Joke’s on You

By Ryan Hickey + updated on August 19th, 2010

Knock Knock.

Hello? Anyone there? This is a great joke, I promise.

Hm. How about this one. How many college students does it take to change a lightbulb?

Still nothing? C’mon, I guarantee you’ll laugh at this one.

No? I guess nobody wants to hear a funny joke today. Sad.

But that does bring us to the topic of today’s post: should you use humor in your admissions essay?

The answer to that question will be different for every individual, just like pretty much everything related to the admissions process, so you’re going to have to answer it for your yourself. I’ve got some advice that should help you make that decision, though, based on your particular circumstances.

First, to what type of school or program are you applying? While this isn’t true in absolutely every case, essays or statements for more advanced or professional programs – medical school, business school, and law school in particular – should usually be a little more formal. Now, that’s not to say that you need to write as if you’re constructing a government memo or doctoral thesis. You just need to make sure that your essay makes a compelling case for your admission to your chosen program, and that it reflects your seriousness about joining the ranks of that field. If you can accomplish this while throwing in a bit of humor, by all means go for it, but it’s unwise to make your entire essay a joke.

College essays are probably the best in which to include humor. That doesn’t mean that it will work for everyone, though. In fact, writing an excellent humorous essay is an extremely difficult task, even harder than writing a generally excellent essay. Why? Here are a few things to consider.

1. What type of humor do you plan on using? Satire? Irony? Just a joke that fits in well with your story? Whatever you choose, don’t use it unless it’s something at which you’re adept. There’s a reason that very few people in the world can succeed as comedians (or comediennes, as the case may be). Humor is easy to use informally or poorly; it’s very difficult to use in a way that comes off as more professional and well done. If you write a humorous essay that isn’t polished, it will seem like you were only using humor as a gimmick to get noticed.

2. Remember that humor isn’t universal. What one person finds amusing may be bland to another, or even worse, offensive. Since you don’t know who exactly will be reading your essay, you need to ensure that your humor is broad and understandable enough that it won’t alienate your reader.

3. Are you just going to include a single joke, or will your entire essay be funny? If the former, make sure that it doesn’t seem like you’re simply throwing in something funny for the heck of it. Your joke or humorous point needs to connect to the rest of the essay in some way. If the latter, make sure that you don’t spend the entire essay setting up an elaborate punch line at the very end – your reader should be entertained throughout and recognize that your essay is based on humor soon after he or she starts reading.

4. How will your essay connect to you and tell a story about you? When you’re trying to be funny, other considerations sometimes get thrown out the window. Remember that the specific style of your essay will always be secondary to whether it succeeds at helping the reader get to know you. Make sure that even as you are funny, you’re also providing insights into who you are as a person and applicant.

Hopefully those points shed a little light on the issue of humor in admissions essays. Now are you sure you don’t want to hear a good joke?

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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