How To Write: The Humorous Essay, for College Applications

There are all sorts of different essays that you can write for your college applications. The intellectual essay. The identity story. The tale of the underdog. Cardinal Education is here with a series on the different types of angles you’ll want to take in your writing. We’ll start with one of the most fun to write, yet one of the hardest to truly pull off: the humorous essay.

So, What Makes “Funny” Funny For College Admissions Officers?

There’s no doubt that funny essays can be wildly successful with admissions officers. The college application is all about showing off your personality, and what better way to show your personality off than by demonstrating that you know how to make a joke? Obviously, though, if you want to write a funny essay, it has to be funny. Here are our thoughts on how to achieve that.

Humor is so diverse and complex that there’s really no one way to define it. There’s self-deprecating humor, there’s slapstick humor, there’s wordplay, there’s satire, and more. Many will say that there’s no one formula to make something hilarious and that everyone has to find a way to be funny by themselves. While this is true to some extent, these are a few things that different styles of humor have in common:

Humor relies on the unexpected. This is the first thing that many will tell you in a how-to-be-funny guide: you can get your biggest laughs out of surprise twists and turns. Lead your audience to believe one thing will happen, then crack a joke about how the opposite actually occurred. Tell them how you expected a certain outcome, but something else happened and you couldn’t help but laugh. Or make a list where one of the items is not like the others. For example, things you learned while nature researching up North: the importance of biodiversity, the ability to work on a team, and…never leaving the house without an extra pair of socks. Think beyond simply telling a story to all the surprising things that happened along the way.

Humor is all about setup and delivery. Every punchline has a setup, and you’ll want to structure your narrative to set up for all the remarks you’re going to pepper through your piece. You don’t want to turn the whole thing into a joke after joke because then each one you write has less impact; instead, spend some time narrating the setups to your best punchlines in a way that makes them as—well—punchy as possible. Yet it’s not as though these narrations should be completely unfunny themselves. Think about the tone you’re trying to set, bring it ahead, and then yank the expectations right from under your readers’ feet.

Humor makes witty observations on the commonplace. This is part of the fact that it relies on the unexpected—it finds something new, fresh, and snappy to say about everyday things, from farming to fishing to the embarrassing moments that inevitably make up our lives. Poke some gentle fun at commonplace expectations and situations; stand-up comedians are experts at this. If you’re the type of person who can see something special in the mundane, admissions officers are sure to appreciate it.

Good humor punches up, rather than punching down. What is meant by this is that humor makes fun of those who are in a position of great power in society, rather than people who have relatively little power. You can joke about CEOs—that’s called satire—but not about janitors; that’s called classism. And you certainly can’t make jokes at the expense of students at your school that you don’t like—that’s called bullying. As you craft your essay, make sure to keep this in mind.

The Best Humor for College Essays Has a Point

Now you have a few pointers on how to write funny. You probably also have a few jokes in mind about your experiences. Once you start writing out what you’ve envisioned in your head, you then need to ask yourself: what is the overall point you’re trying to make?

This is the sort of thing that makes a lot of comedy great—it’s ultimately aimed at saying something deeper about society and about the way we do things. It would be good to learn from such comedy about how to tie your humor back to a deeper meaning behind it. Use your sense of humor to expose personal truths about what you’ve learned throughout the story of your journey. Use it to show admissions officers that you’re truly a better person, more ready for adulthood because of what you’ve discovered. If you can leave them in stitches while also leaving them with a profound takeaway, the beautiful picture you’ve created of yourself will be complete.

One Last Word of Advice: Don’t Force It

If you find yourself struggling too hard to write any of this, trying to force out jokes, then maybe the humorous essay is not your style. This essay can be a favorite at the admissions table if done right, but potentially disastrous if it’s not. Perhaps you’re not a natural comedian, and that’s perfectly fine. What matters most is that your essay reflects who you are on the page; maybe in our next installment of the How To series, you’ll find what’s best for you!