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Should You Be Funny In Your College Essay?

What’s Covered:

 

College essays are an important part of your application profile. They humanize you to the admissions committee and give you the opportunity to prove that you are an interesting individual beyond your grades and test scores. 

 

Some ways students humanize themselves include reflecting on their values, clueing readers into their backstory, showing off their personalities, or some combination of these. 

 

One question that may come up with regards to showing off your personality is: can I be funny in my college essay?

 

Read along to hear our expert opinion on the subject and tips for writing a funny essay, the right way.

 

Why are College Essays Important?

 

To put it simply, college essays are important because top colleges have lots of qualified candidates and, to get accepted, you need to stand out. It is estimated that, at top schools, there are at least four academically-qualified applicants for every open spot. This means that students hoping to gain admission to top schools must supplement outstanding grades with other outstanding qualities.

 

Ways to make yourself stand out include extracurriculars, recommendations and interviews, and essays. At the nation’s top schools, reports tell us that these non-academic factors are weighted respectively as accounting for 30%, 10%, and 25% of your overall admissions chances. The fact that essays account for 25% of your admissions chances means that they could be your key to acceptance at your dream school.

 

If you are interested in the specific factors that determine how important essays are for individual candidates at individual schools, check out this CollegeVine article.

 

Essays are heavily weighted in the admissions process because they are the only place where admissions officers get to hear directly from you. An individual’s voice says a lot about them—how mature they are, how comfortable they are with their experiences, and even how likable they are. These are important factors for admissions officers who are trying to see how you would fit in on their campus!

 

Should You Be Funny in Your College Essay?

 

The gist of our answer: if your personality is funny, feel free to be funny! As we’ve said, an important opportunity provided to you by the college essay is the opportunity to show your personality. Humor, if done correctly, can be an important part of that.

 

That said, if you are only attempting humor because you think it is what admissions officers want to hear or because you think it will help you stand out, abandon ship and find a way to shape your essay that is true to your personality. Try writing down how you view your personality or ask friends and family for adjectives that describe your personality, then show that personality through your voice. It will be more natural this way!

 

Some elements of personality that could define your voice, if humor isn’t for you:

 

  • Thoughtful/reflective
  • Extroverted/social
  • Charismatic
  • Clever/witty
  • Honest/authentic
  • Considerate
  • Practical/rational

 

Additionally, if you cannot follow some basic guidelines (listed below) for how to incorporate humor into your essay, you might want to change your course.

 

Tips for Adding Humor to Your College Essays

 

1. Be Appropriate

 

First things first: be appropriate. Humor is, of course, subjective, but make sure your subject matter would be considered appropriate by absolutely anyone reading it. Think about the most traditional person you know and make sure they would be okay with it. No jokes about sex, drugs, lying, crimes, or anything inappropriate—even if the joke is “obviously” against the inappropriate thing you are mentioning.

 

2. Don’t Be Overly Informal

 

You want your essay to position you as mature and intelligent, and the way you control language is a sign of maturity and intellect. That said, lots of humor—particularly the humor of young people and internet humor—are based on informality, intentional grammatical errors, and slang. These types of humor, while arguably funny, should be excluded from college essays!

 

As you write, remember that you know nothing about your admissions officer. Of course, you do not know their age, race, or gender, but you also don’t know their sense of humor. The last thing you want to do is make a joke with an intentional grammatical error and be perceived as unintelligent or make a joke with slang that confuses your reader and makes them think you don’t have a firm grasp of the English language.

 

Here is an excerpt from an essay where humor was executed correctly. It keeps things casual but is not overly informal. The prompt for this response, which facilitates the humor, is “Tell us an interesting or amusing story about yourself from your high school years.”  The student wrote:

 

The task was simple enough: cook a turkey stir fry. In theory, it’s an extremely simple dish. However, almost immediately, things went awry. While I was cutting onions, I absentmindedly rubbed at my eyes and smeared my mascara. (Keep this in mind; it’ll come into play later.) I then proceeded to add the raw turkey to the vegetable pot. Now, as any good chef knows, this means that either the vegetables will burn or the turkey will be raw. I am admittedly not a good chef.

 

After a taste test, I decided to take a page out of the Spice Girls’ book and “spice up my life”, adding some red chili paste. This was my fatal mistake. The bottle spilled everywhere. Pot, counter, floor, I mean everywhere. While trying to clean up the mess, my hands ended up covered in sauce.

 

Foolishly, I decided to taste my ruined meal anyway. My tongue felt like it was on fire and I sprinted to the bathroom to rinse my mouth. I looked in the mirror and, noticing the raccoon eyes formed by my mascara, grabbed a tissue. What I had neglected to realize was that chili paste had transferred to the tissue—the tissue which I was using to wipe my eyes. I don’t know if you’ve ever put chili paste anywhere near your eyes, but here’s a word of advice: don’t. Seriously, don’t.

 

In this essay, humor comes through phrases like “Now, as any good chef knows, this means that either the vegetables will burn or the turkey will be raw. I am admittedly not a good chef.” As this student plays on the common structure of “As any good (insert profession here) knows,” then subverts expectations, they make an easy-to-understand, casual but not flippant joke.

 

Similarly, the sentence “I decided to take a page out of the Spice Girls’ book,” reads in a light-hearted, funny tone. And, importantly, even if a reader had no idea who the Spice Girls were, they would recognize this as a pop-culture joke and would not be confused or lost in any way.

