The Obama-Romney guide to writing a college essay

Jay Mathews
Columnist October 28, 2012

Are you feeling the tension among the college-applying families you know? Nov. 1 — Thursday — is the deadline for many early action and early decision applications. Applicants still have time to use a tip demonstrated recently by President Obama and Mitt Romney. Their technique, if done well, guarantees that an essay will capture the hearts of every admissions officer.

This isn’t from the debates. If you use those rhetorical devices — insult, ire, overloaded erudition — your application will be consigned to the wastebasket.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

I am referring to the candidates’ speeches at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner — all those jokes you saw on TV. Some of their wit didn’t work, but both men revealed a keen grasp of a device that is not only funny but sends the powerful message that you would be great to have on campus.

The technique is self-deprecation. One master of the form was the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield. Samples: “My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I want a second opinion. He said, ‘Okay, you’re ugly, too.’ ” Or: “I drink too much. The last time I gave a urine sample, it had an olive in it.”

Dangerfield’s assaults on himself were often too raw for 21st-century sensibilities. Romney and Obama enlisted some of the best comedy writers in America. Their words were gentler and more subtle. That is what you want in an application to an Ivy-covered institution that values manners and understatement.

The former Massachusetts governor lampooned himself while detailing his debate prep. One of his best methods, he said, was to “refrain from alcohol for 65 years.” Obama said he was especially ready for the second debate because of the “nice long nap I had at the first debate.”

They had several others, but you get the idea. You need to turn a joke on yourself only once in an essay. Any more and the college readers might think you copied the idea out of a newspaper.

Don’t worry about finding a topic. Obama’s and Romney’s writers used oddities or mistakes familiar to their audience. You have dozens of possibilities. Think of something you might boast about, and turn it into an entertaining flaw.

In an admissions guide I once wrote, I conceived this bit of self-inflation: “The hospital administrator said my work as a candy striper was so good that I should apply to medical school.” Applicants who take this approach sound like braggarts. That’s bad. Instead, recall a moment in that same hospital when you weren’t so smart: “In one instance, I was so clumsy I almost disconnected an intravenous drip. At least I think that was what it was.”

I have discovered that many people, particularly among those applying to selective colleges, are incapable of writing anything self-deprecating. That is why the admissions officer reading your essay is going to be so pleased.

Think about it. What kind of person would you want as a roommate, a self-important tool or a modest raconteur? Admissions officers have the same thought. Give them a taste of your inner Joan Rivers or Woody Allen and your chances improve greatly.

I am surprised to find that the best college application essay samples rarely use self-deprecation. Ten essay tips written for U.S. News & World Report by Jonathan Reider, college counselor for San Francisco University High School, include “Be likable,” which is close but doesn’t mention self-deprecation. He says using humor can be dangerous.

Sure. That’s why it’s exciting and why it can transform a college’s attitude about you. If you are scared, show your idea to your parents. They will know how an admissions officer might react, and whether you would get the same good reviews Obama and Romney did.

To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.
com/jaymathews.

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