The Three-Pronged Thesis: Trials and Tribulations

By Kylie Lohmeyer

The college experience is far different from high school and making such an extreme transition can be tough. Though living without the comforts of home is nothing shy of awful, the true challenge of college is adapting to the expectations and rigor of schoolwork. Incoming students are expected to have developed critical thinking, reading, and writing skills upon enrolling in their first college courses. Students at all levels are constantly learning and adapting these critical skills into their writing; however, we often default to a three-pronged thesis/five-paragraph essay when faced with complex college-level writing. Understanding the structure and function of three-pronged theses as well as its advantages and disadvantages will help you decide the appropriate time to utilize this structure.

A three-pronged thesis is just what it sounds like: a thesis with three points or sub-topics that will support your main claim. Each of these prongs equate to one paragraph within your essay, setting you up to have three body paragraphs, an introductory paragraph, and a concluding paragraph (five paragraphs total).

For example, I want to write a three-pronged thesis to answer why ice cream is the best dessert. An essay utilizing this thesis would appear as follows:

Introduction: Brief discussion about a general concept that leads up to your thesis. Background information that your audience needs in order to understand the rest of your essay. For example, you could discuss the history of ice cream, the popularity of ice cream across the world, or even a brief anecdote about your personal experience with ice cream.
Thesis: Ice cream is the best dessert because it’s creamy, comes in an array of flavors, and can be eaten in a variety of ways.
Body: According to the three-pronged thesis formula, the first body paragraph will describe how ice cream’s creamy texture contributes to its popularity as a dessert, the second paragraph will detail ice cream’s array of flavors, and the third paragraph will explain the versatility of this dessert.
Conclusion: In this structure, your conclusion should summarize your final thoughts on ice cream. High school teachers often advise students to re-state their thesis and end with a connection to the “real world.”

Although three-pronged theses are straightforward and familiar, they should be avoided in college-level academic writing. In fact, three-pronged theses and the resulting five paragraph essay will never be structurally complex enough to capture higher level thinking. The three-pronged thesis approach can hinder you in the following ways:

  • The organization of your paper can feel disjointed. The three prongs of the thesis may address your larger claim, but they don’t necessarily connect or interact with each other. Therefore, your paper will lack synthesis and cohesion unless you can relate the subtopics together throughout your paper. If you’ve ever struggled with paragraph transitions, you were likely using a three-pronged thesis and failed to synthesize the three prongs.
  • This format may inhibit your ability to be creative since it forces you to present your ideas in a rigid structure. Writing is your chance to be original and showcase your voice. There are an infinite number of ways to present an argument and provide supporting claims—be creative!
  • You may have more than three important subtopics to discuss. Whether you like it or not, you will be tasked with writing a research paper at some point in your college career. These can be anywhere from 5-15 pages long (sometimes even longer). Five paragraphs are simply not enough to showcase months of research and to synthesize complex interpretations; you may need more than one paragraph to explain and substantiate a single claim.

More often than not, three-pronged theses are the wrong choice; however, this structure does have its advantages.

  •  A three-pronged thesis is the ideal choice if you are writing a timed essay where efficiency is paramount. This type of thesis will help you quickly organize your thoughts while forcing you to remain focused on the main claim.
  • Three-pronged theses can improve readability for instructors. Sometimes you’ll have an instructor who is not as interested in eloquent language or beautiful transitions, rather these instructors are solely interested in your ability to provide necessary detail and follow a strict set of guidelines (e.g. science classes, engineering, etc.). In this case, having a three-pronged thesis creates a simplified structure, making your professor’s life a little easier.

Remember, writing is malleable. There are always multiple ways to reach a destination in writing. Although templates come in handy for timed tests or particular professors, this format can narrow your options. Remember to use extreme caution when utilizing the three-pronged thesis because you will struggle to capture complex thinking with such a simplistic template.

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