18 Essays ~ Choosing the Best Structure


snow-covered homes lit from within
Tromso, Norway by Federica Esposito on Unsplash
Hue, Vietnam by Xiaofen P on Unsplash
colorful houses built close together
Venice, Italy by matthaeus on Unsplash


Questions to Ponder ~ Your Dream Home

With a small group, discuss your “dream home.” What does it look like? Where is it? What material is it made of? Who lives there? What is the environment like outside the house? Search for some images of homes that appeal to you.

Can you compare and contrast the homes you and your partners chose? Can you make an argument for why your choice is the best?


As you begin to write an essay, you will need to think about the best structure for your ideas. Building an essay is like building a house: you need to think about audience (who will live in the house?), purpose (what will they do in the house?) and context (what in the environment like around the house?).

When you write an essay, you need to make decisions about what kind of structure is best to express your ideas clearly, and to meet the requirements of the assignment. It helps to think about your audience, purpose, and context as you consider your options.

Traditional Essay Format

One useful essay structure is the traditional 5-paragraph format. This format is typically taught in U.S. high schools. A 5-paragraph essay starts with an Introduction, which includes a thesis statement. The thesis statement often includes 3 controls, which are the points the writer intends to develop in the essay.

After the Introduction, there are three Body Paragraphs, which each start with a topic sentence. Each topic sentence introduces one of the controls from the thesis.

Finally, the Conclusion paragraph re-states the original thesis and leaves the reader with a final thought.

This format can be very useful when you start to practice writing an American English essay. Depending on the assignment prompt and/or the context, a 5-paragraph essay may be a good choice for ENGL 087. For example, if you are writing a timed, in-class essay, the 5-paragraph structure may be very useful. Or, if the assignment prompt asks you to explain three causes of obesity, the 5-paragraph structure might work. In these cases, your essay and your classmates’ essays may have similar points, and they will have the same structure. The 5-paragraph format can also be useful in standardized writing situations like TOEFL and IELTS.

College Essay Formats

However, many college instructors will expect your writing to go beyond the 5-paragraph structure. College professors expect you to think critically about your topic, not just write facts about it. They also expect you to take a stand¬†about the topic, and to conduct research to support your ideas. In these cases, your essay and your classmates’ essays will probably be very different, even if your opinions are similar. Your essay will explain your unique opinion and ideas about the topic, in your own style. This is what makes college writing so interesting – for both the writer and the readers.

A strong college essay does incorporate some of the features of a 5-paragraph essay. For instance, a good Introduction will help open your essay. A catchy “hook” at the beginning will grab your readers’ attention and make them interested in reading your essay. Next, some background information can be useful, to explain more about your topic. A clear thesis statement here is very helpful to your readers – in a U.S. classroom, readers do not want to “hunt” for your overall main idea. For ENGL 087, most essays will require a one-paragraph Introduction. Longer essays for your future classes may need a longer Introduction.

After your Introduction paragraph, the Body Paragraphs will explain your main ideas. Use as many Body Paragraphs as you need to develop and explain your main ideas. Topic sentences can help main your main points clear. There is no “right” or “wrong” length for the Body Paragraphs; one guideline for college essays is to have paragraphs take two-thirds to three-fourths of a page, but they can be shorter or longer.

Your Conclusion paragraph should remind readers about your thesis. You should also leave your reader with a final thought, as in the traditional 5-paragraph essay. The kind of final thought will depend on the assignment prompt.

Here is a a general outline for a strong ENGL 087 essay. You can adapt this as you need to, depending on the assignment prompt:

I. Introduction

A. Hook

B. Background information

C. Thesis

II. Body Paragraph

A. Topic sentence

1. supporting detail

2. supporting detail

(add as many supporting details as you need)

3. connection to next paragraph

III. (add as many Body Paragraphs as you need)

IV. Conclusion

A. reminder of thesis (re-state your thesis in a new way – do not just copy your original thesis here)

B. final thought (examples: call to action, opinion, rhetorical question, proposal, or prediction)

In some ways, this more open-ended college essay format is more challenging, because it does not provide a rigid structure for you to follow. But that is what makes it more interesting to write and to read: because it is not following a formula, you are free to develop and connect your ideas as you wish. You can build your “dream essay” without trying to fit ideas into a specific formula. It’s your choice as the author to decide which structure is the best for your purpose.


Is this chapter:

…about right, but you would like more examples? –> Read “The Transition from High School to College Writing” from the University of Toronto’s UC Writing Centre. Also see “Types of Essays and Suggested Structures” from Lumen’s Developmental English: Introduction to College Composition.

…too easy, or you would like more evidence for why the 5-paragraph format is not always effective? –> Read “College Writing” from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Writing Center and the module entitled “Why It Matters: Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay” from Lumen’s Writing Skills Lab.

For more on the differences between 5-paragraph essays and less rigid structures, consult “Formulaic vs. Organic Structure” from Lumen’s Writing Skills Lab.

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