 

Lastly, the phrase “raccoon eyes” rings with humor. Anyone who has worn mascara knows what this student is referencing, and even those who haven’t worn mascara know what a raccoon looks like and can imagine this.

 

As you can see from this excerpt, the key is to engage universal and inoffensive concepts in ways that are casual enough to be funny, but still comprehensible.

 

3. Avoid Appearing Disrespectful or Inconsiderate

 

Humor often involves making fun of someone or something. It is very important that you do not make fun of the wrong things! In the last example, the student made fun of themself and their failed cooking experience. That is totally acceptable.

 

Things that you should not make fun of:

 

  • Other people (particularly those in positions of authority)
  • Political ideas
  • Religious ideas
  • Anything involving ethics, morals, or values

 

When you make fun of others, you risk sounding cold or unsympathetic. Admissions officers want to admit candidates who are mature and understand that they can never understand the struggles of others. That means you shouldn’t make a cutting joke about your old boss or an unintelligent politician who was running for your city mayor, even if they are the villain in your anecdote.

 

Similarly, avoid jokes about types of people. Avoid stereotypes in your jokes. 

 

In general, it is hard to write a humorous essay about a controversial subject. Controversial issues are typically issues that require deep thought and conversation, so if you intend to engage with them, you should consider a more reflective approach, or consider integrating reflection with your humor.

 

Here is an example of a student successfully poking fun at themself with their humor, while alluding to controversy:

 

My teenage rebellion started at age twelve. Though not yet technically a teenager, I dedicated myself to the cause: I wore tee shirts with bands on them that made my parents cringe, shopped exclusively at stores with eyebrow-pierced employees, and met every comforting idea the world offered me with hostility. Darkness was in my soul! Happiness was a construct meant for sheep! Optimism was for fools! My cynicism was a product of a world that gave birth to the War in Afghanistan around the same time it gave birth to me, that shot and killed my peers in school, that irreversibly melted ice caps and polluted oceans and destroyed forests. 

 

I was angry. I fought with my parents, my peers, and strangers. It was me versus the world. 

 

However, there’s a fundamental flaw in perpetual antagonism: it’s exhausting. My personal relationships suffered as my cynicism turned friends and family into bad guys in my eyes. As I kept up the fight, I found myself always tired, emotionally and physically. The tipping point came one morning standing at the bathroom sink before school.

 

This student engages with controversial subject matter, but the humorous parts are the parts where she makes fun of herself and her beliefs— “Darkness was in my soul! Happiness was a construct meant for sheep! Optimism was for fools!” Additionally, the student follows up their humor with reflection: “However, there’s a fundamental flaw in perpetual antagonism: it’s exhausting. My personal relationships suffered as my cynicism turned friends and family into bad guys in my eyes.”

 

This student is both funny and mature, witty and reflective, and, above all, a good writer with firm control of language.

 

4. Don’t Force It

 

We have already mentioned not to force humor, but we are mentioning it again because it is very important! 

 

Here is an example of a student whose forced humor detracts from the point of their essay:

 

 

To say I have always remained in my comfort zone is an understatement. Did I always order chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant? Yup! Sounds like me. Did I always create a color-coded itinerary just for a day trip? Guilty as charged. Did I always carry a first-aid kit at all times? Of course! I would make even an ambulance look unprepared. And yet here I was, choosing 1,000 miles of misery from Las Vegas to Seattle despite every bone in my body telling me not to.

 

The sunlight blinded my eyes and a wave of nausea swept over me. Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator? It was only ten minutes in, and I was certain that the trip was going to be a disaster. I simply hoped that our pre-drive prayer was not stuck in God’s voicemail box. 

 

As this student attempts to characterize themself as stuck in their ways (to eventually describe how they overcame this desire for comfort), their humor feels gimmicky. They describe their preparedness in a way that comes off as inauthentic. It’s funny to imagine them carrying around a first aid kit everywhere they go, but does the reader believe it? Then, when they write “Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator?” they create an image of themself as that goofy, overprepared kit in a sitcom. Sitcom characters don’t feel real and the point of a college essay is to make yourself seem like a real person to admissions officers. Don’t sacrifice your essay to humor.

 

5. Make Sure Your Humor Is Clear

 

Humor is subjective, so run your essay by people—lots and lots of people—to see if they are confused, offended, or distracted. Ask people to read your essay for content and see if they mention the humor (positively or negatively), but also specifically ask people what they think about the humor. Peer feedback is always important but becomes particularly useful when attempting a humorous essay.

 

How To Make Sure Your Humor Is Effective

 

While the tips and tricks we’ve given you will be extremely helpful when writing, it’s often not that simple. Feedback is ultimately any writer’s best source of improvement—especially when it comes to an element like humor which, naturally, can be hit-or-miss! 

 

To get your college essay edited for free, use our Peer Review Essay Tool. With this tool, other students can tell you if your humor is effective/appropriate and help you improve your essay so that you can have the best chances of admission to your dream schools.

Brooke Elkjer
Blog Writer

Short Bio
Brooke is a film and television production assistant, originally from Dallas, Texas. She holds Bachelor’s degrees in English and Neuroscience from the University of Southern California. At USC, Brooke was a producer for the intersectional feminist production company on campus, a Resident Assistant (RA), and a student worker for the Thematic Option Honors GE Program. In her free time, Brooke enjoys reading, writing, and watching Gilmore Girls.