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. Writing personal experience/influence essays in addition to your professional goals essays gives you a terrific opportunity to reveal more fully who you are to the members of the adcom. If done well, this self revelation will help you stand out from your competitors, as the readers will know something personal, and perhaps memorable, about you. (“Oh, is she the one who also played in the jazz club after work every week?” an adcom member might ask while reviewing candidates for the incoming class.)
When we use humor in speech or writing, we often become 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. For that reason, you may not feel confident trying to be funny; if you lack this confidence, don’t even try. Speaking with your authentic voice is far more important. But if you have a sense of humor, enjoy deploying it in social circles and know it causes more laughs than eye-rolling, don’t be afraid to use – judiciously – this kind of humor 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 before. 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 can look petty.
Don’t labor too hard trying to inject humor into an essay, but if you feel the spirit of humor move you, go ahead and use it, sparingly. It never hurts to bring a smile to the adcom members’ faces while they are reading all those essays.