How to turn the high school “hamburger” essay into a university-level paper

Monday, September 14, 2020
by Emma Dunn, Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialist

It goes by many names: the 5-paragraph essay, three-tier paper, or 1-3-1 model, to name a few. Many of you know it as the “hamburger” essay – an easy-to-follow model for writing papers that’s often taught in North American high schools.

hamburger gif

During my first semester of undergrad, I heard it again and again from my professors and TAs: don't submit a hamburger essay. "Forget everything you learned in high school," they told me, "university writing is different!"

I had always done well on my high school writing assignments. I thought essay writing in university would be a breeze. So, the idea of throwing away all my past knowledge and practice felt confusing and overwhelming. If I wasn’t supposed to write essays in university the same way I wrote them in high school, then how was I supposed to write at all? And where was I supposed to learn these mysterious new writing techniques, anyway?

Now, after many years of honing my academic writing skills and becoming a writing instructor myself, I’m here to say, loud and proud: I love the hamburger essay.

This is somewhat of a controversial statement in higher education. For years, many professors have condemned the “hamburger” model of essay writing, resenting its rules and restrictions. And while many of these critiques are valid, I believe there are too many valuable aspects of the hamburger essay to throw it away altogether. In fact, many of the same techniques that make a hamburger essay great, can also be used to craft a quality academic paper.

So no, you don’t need to “forget everything you learned in high school” when it comes time to write your first university essay! Keep reading to learn how you can use turn your high school hamburger essay into a strong university-level paper.

What is the hamburger essay?

The hamburger essay is well-known and well-loved because of its simple and easy to remember structure. If you're new to the hamburger essay, check out the diagram below to learn more about how it works.

5-paragraph hamburger essay

In short, each ingredient of the hamburger represents a different paragraph of the essay. It starts with an introduction paragraph and ends with a conclusion paragraph, represented by the top and bottom buns, respectively. Just like a real burger bun, these paragraphs frame the juicy contents inside – the body paragraphs – which are each represented by a different topping: lettuce, tomato, or patty.

Pay attention to the order of toppings in the hamburger essay. The lettuce comes first; it’s light and flimsy, representing one of the lighter arguments of the paper. The tomato is somewhat more robust (in terms of argument), while the patty at the end is the true “meat” of the essay. Just like the toppings of a hamburger in real-life, the body paragraphs build on one another to fill out the paper, giving it substance and flavour.

How to use the hamburger model in university

If you’re already familiar with the hamburger or 5-paragraph essay model, there are many great aspects of it that you can keep and adapt in your university essay writing. Keep reading to learn how!

spongebob writing

1. The top bun (a.k.a the introduction paragraph)

The hamburger essay begins with a strong introduction paragraph (the top bun) that sets up the rest of the paper and presents the essay’s primary thesis statement or argument. In high school, students are often taught to begin their introduction paragraph with the broadest or most general information first, and gradually narrow in on the specifics. They’re also taught to begin the introduction with a narrative hook – a catchy phrase or fact to grab the reader’s attention – and to end the introduction with a “road map,” which outlines what each paragraph of the essay will discuss, in the order of information presented.

Although at the university level, introductions may be longer than one paragraph (depending on the length of the essay overall), they should still begin with more general contextual information first, then narrow in on a more focused thesis statement. This structure helps guide the reader by presenting them with the background information they require for the thesis and body paragraphs to make sense.

You can also keep the introductory “hook” and “road map” pieces of the hamburger introduction, but note the differences in what these elements look like at the university level. While high school writers often try to catch the reader’s attention by asserting a universal or historical truth (e.g. “Since the dawn of time…” or “Throughout history…”), a hook at the university level should remain focused on the specific topic at hand – a surprising fact or statistic works well here.

Additionally, while a high school-level road map might outline the topic of each and every body paragraph in the essay, a university-level road map should be less detailed. Because university papers are typically longer than high school papers, it makes more sense to only mention the paper’s main overarching arguments (if at all) in the road map section, rather than summarize every paragraph.

To learn more about how to write a strong university-level introduction, check out this WCC resource on introductions.

