Humor and the College Application Essay

By Lynell Engelmeyer updated on Thursday, October 17, 2013

Very rare is the teenager who is devoid of personality yet college essays often sound like they’ve been written by someone wearing an obnoxiously over-starched tuxedo while facing a firing squad. Your essay should reveal something about your personality and character to give your reader a good sense of who you are and to differentiate yourself from other applicants.  Humor, even in small amounts, can do just that.

“Ellen” exhibited a love of and commitment to dance. There was no doubt that this would be the topic for her essay.  She’d been taking dance lessons for over 12 years, multiple nights per week, and couldn’t get enough of it.  Her most embarrassing moment, however, also had to do with dance, as she tripped on her way into a formal ball at a local military high school.

The coincidence was perfect!  Starting the essay with a dramatic and self-effacing description of her inauspicious entrance into a formal school military ball was a real attention grabber and a fantastic transition to her impressive commitment to dance.  Schools learn that she’s not afraid to make a commitment, that she works hard, that perhaps she’ll bring her dance talent to their campus, AND that she has a wonderful sense of humor that allows her to laugh…even at herself! 

The person reading your essay is often reading hundreds of them, and while you may not have done something that no other person in that applicant pool has done, you can present it in such a way that makes it memorable. 

Another applicant, for example, had an extensive commitment to community service and started her essay by indicating that she wanted to work at Walmart.  She hooked her reader with this rather odd proclamation for a college-bound student, but then went on to explain that Walmart has a foundation that donates significant money to charitable causes, and that was exactly the kind of work the student wanted to be doing some day.

Sometimes the humor can be short and subtle, but it adds a really nice flavor to your essay.  One young man babysits for a significantly impaired 13 year old who is almost entirely non-verbal but still manages to get his point across.  In the essay, the writer indicates that he speaks three languages, English, Spanish, and “David”.

When you include humor in your essay, you can go on to share your accomplishments without sounding arrogant, and, in fact, you will have made your point in a very memorable way.

About the Author

Lynell Engelmyer has over 20 years of experience in college admissions and financial aid, having worked at several colleges and for the College Board. She also volunteers with at-risk students to help them get to and graduate from college. Lynell is a Co-Founder of College Application Wizard (, a web-based tool that provides students and parents with a highly customized checklist of every admission and financial aid requirement and deadline for each of their schools. College Application Wizard is an automated, calendar-based to-do list to ensure that you don’t miss a step in this important process. Lynell received her M.S. degree in Higher Education Administration from the University of Pennsylvania and graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. degree in Business and Political Science from Albright College (PA).

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