A while back, I was chatting with an admissions officer from a highly competitive university. We were discussing the importance of the essay in college applications. She told me that while the essay is almost always not a make-or-break factor in their final decisions, it can tip the scales in the positive direction for the applicant. I asked how an essay can be influential.
Her answer was, "First or lasting impressions." She went on to tell me how dreary the overwhelming majority of application essays are. Some, she said, are downright depressing. Most of the dreary ones, in her view, were just that: blah, drab, and paralyzingly mundane. So, I asked her what element or technique a senior could inject into his or her essay that would score on the lasting impression scale. Without flinching, she said, "Humor!"
That immediately rang my bell because for many years I have been a strong advocate of humor in application essays.
You might be wondering, "Hey, Dave, how the heck do I use humor in my essay? I'm no Jay Leno!" Well, let me give you a practical example.
Here's an excellent specimen of what I'm talking about. I worked with "Dan" on his Yale application some years back. As I got to know him better from our almost daily e-mail exchanges, I soon discovered that he had a very sharp sense of humor, in addition to great sensitivity (as demonstrated in his "Break from the Herd" essay). I encouraged him to take a seemingly mundane event from his life and expose it to his analytical humor. As you'll see here (with his permission), he followed my suggestion magnificently:
Haircuts and Other Aviation Disasters
I felt the wheels of a cold 747 touch down on my head. I jumped and ran frantically to the bathroom. As I saw the familiar face peering back at me, I felt my stomach sink. There, peering from behind the mirror was Dan, with a brand-new airplane landing strip right down the middle of his head. Another crash landing.
The thing I dislike most in the world is long hair. I don't mean I dislike the style of long hair or people with long hair. I just dislike long hair on myself. I have very thick, curly hair that lends itself to certain discomforts. Sleeping causes my hair to lodge between the pillow and my skull, which incessantly tugs on my scalp all night long, leaving me with a sore head the next day. Combing proves futile since the comb hooks onto my curls like Velcro and the force required to break through the snarled mass is beyond my pain threshold. Styling products give me headaches. So, I prefer just to crop it all off, as if I'm in Navy boot camp.
This manner of hairstyle seems like a pretty good solution to end all my troubles, doesn't it? Nope, it's just a tradeoff. The shorter my hair is, the faster it grows. My hair grows so fast that every two weeks I need another trim just to maintain a bearable length. All I need is someone willing to take five minutes to turn on the clippers and do a few passes over my head. Solution: I let my mom cut my hair.
Having my mom cut my hair is like flying on an airplane. Sure, it's risky with potential deadly results, but it gets me where I want to go in a short time. But as my mom and the airline industry have proven, out of the many flights from Chicago to New York, there always are a few memorable crashes.
One Sunday morning four years ago, I sat on the barber-chair bucket in the garage for my usual biweekly buzz. The clippers humming above my head sounded like a benign turboprop cruising at 30,000 feet. The gentle buzzing assured me that I wouldn't have to endure long hair any longer. Everything seemed routine until I felt the sting of what felt like a whirling propeller. My hand instinctively reached toward the trauma site and found a small bare spot. I sprinted to the bathroom mirror and took a small hand mirror from the drawer, angling it so I could see the back of my head.
"And I have school tomorrow!" I shrieked. My mind raced, searching for some covert plan to feign my own death or hitchhike to Canada. After my fanciful plans died in committee, I sequenced some objective logic: "How can I repair this? My hair is black. A ballpoint pen would take off more skin than it would blacken. I need something like . . . a felt marker!" Thus, I proceeded to apply several artful layers of permanent magic marker to my bare spot, and-voila-no more annoying spot.
No one noticed the canyon on the side of my head during the two weeks that it took my hair to grow back. Somehow, I imagined that this experience would serve as an experiential warning and avert future haircut disasters. I was wrong.
This past winter, I once again stood in front of that mirror gazing at yet another calamity. This clear-cut strip would have pleased even the most maniacal lumberjack. It was way too large to repair with markers. So, to compensate, I was forced to shave the rest of my head, since I didn't really care for the inverted-Mohawk look. Besides that, the Sahara was too far for my coin jar to take me.
That winter I walked around in my big, warm wool sweater complemented by my glistening shaved head. This time, though, EVERYONE noticed. Such is life at Dan's Barber Shop Airlines.
Dan's essay effort was the icing on his Yale-application cake. He was admitted and had the time of his life in New Haven. The point here, though, is that a well-written, lighthearted statement can be very effective.
Also, a word about titles. Titles can lend heft to an essay if they are carefully thought out, as you can see from Dan's title. After you have finished your final revision and you're satisfied that your essay can't get much better, reread it one more time. Look for one or two key aspects that you may be able to work into a title.
So, who knows? You may have a secret Letterman or Conan lurking inside you just waiting to get out. Try it; your readers may like it.
Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.