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 have a funny bone, use it
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 the readers sympathetic. 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.
And don’t forget: as a grad school applicant, your goal is to show yourself as a focused, qualified, intelligent, and capable individual. Your essay can include some humor, but you’re writing an essay, not a comedy sketch.
Examples of good humor
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 and rude.
Don’t ever use humor at the expense of answering the question
Never force humor into your writing. Use it when it feels natural, and perhaps try it out on another reader first. Adcom members may appreciate a laugh while reading through all those serious essays, but make sure that your essay reveals your focus and intelligence, and not just your funny bone.
Some additional thoughts from Accepted’s CEO
In this one-minute video, Linda Abraham expresses her opinion on humor in admissions. She takes a slightly more cautious stance.
Don’t forget: Your primary goal in your application is to illustrate your fit for the program, and this is done by answering the questions. If you are injecting too much humor (yes, a relative term that you’ll need to weigh on your own), then it’s quite possible that you’ll miss the mark on this.
If you’re a funny person by nature, by all means let a little humor flow into your essays, but never at the expense of a solid, compelling essay that truly speaks to your skills.
Do you need help finding your balance between serious and humorous? Check out our Graduate School Admissions Consulting Services for guidance on this and any other element of your application.By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!