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!
Checklist of language to avoid in academic writing
1. Do not use contractions
Contractions are the words formed from two abbreviated words, such as "don't", "can't" and "won't". Please write the full words.
2. Do not use colloquial vocabulary
Colloquial vocabulary includes words and expressions that are used in everyday spoken language. They do not provide the exactness needed in an academic setting (Fowler & Allen, 1992).
An example is:
Retirement is something most of us must face sooner or later.
This could be replaced by the more formally worded:
Retirement is inevitable.
Also avoid other types of conversational language such as figures of speech, cliches and idioms; for example:
|Colloquial Expression||Formal Alternative|
|reached a happy medium||reached an acceptable compromise|
|get through it||survive, penetrate|
|part and parcel||intrinsic to|
|easier said than done||more difficult in practice|
|beyond a shadow of doubt||definitely|
|in recent years||recently|
|pay lip service to||support through words but not through actions|
|got out of hand||was no longer under control|
|a stumbling block||point of contention|
|explored every avenue||investigated alternatives|
3. Avoid using run-on expressions
Run on expressions include phrases such as 'and so forth', 'and so on' or 'etc'. Try to complete the sentence properly; do not use these if you can avoid them; for example:
|Informal (includes run on)||Formal Alternative|
|Nurses must take into consideration patients' dietary needs resulting from allergies, medication, medical conditions and so on.||Nurses must take into consideration patients' dietary needs resulting from allergies, medication and medical conditions.|
|Public transport includes vehicles for public use on the roads, airways, waterways etc.||Public transport includes vehicles for public use, such as buses, trains and aeroplanes.|
4. Do not use rhetorical questions
A rhetorical question is a question for which no answer is expected. A rhetorical question is one in a written text where the writer assumes the reader knows the answer, or where the writer goes on to answer the question in the text. Such questions are inappropriate for academic writing: readers might not know the answer and the point being made could be more strongly and clearly expressed as a statement. You should not risk your point being misunderstood: make your point clear and 'up front'; for example:
|Informal (includes rhetorical question)||Formal|
|Industrial sites cause vast amounts of environmental pollution, so why do we still use them?||The question surrounding the continued use of industrial sites, given their vast pollution production, still remains.|
|What is a team? A team can be one person but will usually end up including many more.||A team can include one person but usually involves many more.|
|The question is, however, does the "Design School Model" provide a practical solution to the problem of how to formulate strategy?||It is questionable whether the "Design School Model" provides a practical solution to the problem of strategy formulation.|
Notice that you can change your rhetorical questions into statements and still use them effectively in an essay.
5. Place adverbs within the verb
Adverbs should be placed within the verb group rather than in the initial or final positions. In informal English, adverbs often occur as clauses at the beginning or end of sentences; for example:
|Then the solution can be discarded.||The solution can then be discarded.|
|The blood is withdrawn slowly.||The blood is slowly withdrawn.|
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