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!
How to Write a Rhetorical Question
It’s best not to set out with the goal of writing a rhetorical question – that’s likely to make them sound forced. Instead, just try to write naturally, just as you would speak, and notice when the rhetorical questions appear.
The exception to this is when you’re writing an aporia to transition between steps in an argument (see section 6). In this case, you should:
- Think about what question the section is trying to answer
- Then simply phrase it as a question rather than a sentence. The question should be direct so that the reader knows exactly where you’re going in the argument.
When to Use Rhetorical Questions
Rhetorical questions are found in all forms of literature, from poetry to philosophy to history. However, there are a few places where rhetorical questions are especially helpful:
- In the transitions between sections. We’ll see an example in the next section
- Introductions. A good essay should raise a question and then answer it through argument. So it can be very effective in the introduction. Raise a rhetorical question, and then use your thesis statement to answer the question.
- The opening and transitions of speeches. A good speech is often structured a lot like an essay, so you might want to have the orator (speaker) begin with a rhetorical question that he or she will then go on to make a speech about.
- Opening Sentence. In writing a novel or short story, the opening sentence is often the hardest thing to write. So experiment with rhetorical questions here. Can you come up with a question that gives the reader a hint of what the story is going to be about, what its major themes are, etc.?