Why shouldn’t one use rhetorical questions in college application essays?
What’s so wrong with them?
Do college admissions committees really frown when they see a question mark in an essay?
Are you tired of this string of questions?
Do you wonder if we’re going to give you an answer anytime soon?
Don’t worry, we are.
If you haven’t guessed already, using rhetorical questions in your college application essays is one of those cringe-worthy mistakes that can significantly detract from an otherwise stellar essay, and even ding your application.
Why, you ask?
In a nutshell, it’s all about word count. Application essays almost universally have a pretty tight word limit, meaning every word you put down is valuable, and rhetorical questions are a waste of that precious resource. They don’t tell a story or convey your passion, and they are, by nature, impersonal. This is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want to do in an application essay, especially The Common App… where you should tell a story, share your passions, and get personal.
Even rhetorical questions at their best tend to serve only to introduce a point you are about to make; why not get right to the point? You will save on words, and avoid simply repeating the essay prompt; trust us, the application committee is pretty familiar with the prompt after a few hundred essays.
Besides wasting your valuable words, when you ask a question to introduce a thought this jerks the reader out of the essay by changing the tone and perspective. Suddenly you have shifted from sharing an experience, a belief, or an aspiration, to accosting the reader. Nobody likes to be accosted.
Surely there are exceptions, though, right? Not when it comes to application essays. Save that breaking-the-4th-wall-by addressing-the-audience for your creative writing!
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Can I ask rhetorical questions in persuasive essays? How will the reader answer the question?
Rhetorical questions in persuasive essays are a great idea.
A question which is posed without the expectation of an answer is called a “rhetorical question.” Obviously, readers can’t answer the question to you, but they might answer the question to themselves. That’s the purpose of a rhetorical question. The root of this meaning is from the word “rhetoric” which is the art of making arguments. Rhetoric used to be one of the main areas of study before the modern school was invented. If you were in school in England in 1850, it would have been an important subject. In those days it was believed that the ability to discuss ideas was the most important thing for students to learn since education wasn’t valued for its practical aspects. It was for gentlemen who didn’t sully themselves with practical matters left to the lower classes. But I digress.
Dropping a rhetorical question into a persuasive argument is often a powerful form of persuasion. You present several facts and build up to a conclusion, drawing the conclusion out of the reader. For example, if you were trying to persuade the reader to support universal health care, you might ask “What kind of a country doesn’t ensure its citizens have access to health care?” For a reader to disagree with you, they would have to do some mental gymnastics in order to identify the underlying assumptions of the question–that universal health care is the only way to ensure all citizens have access to health care, or that if you disagree with the premise, you support an inferior version of the country.
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Rhetorical questions in persuasive essays as an introduction
Rhetorical questions can be one of the great ways to write an essay introduction. In my Essay Writing blog, I have a very popular article on 5 Great Essay Introduction Ideas. For example, in a persuasive essay on gun control, you might start by asking “Are homes with guns safer than those without guns?” In a persuasive essay on abortion, you could ask “What would you do if you were poor, single, and suddenly found yourself pregnant?”
Beginning a persuasive essay with a rhetorical question allows you to provide the answer. You can answer the question with a fact and citation. This gives your argument some weight. Later, you will need to provide a counter argument. Even that part can be improved with the use of a rhetorical question. “Why would someone believe XXX?” Then you provide some information and show that it’s not as reliable or valid as the argument you are putting forward.
You wouldn’t want to fill up your persuasive essay with rhetorical questions. It is one technique, to be used sparingly. But it can be very effective, and who wouldn’t want that?
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About Peter J. Francis
Peter J. Francis is owner and operator of HyperGraphix Publishing Services (HGPublishing.com). He has over 30 years of professional writing and editing experience. He holds a BA (Honors) degree in English (1987), a B. Ed. degree from SFU (2005) and a certificate in Special Education from SFU (2011). He teaches high school and offers editing services as time is available.
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