Elizabeth Guzik
Basic College Writing Tips

The Paragraph In The College Essay

When transitioning from the five paragraph essay to the college essay, breaking out of its “intro, body paragraph 1, body paragraph 2, body paragraph 3, conclusion” format and its tripartite and rationale-less thesis are not the only changes you will need to make to your writing style.

You will also have to learn to bulk up the content of each paragraph.  I dislike giving rules or formulas to students when it comes to college writing because nearly every rule or formula has both weaknesses and exceptions.  But a general guideline for the paragraphs in your college essays is that they should be about 1/3 to 1/2 of a page.  Any longer, and chances are good that you have more than one main idea.  In which case, you need to find the other secondary main ideas and give them their own paragraphs.

However, students are more concerned when they can’t get their paragraphs to be even a third of a page long.  They usually think this is because they simply have nothing more to say, which in argumentative writing is not usually the case.  Usually the inability to get paragraphs to be long enough is the result of writing paragraphs that are missing key components.

In the five paragraph essay, each paragraph had a topic sentence and then a bunch of support—support which often consisted of a hodgepodge of examples sort of thrown at the reader in a kind of barrage.

In the college essay, you need to contextualize your examples for the reader.  If you are writing a good complex essay, even your topic sentence will require more explanation than just one sentence.

Below are the five components of a college paragraph.  They follow the order in which they are most commonly found in a paragraph; however, this is not the only possible or even successful order.

    1. Topic Sentence.  Unlike the 5 paragraph essay, the topic sentence here has two main functions, one of which it shares
    with the old five paragraph essay format.  First, the topic sentence summarizes the main point of the paragraph.  Think
    of it as a mini-thesis.  What your main thesis does for the whole paper, the topic sentence does for the paragraph.  This
    is because not all of the sentences in the paragraph may clearly and directly support the thesis.  But they all have to
    support the topic sentence.  Secondly, though, it needs to make explicit how the main point of that paragraph supports
    or moves forward your main thesis.

    2. Explanation and Expansion.  Again, usually, if well written, the ideas in your topic sentence will be a bit complicated.
    You ought to need more than one sentence to make all the finer points of them clear.  In a few argumentative based
    sentences, you can elaborate, explain, and expand upon your main point.  Sometimes you give background information
    or support for argumentative points here.  What this can’t be is examples.

    3. Examples.  Usually students do okay on this.  This is something you are familiar with from high school writing.

    4. Analysis.  So what?  Why? How?  Why should the reader care?  What does this say about the larger society?  What
    does this say to further the thesis?  You need to make clear to the reader what you as a writer get from the examples.
    Remember the movie with a friend analogy.

    5. Transitions.  Finish the paragraph up with a sentence or two that helps move the reader into the next point.  We will
    talk more about these later in the semester.

Depending on how it is that you write, you may use this list in one of two ways.  Some students who are very unsure of writing—in general or without the five paragraph framework—may want to use this as a guide to spur them to think about what to write next as they write the first draft of a paragraph.

Other students may want to use it as a checklist.  Once they have written the first draft of a paper, they might compare their paragraphs to the list, noting what is missing and rewriting the paragraphs as appropriate.

To give you an idea of what a college paragraph looks like, below see both a more high school-ish and a college level paragraph that use the same examples and the same topic:

When Carol Hathway announces to the staff of the Cook County ER that she wants to be a doctor, the doctors on staff begin treating her differently.  Instead of just having her do the kind of grunt work nurses usually get stuck with, they have her do some of the procedures that the med students usually do.  Carol looks uncomfortable with this, but she does well.  At the end of the episode, she and Kerri Weaver get into a fight about how to treat a mother whose kid died, and Carol decides that she wants to be a nurse because she loves what she does and is good at her job.  This shows how gender plays out in the workplace because nurses are mostly women and doctors are usually men, although women are going to med school in increasing numbers but they don’t get into the same specialties that make them a lot of money.

Hospitals divide the labor of caring for sick people among the professions, but because the professions are still dominated by certain genders, the division ends up being one of gender more than job title.  Although we like to think of the medical profession as increasingly egalitarian, gender divides still run through it.  The majority of nurses are still women.  And while women have made great advances in gender equity in medical school attendance, that professional training that women fought so hard for access to may not allow for gender differences in treatment to trickle down into care in the hospital.  The process by which doctors are socialized into how to be a doctor comes largely through the mentoring process of medical school.  Vocational training within the applied sciences tends to be much more about apprenticeship than about theoretical knowledge.  When Carol Hathaway, a long time ER nurse, decides to go back to med school and become a doctor, the MDs in the ER treat her very differently.  Dr. Kerry Weaver asks her to perform procedures as if she were already a med student.  While Carol is uncomfortable with this, she does perform well. Her skill at those procedures seems to make the point that nurses who excel at their profession are as skilled as doctors in some ways.  However, later in the episode, when a mother’s young child dies, Carol insists on giving the parent time with the child to grieve, rather than moving her out of the room to make way for incoming patients.  Dr. Weaver snaps at Carol, telling her that if she is going to go to medical school, she has to stop thinking like a nurse.  The implication in Dr. Weaver’s criticism is clear.  Nurses worry about the feelings of people, while doctors worry about seeing the next patient or about developing enough distance emotionally so that they can move quickly from one medical crisis to another.  Nurses, a profession dominated by women, are the ones who are supposed to soothe over any hurts caused by a too abrupt or too uncaring doctor.  This seems to be a profession-wide phenomenon.  My own experiences with hospitals as well as the experiences of friends of mine seem unanimous on this.  Everyone told me the same thing when I asked.  Nurses were great, and if you were lucky you got a doctor with a decent bedside manner.  But for the most part, the professionals who really looked after loved ones were nurses.  Part of this is likely the result of the different roles nurses and doctors play within the hierarchy of the hospital.

The most obvious difference between the two paragraphs is length.  However, there are other important differences.  First, locate the topic sentence of each.  What are the differences?  Then, looks for places where the writer expands upon or explains her position.  Where does he provide support or examples, and how doe those examples differ from one paragraph to the next?  Also, where is the analysis in each?  Last of all, where do you expect each paper to go next?