This might be a great opening line for a comedy night at a university student center, but can you use humor in a graduate school application essay? Should you even try?
The answer is . . . maybe. If you can use humor effectively, it will help you stand out from your competitors in an unexpected way. (“Oh, is she the one who joked about her first time playing jazz in a live audience?”, an adcom member might ask while reviewing the season’s applicants.) Humor can make us appear more human and relatable, especially with the most popular form of humor: the gently self-deprecating remark. For example, “My single New Year’s resolution this year is to buy a new bathroom scale, and, perhaps, one day, use it.” Or, “I discovered that I had a textbook case of ‘Congenital Fraidy Cat Syndrome.’ I knew it: my expanding medical knowledge was slowly killing me.”
This kind of humor reveals a writer’s vulnerabilities, making her sympathetic. However, as a grad school applicant, your goal is to show yourself as a focused, qualified, intelligent, and capable individual. If you lack the confidence to show that vulnerability, or the confidence to try to get a laugh, do not try. It is far more important to speak with your authentic voice. But if you have a track record of getting laughs among friends, don’t be afraid to use humor — judiciously — in a personal essay.
Here are a few examples of how – and how not – to use humor:
Good: “In all my travels, I had never before sipped anything called Toadstool Brew. After I was finished, I hoped never to have to sip it again.” This works because it is gently self-deprecating; you are poking fun at your own lack of appreciation for an exotic tea.
Not good: “In all my travels, I had never seen a more bizarre-looking individual. My first thought was, ‘This guy could get a gig on a reality TV show in the States.’” This doesn’t work because poking fun at someone else looks petty.
Never force humor into your writing. Use it when it feels natural, and perhaps try it out on another reader first. Adcom members will surely appreciate a laughter break while reading through all those serious essays!
By Judy Gruen, MBA admissions consultant since 1996 and author (with Linda Abraham) of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.