The College Application Essay is a Rhetorical Situation

Teaching rhetoric has been traditionally reserved for junior year of high school since it has seemed to match neatly with the American literature and American history curricula, which always includes some of the great examples of masterful rhetoric: The Declaration of Independence, The Gettysburg Address, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” et. al. Studying rhetoric as a junior works, since the accompanying AP Exam for English Language and Literature comes and the end of that academic year, and college-bound students will begin the most important essay they’ll write the following summer.


While memorizing all of the ridiculous terms that accompany a study of rhetoric is tedious and intimidating (No one really needs to know it’s called a “dysphemism,” sorry.), the concept of rhetoric and the rhetorical situation can be communicated and understood quite easily. The basic principles are direct and clear, and I suppose it’s what made Aristotle, the philosopher who provided us with our understanding of rhetoric, such a brilliant teacher. Invariably, when I’m in the middle of the unit on rhetoric, I think I should have done this at the beginning of the year or I should have introduced this when I taught middle school. Studying rhetoric should really happen as soon as young people discover how to ask their parents for things they want or when they discover the power of verbal and written communication. Saving it for age sixteen deprives students of so much information they can apply not only to their academics, but to their personal relationships and their evolving understanding of themselves. I’m convinced that if I learned the principles of rhetoric even before I became a teacher in 1995, I would have recognized a lot of flaws in the ways I communicated with people. I would have understood a lot of important things about myself a lot sooner.


And I certainly would have written a better college application essay in 1988, which was way more about my grandfather and his qualities than about me and my own. I must have thought they were thinking about admitting him to college and not me. It’s still a mistake many students make because it’s always way easier for a young person to think about how much they admire someone they love instead of dissecting their own character.


The fundamentals of Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric are these: any successful rhetor employs three characteristics of rhetoric in creating a text that appeals to an audience. Click on each for a definition.

when a writer shows their audience they know what they’re talking about. The writer is reliable, credible, comes across as, perhaps, likable, at least professional. The writer has taken the audience’s thoughts, beliefs, and context into consideration.

when a writer can back up everything they say with logic, with proof, with examples.

when a writer creates a text that tends to appeal to the emotions of an audience. The text shows some of the emotion of the writer, designed to elicit an emotional reaction from the reader.

The college application essay is, indeed, a piece of rhetoric. The student must appeal to the audience (college admissions personnel) ethically. The writer must have stability, credibility, reliability. The voice of the writing is steady, the manuscript without errors in usage or punctuation. The college application supplements are where the writer considers the audience and the individual school a bit more closely by talking about specific aspects of the school that appeal to the applicant. 


The student also must be logical, specific, and back up the things they write with examples and detail. If the student is going to write about a time they changed their thinking about something social, political, or personal they better back it up with evidence, specific anecdotes maybe.


The student should appeal to the emotions of the reader, but this is always a delicate balance. Writing a sob story about your life isn’t going to convince people of your resilience. Also: try to leave tears out of the essay, especially if it’s “a single tear [that] rolled down [your] cheek.”


One of the most masterful pieces of rhetoric in human history is Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Laurel Lacroix, Ph.D. from the Department of English at Houston Community College System — Southwest created a color-coded version of the masterpiece, which is fascinating in studying the ratio, balance, and placement of the three appeals. What if students did this color-coding before deciding on the final draft of their college application essay? Admittedly, some students (usually half) don’t like a color-coded approach to creating an artful essay, a document meant to represent their evolution of being, and I’m sure Dr. King didn’t color code the Letter before sending it out, but we know he did revise it. He wrote the original on scraps of paper, anything he could find inside his cell, and the manuscript linked at the beginning of this paragraph is the typed manuscript sent from the jail.


So what if you color-coded your college application essay before you finished it? Better yet: what if you asked someone else to so that you have an idea of how it could be received by an audience?


The Rhetorical Situation is an evolution of Aristotle’s thoughts on rhetoric, presented by Lloyd Bitzer at Cornell University in 1966 and published in the first issue of Philosophy & Rhetoric in January 1968. This diagram seems to elucidate the basic principles of his essay.

from Devil or the Dictionary: Genre Theory Adventures by Renea Frey.

The “writer” is composing a text for an occasion. There’s a problem to be solved, so to speak, as the writer wishes to move their application from the big pile to the YES pile and gain admittance to a prestigious college or university. There is a “reader” to convince. This reader will “construct” the text by making judgments on the subject, organization, development, and the writer themselves. The “subject” is the content of the piece, most importantly the ways the writer demonstrates an understanding of their identity, their character, their humanity, and their compatibility with the school.


As much as a student would like this to be an isolated rhetorical situation, it’s not. Their rhetorical situation occupies a pile of applications with thousands of other rhetorical situations. Harvard University received 43,330 applications from the college class of 2023. Each one of those is a rhetorical situation. Harvard knows this, though, and they seem to take it seriously. Here’s a page from the school called What We Look For.


Over the last eleven years of my career, I’ve continued to rely upon Purdue University, specifically their essential writing instructional website, which contains, among a cornucopia of other things, a page on the Elements of Rhetorical Situations. Every student and teacher should acclimate themselves to the Purdue Online Writing Lab. There’s even a place where students can engage in OWL Exercises, which test their aptitude in grammar and usage, aspects of writing that contribute to building a substantial ethos.

If you’re engaged in writing the college application essay and its supplements, or you’re interested in studying rhetoric, contact me about how I can help you become a better writer, thinker, and learner.

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