2. The bottom bun (a.k.a. the conclusion paragraph)

The hamburger essay ends with a satisfying conclusion paragraph (the bottom bun) that summarizes its findings and wraps up the paper’s arguments. High school students are often taught to structure their conclusion paragraph in the reverse order of the introduction, beginning with the most specific information and broadening out to the most general. Hamburger essay conclusions often restate the thesis at the start of the paragraph, then go on to summarize each point of the essay.

At the university level, you should continue to structure your conclusion by presenting the most specific pieces of information related to your thesis first, followed by the more general ideas. Structuring your conclusion this way helps transition the reader out of the paper’s arguments and into a broader reflection on the topic.

However, you don’t have to limit yourself to only one paragraph for your conclusion (hint: introductions and conclusions typically make up 10-15% of the essay length overall). And while it’s good practice to remind your reader of the essay’s main arguments and findings, too much repetition can be a bore. Try focusing instead on the significance of the paper’s claims and discoveries to highlight for the reader why your essay matters – why your thesis is significant in a larger context.

For deeper insight into how to write a university-level conclusion, view our conclusions resource here.

3. The toppings (a.k.a. the body paragraphs)

The body paragraphs of a hamburger essay are its meatiest parts (pun intended). In high school, students are often taught to explain, and provide evidence for, their main thesis by presenting three distinct points in three separate body paragraphs, ordered roughly from the weakest point to the strongest. In this model, each body paragraph supports the essay’s thesis by providing a new piece of information to back-up the author’s primary claim. Also, each paragraph articulates its main point in a single topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph.

For university essays, there’s a lot to like about the hamburger essay paragraph model. For example, it’s important that each paragraph of your university-level paper works to substantiate the paper's overarching thesis statement. This will prevent your essay from going off on tangents – that is, presenting ideas or research that are not directly related to the essay's focused goal. You should also pay attention to the order of ideas presented; while ordering your points from weakest to strongest (as in the hamburger model) isn’t necessary, there should be a logical flow to your ideas. Ask yourself: what does my reader need to understand first in order to understand what’s coming next?

Topic sentences are also super useful in academic papers: they help alert the reader to the paragraph’s main idea and provide context for the evidence presented within the paragraph itself. In a traditional academic essay, readers should be able to read the first sentence (or two) of each paragraph only, and still have a strong idea of the paper’s main arguments and points.

However, university-level essays can – and should – have more than three body paragraphs. This is perhaps the biggest complaint against the hamburger essay structure: that it tricks students into thinking they can only provide three pieces of evidence to back-up their thesis statements. Academic essays, especially research essays, should present the reader with a great breadth of evidence and information to prove their claims. It’s up to you – the writer – to decide how much evidence is needed, and how it can be organized logically into body paragraphs for the reader to follow.

On a similar note, some points in your academic paper will require more than one body paragraph to develop, and that’s ok! Let’s say, for example, that you’re writing an essay on the benefits of free community programming for reducing loneliness amongst senior citizens. It may take only one paragraph to present your research on loneliness amongst seniors, but maybe three or four paragraphs to show why publicly-funded programs are attractive to senior citizens in particular.

While some students believe, based on the hamburger model, that each new paragraph requires a brand new topic or point, in reality, there is more flexibility to the “rules” of academic writing. As long as each of your paragraphs is tackling one coherent idea at a time, you may choose to develop a single point over numerous body paragraphs. This is especially true if you have a lot of evidence to discuss!

To learn more about how to write strong body paragraphs at the university level, check out this WCC resource on body paragraphs.

Final thoughts…

you got this gif

Keep in mind that every writing assignment in university is different and not all papers follow the traditional essay format. In fact, most essay assignments come with specific guidelines from the professor, which you should always follow with care, and ask questions about if you’re unsure.

If you’re transitioning from high school and looking for help with your writing projects, why not check out our new program for first-years, Waterloo Ready to Write! Or book an appointment with one of our friendly and helpful writing instructors at the WCC. We would love to help you out.

Writing essays in university can be intimidating, especially if you’re new at it. But remember, you’re here for a reason, and you’ve already got a great foundation to start from! Try to think about writing in university as an extension and adaptation of what you already know. If you have an open mind, take your professors’ feedback to heart, and push yourself to try new things, you’ll be setting yourself up for success.