I go to a CEGEP, which is basically pre-university in Montreal. In my Introduction to English class, I had a teacher who allowed us to go around the typical essay writing conventions. Conventions like outlining three points in your thesis and summing up those points in different words in your conclusion were thrown out. Instead, our essays consisted of logical points of progression; if I could prove point A, then I can prove point B, and then C, and therefore I've proven my thesis.

This sort of progressive method allowed me to write some of the best essays I've written so far, and my favourites too. But when I took my second English class in my second semester, I was forced to go back to these conventions, which weren't horrible, but I didn't see too much use in them, as I never felt as though I required them to prove my point in a literary essay.

I wanted to ask, are there strict rules about essay writing format in a university, other than the need for a thesis and 5 paragraphs? Or is the format irrelevant, so long as the essay does its job, which is proving the thesis?

Much Thanks,


  • You might keep in mind that certain formats are specified, and you have to follow the directions. I suppose this goes without saying. The Medical College Admission Test, Law School Admission Test, among others, require a standardized format. Being an artist is awesome, but some teachers and assignments just aren't into it.
    – Stu W
    Mar 4, 2016 at 2:54
  • (very important) Sep 6, 2017 at 20:55

5 Answers 5


Speaking as someone who's gotten As on essays through the entirety of an American education, I would say that the answer is-- yes and no.

That conventional scheme works very well, which is why it's so common. But a good writer can pull off almost any kind of format for an essay: the sky is the limit. In fact, the definition of what an essay even is is a very loose thing. Essays come in a million shapes and sizes; sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a short story and a reflective essay.

If you can pull it off, it's perfectly permitted. If it's just not working no matter how you tweak it, maybe try accepting that the format you've chosen is not right for that particular essay.

In sum: there are not strict rules. Do a good job, make sure the reader understands exactly what you're saying and never feels lost, never loses sight of the essay's overall purpose, and you're set.


I'll answer as a professor at a university: Stick to the script. I have 30 papers to grade!

Going off script is, IMO, just proof you couldn't get your point across in the standard format so you ditched it. To me it isn't a demonstration of strength, it is a demonstration of weakness. If you want to be original, be original within the constraints of the system.

Once you demonstrate you can get a series of A's using the script, then I would put in the effort to read an off-script essay. Before then: Expect B's or C's. Prove your competence at walking before you try to convince me you can dance.

  • 2
    As someone who was a college tutor, I will echo your same thought. Having to proof read and go over a student's essay that doesn't follow conventional essay writing is not very fun. Especially when this person lacks the organization to go off path. The whole point of having those conventions is to show people how to properly formulate an idea/thought/opinion/etc. I shouldn't be on the 3rd page of your essay and just barely figuring out what the topic is about.
    – ggiaquin16
    Sep 6, 2017 at 20:51
  • As a counterpoint, my university had only one required course, on writing and composition, and practically the first thing they did was try to break us of the 5-paragraph essay format drilled into us in high school.
    – wordsworth
    Jul 27, 2019 at 19:33

Ultimately, your format is still the same as a 3 pronged essay so to speak. You start with your opener/thesis and then go into the body starting with point a, then point b, then point C, then conclude your thesis based on the body of work. All 3 points SHOULD flow together and if they do not, it will be really hard to follow.

If you are writing a paper about a topic in which you are trying to assert that the Holocaust was bad, you would not start with your first topic being total deaths, what methods were used to torture/kill people, why that particular group(s) of people were gathered. That sequence of prongs does not make sense in that order.

Just because it is a 3 pronged essay, that does not mean you throw out logical flow of the essay. You will start out by stating why those people were gathered up. Okay cool now we have an understanding for why this guy did these things. As a result of him gathering these people, these techniques were used to torture and slaughter them. Okay cool, now we understand what he did with those people and the techniques he used against them. Then we end it with the statistics of how many were killed/captured/ etc. okay cool, now we can see the results of him capturing and torturing people and we can agree that because of this flow, your thesis makes sense and agree with your conclusions.

You always want to have a logical flow. You always want to tie in one point to the next.

So what you are doing is correct, but it is still that "conventional" essay writing. You have your opener, thesis, prong 1, prong 2, prong 3, restate thesis, conclusion. How you make them flow together is what makes the art and skill of an essay come to life. If you do not make it flow well together, it will not make sense or enough sense for people to follow along and the essay fails it's job.


I'm a language teacher in my native country and I do teach how to write essays. The structure is always the same:

  1. Introduction
  2. Development
  3. Conclusion

Within the development, one should present arguments in a logical order, much like the one you learnt in the first semester. Do note that the definition of 'logical order' may depend on the topic and scope of the requested essay. If one is required to present pros and cons while validating a thesis (especially if 'right / wrong' is subjective), using classical rhetoric strategies is of great advantage.

I'd say it's not a matter of choosing one approach over the other, it's a matter of combining the best of those approaches. Respect the general structure and be creatively logic in the development section.


It depends on the professor. Some will demand a certain format, others prefer one, others don't care. It's always a good idea to ask. When a format is required, it may or may not be one of the ones you've already learned.

Part of advanced writing is not only to express yourself clearly and well, but also to match whatever the immediate requirements are, which sometimes, but not always, include mandated structure or format.

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