University Writing Center, Cal Poly Pomona, Building 15, Room 8, (909) 869-5343

Going Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

Many high school students have learned a type of organization called the “five-paragraph essay.”  The pattern works like this:

Introduction: Thesis and three reasons.

Body Paragraph One: Discuss reason number one.

Body Paragraph Two: Discuss reason number two.

Body Paragraph Three: Discuss reason number three.

Conclusion: Summarize.

Although the five-paragraph essay format does provide a basic organizational structure, there are many potential problems.  To list a few:

Contrary to what many students believe, there is no rule that says that a college essay, or any other kind of essay, must have five paragraphs and five paragraphs only.  Paragraph divisions perform two functions: 1) they help the reader understand the text by organizing it into groups of ideas that work together, and 2) they help the eye return to the proper place in the text after looking away for a brief moment.  A text without enough breaks is difficult to read because you keep losing your place.

Thus, paragraph divisions should simply help the reader read and understand the text.  How many paragraphs you have depends on the nature of your ideas and how much you have to say.  Look on the other side of this handout for a different way of thinking about the college essay.

An Alternative to the five-paragraph essay:




Your introduction is like a signpost or a map at the beginning of a trail.  It tells readers where you are going to take them, what ideas you will explore, and what they will see along the way.  It should create a feeling of anticipation and interest.

Ask yourself:

  • What is my main idea or thesis?
  • Who are my readers? What do they know and believe?
  • Why is my idea important here and now?
  • How do I want my readers to respond?
  • Why is my idea important here and now?




The body of the essay moves the reader along toward the destination or goal.  It might have one paragraph, but usually it has several.  Each paragraph is related to one of the points you want to show the readers along the way.  Some points may take more than one paragraph to develop completely.  There should be connections and transitions between the points you show the reader.

Ask yourself:

  • What points do I want to make to help my readers understand my idea?
  • What examples can I use to help the reader understand each point?
  • What evidence do I have that each point is true?
  • How can I keep the reader interested in following my ideas?
  • What is this paragraph about?
  • What does this paragraph do for the reader? 




The conclusion is the end of the journey.  It looks back on the points you have shown the reader, and reinforces, but does not necessarily repeat, the main idea.  It also should create a feeling of ending, a farewell to the reader.

Ask yourself:

  • How has the reader's mind been changed by following my points and examples?
  • If we continued this journey, where would we go next?
  • If the reader ignores the points you have made, what might happen?