The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College application essay tip: Make fun of yourself. I’m serious.

Do you want admissions officers to remember you fondly? Try some self-deprecation.

College pennants hang in a classroom at Wheaton High School in Maryland's Montgomery County, where a workshop helps students create stronger college application essays. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Experts are predicting another surge in college applications in 2022-2023, even more than the 20 percent increase from 2020 to this school year. The heavy volume is going to fry the eyeballs of beleaguered admissions staffers trying to keep up.

As an applicant, you say: So what? It’s summer. Deadlines are months away. You’re going to sleep until noon, then go out looking for love.

Those are admirable goals, but you might consider something you could do now that would enhance your admission chances. You need only a few minutes to reflect on personal qualities you would never consider mentioning in a college essay, but should.

Your application and your recommendations will cover all the impressive stuff you have done. But given the need to distinguish yourself from the horde of other applicants, it might help to think about not what makes you great, but what makes you odd.

What are you bad at? What do your friends tease you about? What do you do that makes them laugh? One successful applicant I know spent an entire essay discussing her ability to identify any tune by just the first three or four notes. She told her first-choice college, “The happiest place in the world for me is inside my car singing (badly) to pop music.”

Five underutilized ways to give yourself an advantage with your college essay

Discussing your success on the school baseball team would work better if you mentioned the time you struck out three times in a row, leading friends to suggest you’d do better with a blindfold at your next at-bat.

You can be justifiably proud of your senior essay on how to reform U.S. trade policy with Asia. But don’t you think college admissions officers would be more likely to enjoy, and remember, your account of trying to change the school mascot from the Crusaders to the Cockroaches?

In other words, make fun of yourself, at least once, maybe twice. This is not a recommendation you will find in standard college admission advice books. Don’t overdo it. But slipping in a bit of self-deprecation can help.

It will leave the impression that as brilliant and accomplished as you are, you will not be a drudge. You do not take yourself too seriously. You will be fun to have around, at the dorm, in class, at dinner with the dean.

If you are applying to a large school, the people who read your essay in the admissions office may never meet you. But a bit of self-teasing by you will remind them of the classmates they most enjoyed being with in college. It wasn’t their friends’ grade-point averages or impressive extracurricular activities they remember. When those admissions officers have to pick out the best from the huge clump of applications they have read, something unexpected that made them laugh can have great weight.

Doing this may scare you. If so, don’t do it. You need to be comfortable with whatever you send to colleges. Your parents may not like you departing from standard college application traditions. But then again, they might surprise you and reveal what they consider your most endearing flaws.

Here are some possible approaches. “I learned much from volunteering at the local hospital. Although one time I was so clumsy I almost disconnected an intravenous drip. At least I think that was what it was.” Or: “I thought my speech on why I should be elected student body president was a triumph until I tripped on a cable walking off the stage and fell on my face.”

How college admissions offices rank prospects before they apply

As far as I can remember, I didn’t do anything like that in my college essays. I was young and earnest. I would never have seen the point. I regret missing the opportunity to let admissions officers enjoy reading about my obsession with grades. Mentioning a character defect sends the message that you have matured to the point where you can deal with it.

The first marking period of my high school freshman year I complained to my counselor that my Latin teacher had given me a B-plus, not the A I obviously deserved. While I sat there, the counselor called in the teacher and they had a jovial time discussing my problem. What I recall most vividly was my teacher referring to “millimeter bandits.” He meant me.

Making fun of yourself can often be just that: fun. Modesty is a virtue difficult to convey when your job as a college applicant is to show how good you are. But it can be done.

Loading...