College application essays can be a bit of a bother. They stress out students, for one. They also distract students from their school work. And if teachers are not careful, they will find themselves editing dozens of essays at lunch, as if teachers were not busy enough already.
However, the college application essay does encourage students to write in a way that is “meaningful.” Students tell a personal narrative before tying it to their motivation to pursue higher education. The result is often quite inspiring.
I think we should contrast this style with the five-paragraph essay. I rely on a generalization here, but my impression is that we English teachers ask students to 1) interpret the message of a text and 2) support our interpretation. In history class, we ask students to speak to causation or trends, and then support that thesis with evidence. We can assign other purposes for the five-paragraph essay. There’s the research essay, in which we assess data collection, the ability to make inferences, and argumentation. There is the argumentative essay, in which we assess rhetorical devices. There’s the reflective essay, in which we assess students on their ability to think about their thinking and their growth.
When we do this, we are writing for reading and content comprehension rather than to develop as writers. In each of these essays, we encourage students to write in a way that is clear and concise, perhaps convincing, rather than meaningful.
Why not? After all, it’s easier to measure whether writing is clear, concise, or convincing than it is to measure whether writing is meaningful. In today’s educational environment, asking students to write in a way that is engaging, moving, unique, stylized, innovative, or meaningful is likely to be seen as inefficient, unimportant, or a waste of time.
But I think it’s worth noting that I’ve never heard an author discuss his or her effort to write in a way that was clear and concise.