Rhetorical Situation of the College Application

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SWBAT use their rhetorical analysis skills in a real life situation as they analyze the rhetorical situation of the college application

Big Idea

An application is a rhetorical situation as a whole--a set of evidence making an argument about the applicant.


For the final month of the year the students will go through the process of writing their college essay.  In the past, when students bring me a college essay to help them with, it is a week before it is due because they’ve procrastinated, and they are usually not as strong as they could be if they had taken more time and had someone guiding them.  So, since we have a few weeks before the end of the year, I decided to write the college essay as a writing unit, following Harold Bauld’s lead by reading his book On Writing the College Application Essay.  Today the students will have read the first chapter, and we will look specifically at how he, essentially, describes the rhetorical situation of the college application.  This allows the students to apply all they’ve learned this year about argument writing and analysis to their first “real life” situation, where the stakes are much higher than a grade.

Re-read chapter 1

15 minutes

To begin, I will have all of the students re-read the chapter and take notes, considering the rhetorical situation not of the book, but of the college application.  Even though they are coming in presumably having read the chapter, today is Monday, and to have a more effective, collective conversation, I think it is important to read again so everyone is coming from the same context.  It is a nice coincidence, too, that the students are starting course registration for next year, so the information will be very meaningful to them in this context as well.

Rhetorical Situation of a College Application

55 minutes

After they’ve finished reading (about 15 minutes or so), I will then draw the rhetorical triangle on the board and ask students who the author and audience is, and what topic and purpose is, of the college application as a whole.  The most important elements here to highlight are that the topic is them, and that the purpose is not to “get in,” but to distinguish themselves from other applicants in what Bauld calls “the gray area.”  Additionally, it will be important to note that we are talking about the rhetorical appeal of the whole application, not just the essay, because the essay is not independent of the other pieces of evidence a college uses.  This will be a transition to list on the board all the pieces of evidence Bauld mentions as important to the process (this video contains a brief tour of the chapter:  College Essay Chapter 1-1.m4v).

I will continue today with a full-class discussion format because there is no lack of motivation for the students to fully engage in this material; they have told me for months how excited they are to being “forced” to do their college essay in class, and anything that they ask or say that I respond to will be best heard by everyone.  So, as the students name the sources of evidence for their college application (transcript, recommendations, essay, extra-curriculars, standardized test scores, social media), we will talk together about each one, and specifically how it acts as evidence in showing them as a person, as well as some of the myths associated with each. 

The ideas I will make sure they leave today with are:

  • The college application should paint an authentic, consistent picture of who they are as an individual
  • Trying to ‘game’ the system by checking off classes they should take and clubs they should be in only hurts them, as is working to get the highest GPA by any means necessary; college admissions sees thousands of applications and are aware of all this; who will stand out is an authentic person with genuine interests and intellectual curiosity about the world, so following that muse will serve them well in selecting courses, writing, etc.
  • The sole goal of the application is to distinguish themselves from others in what Bauld calls the “gray area.”  Showing themselves authentically is the only way to do that.

We will, in this process, talk specifically about the advice and pitfalls Bauld addresses for each type of evidence as we gain the overall picture described above.

Next Steps:  Students will read chapters 2-4 for tomorrow.  I am not having them take notes on this.  The book is a reference for them rather than a rhetorical study, and, as I mentioned earlier, they are very invested anyway.