College application essays: can funny get you an admission?


Essays seem to cause a lot of stress. It seems strange to me, but the stress seems to increase when the topic is broader. When they ask specific books you’ve read or people that influenced you, somehow that seems easier than, “tell us about yourself.” This seems especially odd since most applicants I met spend much of the day talking (texting, twittering) about themselves. It appears the transition from blog/facebook/phone to application is, to put it mildly, challenging.

A number of you will try to be funny. Here’s a hint – if you have to TRY to be funny, this is a huge mistake, and may be in error even if you’re the next Seinfeld/Tina Fey reincarnation. Many of you, of course, aren’t funny. You might check with friends – if they’re REALLY good friends, they’ll tell you. Even if you are, however, you have no idea if the admission counselor(s) reading your application have any sense of humor at all. An example to illustrate:

A few years ago I received a hilarious essay about all the truly horrific things an applicant had done in high school. These started with truancy and shoplifting, and escalated to vandalism and general mayhem. While you might not think that would be amusing, it was incredibly well written and I thoroughly enjoyed reading, even laughed out loud a few times at a particularly ingenious prank (involving, and I am not making this up, live pigs, a motorcycle gang, and a lot of honey). I was very impressed when I got to the end to find out that the student had made it all up to make herself seem more interesting – she was a strong student, and had never been in a day of trouble in her life. Average involvement, average leadership – she just felt she needed to get our attention. Wonderful – I have it my highest rating for committee.

The other counselor (I was in a system then where two people read and scored each file – if the decisions matched, then it didn’t go any farther) denied her.

It turned out my counterpart reading that particular file was, to say the least, not funny. She would make a great guard at Buckingham Palace. I’m guessing she never got past the line in the essay about the honey (makes me smile again to think about it). It took a fair amount of explanation in committee for me to get the applicant past the very strong negative rating that second reader had given.

The point is – you’re reader may not be funny, and may not get YOUR sense of humor, so you may want to consider whether this is the best time to try out your standup routine material. Personally, I also hate applicants trying to be overly cute. A few years ago someone got the bright idea (back when we still used this stuff called “paper) to cut their essay into puzzle pieces and make us put it together and write across the back “XXXXX University is where I fit in!!!!”. Actually, there were a lot more exclamation marks. I must have gotten a few dozen of those. I hope I denied all of them.

So – think twice about funny and cute. Next up, what you SHOULD write about. Be seeing you.

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21 Responses

  1. My college essay (eons ago) was a creative writing piece about a family of rabbits – it wasn’t cutesy but it wasn’t Watership Down either. I got into UCSD, Cal, UCSC, SDSU, Humboldt State, Arizona State and U of Washington. The only school that turned me down was UCLA. I do think that my essay made me stand out since I had good grades, good SATs, extracurriculars – the general “college” package. I think different is good but maybe not funny – different. Great post.

  2. Nice piece! Having a funny bone and imagining you have a funny bones is totally at poles!

    *someone got the bright idea (back when we still used this stuff called “paper) to cut their essay into puzzle pieces and make us put it together and write across the back “XXXXX University is where I fit in!!!!”.*
    ROFL! Some guts!

  3. People really expect admissions officers to put together puzzles to able to read their essays? If my students turned their answer sheets like that, they would surely get F’s.

  4. HAHA they really did that? That is pretty cute lol

  5. I actually enjoyed reading this; it’s pretty helpful, thanks!

  6. Rather than try to be anything when writing your essay or personal statement, it’s more important to simply be yourself. College essays and personal statements are supplements to your college application that help you to speak volumes more than answering the questions on the standard application. Essays are an opportunity for you to shine and set yourself apart from the thousands of other applicants, but it’s about being yourself. Being you will help you to find the college that is right for you rather than getting accepted to a college because you made the admission officer laugh, cry or feel some other emotion.

    • That’s so nice. Of course, that presupposes that colleges admissions officers a) know what students are right for them and b) can tell that from an essay, which is ideal but probably largely hooey. I’m not recommending students try to be somone else (although, if given the option, I’d pick George Clooney), but the idea that college admissions officers will actually get to know YOU from reading one 500-750 word essay, not matter how well written, just seems preposterous.

  7. Dean,

    Doesn’t your post support the idea that a student should focus on getting their personality across in their work?

    The writer of the essay was funny, creative, and daring. We can tell a good deal about her personality because of the essay she wrote. You, in fact, worked very hard to make sure she was admitted.

    • very good point! I’m surely not saying it WON’T work, and for a stretch school it might be worth the risk. What I am saying is that being daring is risky – hence the term daring. Many many many schools have single reader reviews, and there you’re taking you’re chances, for instance, on whether you are funny, and whether the reader has a similar sense of humor. An remember, I went to the mat because the applicant was CLEARLY ACADEMICALLY QUALIFIED. I can’t remember a case in twenty years of an unqualified candidate getting in based on an essay – and when I hear about it from consultants saying, “We got this student in who was totally below school profile by helping create this INCREIBLE essay” i am, to say the least, skeptical.

