- By Jason Bacot
- Published 01/26/2011
The five-paragraph essay is a staple of the American academic composition, and not just in composition classes, but in the humanities and sciences as well. Even if an instructor doesn’t feel like he or she has the time to assign, read, and grade longer term papers, essays are likely to be part of the syllabus for a class. If you’re a student in high school or college, you’ve probably written at least one five-paragraph essay before, and you’ll probably have many more ahead of you. One of the most important reasons why students don’t make good marks on their essays is that there is a fundamental disconnect between what the instructor wants and what the student thinks the instructor wants. Plenty of students make the mistake of thinking that if their instructor “only” assigns them a five-paragraph essay – particularly if there is a maximum word limit assigned – that it’s supposed to be an easy assignment. But that perception may be completely wrong. A lot of instructors assign short essays for the express purpose of forcing the student to develop a viewpoint on the essay topic, and express that viewpoint as concisely and clearly as possible. That’s not easy for a lot of students to do! In fact, it is often much harder to distill a viewpoint into 500 words than it is to take 1,000 or 1,500 words to explore a viewpoint.
If you’re a student, and you’re just not making the grade you
think you deserve on short essay assignments, then you probably need to take your essays to your instructor, and ask what the problem is. Any decent instructor will be willing and able to explain just how you’re missing the mark. You could be oversimplifying or over-generalizing. You could have simply misunderstood the assignment. Or you could be making the assignment more difficult than it has to be. Instructors vary in the latitude they give students as far as things like word length, number of paragraphs, topics, and viewpoints. If your instructor has very specific requirements about these things, then you need to know where you can and cannot step out of line. Often, the teacher that is the most strict about meeting certain requirements is one that is the most willing to help you understand where you’ve gone off course, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
One of the greatest skills you can develop in life is the skill of being able to organize your ideas and present a cogent viewpoint. There’s nothing magical about the five paragraph essay. In most cases is it is a tool or technique that’s designed to teach you how to organize and present your ideas. This is a vital skill for anyone pursuing a career in business, academia, medicine, science, or engineering. If people are able to understand what you’re saying (or writing), then you are successfully communicating, and this is the key to success in so many areas of life. The short essay assignment is designed to help you learn to do this.