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The 5-Paragraph Essay: Love It or Leave It?

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If you’re like a lot of high school students, the five-paragraph essay is a major part of your academic career. Like taking your driver’s test or bingeing Netflix on weekends, writing these essays has become a mainstay of high school life. But is it time to rethink this format?

In other words, is the five-paragraph essay a classic…or is it just tired?

On one hand, the five-paragraph essay is a great fallback to use when you don’t know how to organize an essay. It provides a template that generally works well for most topics. Because it begins with an introduction, supports the argument made in the introduction with three paragraphs (usually providing examples), and then concludes, the five-paragraph essay ensures two major things. First, by having the three body paragraphs, the format makes sure that you’re providing support for your argument. Second, by including both the introduction and the conclusion, it makes sure you’re providing enough context for the reader.

But that doesn’t make it the perfect solution in every situation. The five-paragraph essay can be like a cookie-cutter: all of the products end up looking (more or less) the same. It’s easy to use, yes. It’s also easy to misuse. If your thesis isn’t strong, the “evidence” you provide may or may not support it. It can also be difficult to connect ideas between paragraphs to create a larger argument. Sometimes, the five-paragraph essay just doesn’t give you enough space to make a convincing argument.

In short, there are a lot of benefits to using the five-paragraph essay: it’s easy, it ensures that you support your argument, and it makes it simple to put the argument in context. On the other hand, it’s hard to write a ground-breaking essay or a complicated argument, and it’s easy to misuse. So what’s the solution?

A single paragraph. One way to create a more sophisticated version of the five-paragraph essay is to write a six-paragraph essay. No, I’m not joking! After you set out the main points of your argument, present a counterargument that runs against everything you’ve been arguing. What would someone on the other side of the issue say? Then, make sure you counter that argument (you can add another paragraph for this if you like). But don’t set up “straw men” counterarguments that are easy to tear down—the counterargument should be valid, yet you should be able to show why it is faulty. It’s not easy—but it does break you out of the five-paragraph box and help you create a stronger essay!

Rachel Kapelke-Dale blogs about test prep and admissions for Magoosh. She has a BA from Brown University, and did her own graduate work at the Université de Paris VII (Master Recherche) and University College London (PhD). She has taught and written about test preparation and admissions practices for over a decade.