  8. Oh, of course.

    I just know that I fully support Michael’s point. Student can, and should, work toward an essay that conveys their personality….

    …after they get great grades, great test scores, etc.

    • agreed! And I don’t to at all sound harsh on my colleagues who do college consulting – many are increidble and talented people who make far less than they deserve and stretch themselves thin helping students connect with schools…it’s the ongoing claims, from books and sales people, of having the SECRET TO GETTING IN or the BEST ADMISSIONS ESSAY that really work my nerves

      • Ugh. Yes, that grates on my nerves as well.

        When I help a student construct an essay, I work with that student for hours before we put pen to paper. We talk about what has mattered to them in their high school careers and what they care about in their lives. The essay, in my opinion, should be about something you care about deeply and convey who you are. That’s a tough bar for students initially.

        That said, there is NO magic secret or best essay. Each student is an individual and should be working toward an essay that is individual.

  9. College application essays: can funny get you an admission?
    Posted on September 18, 2008 by deanflagel

    I am currently working on college applications with my daughter and find it OVERWHELMING! My daughter is strong academically but because of my parenting style, had a childhood, not a resume building school career. She is smart, considerate, well traveled and an all around great kid. We pray she gets into a college where she will feel comfortable and be challenged but some of these schools seem to expect so much from a 17 year old. We hope her college essay can put her “over the top” and we enjoyed your piece about funny and admissions.

    I do hope you do not judge students’ too harshly on grammer!!!
    – check your spelling – the proper UR is YOUR!

    “The point is – you’re reader may not be funny,”

    We just received a lovely thank you note from a college admissions dean we interviewed with. In response to my daughter’s thank you letter, he responded that his college did indeed have many courses of specific interest to my child – “their are many courses designed ….”- again, a dean who misused a common homophone!

    Soooo – does spelling and grammer really count?

    • haha it’s ironic that you didn’t spell “grammar” correctly

  10. I think your point about humor being subjective is a great one. As an independent college counselor (Position U 4 College), I caution my student clients about that.

    I think it comes down to judgment on the part of the student. Yes, a piece of humor may entertain one Admissions officer, and not another, but the student needs to show the good judgment to not write about something so extreme or polarizing that it draws a “NO WAY” from an Admissions officer.

    I think that common sense would be a predictor of an applicant’s success at college (and maybe life). If a kid’s sense of humor is extreme and/or he is unable to consider decorum, context or the reader’s potential frame of reference when delivering a humorous story, he may be a “shock jock” at college instead of an effective agent of change.

  11. I submitted an essay to Harvard college the other day. Here is a link to me reciting my essay with a few added pictures http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0Le-a1XyAU

  12. Ha. Now I want to read what prank she pulled…though I would have some doubts about that essay. If she felt like she had to make it up to make herself seem more interesting, well…

    I have a friend who thinks he is funny. I have not read his college essay, but I may decide to warn him about this.

  13. I think the whole “this essay will appeal to some admissions officers but not others, so be careful” is something students can only do so much about. You loved the essay. If your co-worker had loved it too, this post may have been about how creative that student was. In fact, I could picture that essay working really well if it concluded with a little bit of genuine self-reflection.

    However, I think students should try to avoid gimmicks in general. They tend to come off as either desperate or annoying and admissions officers see their fill every year.

    I am curious though: have you ever seen something you would classify as a gimmick work in favor of a student?

  14. Dr. Jon Reider, from Associate Direction of Admissions at Stanford University, identified the 5 key factors a successful personal essay should encompass, one of which is:

    •Reflectiveness/Insight
    Have you grown with your experiences? Do you look inward and learn from both your successes and failures? Admissions officers look for students who take every opportunity to mature. It is one thing to
    simply write about what has happened to you, and another to show how you have changed because of these events.

    Humor is one of the most effective tools for showcasing your inter-personal development, since when it’s used appropriately it can add a kind of mature sincerity to your analysis. Some of the most successful writers use humor to make their inter-personal reflection more accessible to their reader.

    • I have a deep respect for Jon (and have even quoted him elsewhere in the site), who is a great guy and quite funny himself. On the other hand, humor is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Of course successful writers use humor – but they’re trying to sell books not get into college. As always I remind you that not everyone is funny, and that goes for both the applicatoin author and reader. My rule is that students who have to TRY to be funny should avoid that attempt at all costs. Just in case they are not. Funny.

  15. I believe that if you tell a story about yourself that happens to be funny, those work really well. But I would steer away from writing a story or about yourself when you are trying to be funny. There’s a difference.

    Want to learn more about how to write personal narratives? Check out this blog on how to write these dreaded essays:

    http://www.lagunawriter.wordpress.com.

    Good luck!

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