rather than simply positing a number of reasons to think that something is true, it puts forward an arguable statement: one with which a reasonable person might disagree. An arguable thesis gives the paper purpose. It surprises readers and draws them in. You hope your reader thinks, “Huh. Why would they come to that conclusion?” and then feels compelled to read on. The body paragraphs, then, build on one another to carry out this ambitious argument. In the classic five-paragraph theme (Figure 1) it hardly matters which of the three reasons you explain first or second. In the more organic structure (Figure 2) each paragraph specifically leads to the next.

Five blue segments on left, numbered. 1, at the top, is a wide-to-narrow funnel shape. "There are different kinds of medical treatment." Thesis: preventative medicine saves money, reduces suffering, and saves lives. 2: a box. Reason 1: Preventative medicine saves money. 3: a box. Reason 2: Preventative medicine reduces suffering. 4: a box. Reason 3: Preventative medicine saves lives. 5: a funnel shaped narrow to wide. "I've shown that preventative medicine is important." "Medical advances will continue to be made."

Figure 1, The five-paragraph “theme”


The last key difference is seen in the conclusion. Because the organic essay is driven by an ambitious, non-obvious argument, the reader comes to the concluding section thinking “OK, I’m convinced by the argument. What do you, author, make of it? Why does it matter?” The conclusion of an organically structured paper has a real job to do. It doesn’t just reiterate the thesis; it explains why the thesis matters.

Five blue squares in a vertical line, connected by black arrows pointing down between them. Next to the first: Setting up: what does the reader need to know? Thesis: lack of preventative medicine shows we need a whole new concept of health and wellness. Two: Here's what I mean by conventional wellness. Three: Here's why conventional medicine isn't set up for prevention. Four: Here's what would have to happen to really do preventative medicine right. Five: Implications: we have to think broadly (bringing thesis home). In fact, we already see this shift happening.

Figure 2, The organic college paper

The substantial time you spent mastering the five-paragraph form in Figure 1 was time well spent; it’s hard to imagine anyone succeeding with the more organic form without the organizational skills and habits of mind inherent in the simpler form. But if you assume that you must adhere rigidly to the simpler form, you’re blunting your intellectual ambition. Your professors will not be impressed by obvious theses, loosely related body paragraphs, and repetitive conclusions. They want you to undertake an ambitious independent analysis, one that will yield a thesis that is somewhat surprising and challenging to explain.