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As I write personal statements for graduate school, I want to highlight my hard work through humor and also just show my personality. As someone who works full time (in order to fund my education) as a carpenter and does research/studies in their free time while working towards a masters degree, I had made a joke in one of my personal statements that goes something like this.

As a full-time masters student, I've had to support myself as a student, requiring me to seek a full-time job in addition to going to school at night and spending my free time doing research and studying. I'm kind of like Matt Damon from Good Will Hunting but just better-looking and much smarter.

The final statement will have the joke stated more elegantly but that's the general idea. Although I am being sarcastic, I realize that this might not be evident for everyone that is reading it or might come off as arrogant or trying too hard. Additionally, I'm afraid that the joke might be inappropriate.

My Question

What is the general consensus on humor in a personal statement. Additionally, any comments on my specific joke are appreciated. (This question specifically pertains to personal statements, not statements of purpose or statements of intent.)

This school has a separate writing sample for statement of purpose and asks that the personal statement satisfies the following "We are interested in learning more about you as a person and how your background and experiences motivate you to make positive contributions to your community. There are no requirements for what to include;"

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    Discussion on this particular joke and how to improve it has been moved to chat. Please avoid writing answers in comments.
    – cag51
    Nov 17 at 15:22
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    I hope you’re not planning to apply to this guy’s department.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 17 at 19:27

7 Answers 7

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It's less an issue that a personal statement can't be humorous and more that humor in a written context is very hard to get right. Timing and tone of voice are easily lost in written media, and self-deprecation in particular depends heavily on timing and tone - those aspects are the difference between funny and... sad or uncomfortable. Sarcasm is hardest.

For people that you know, or for someone you are familiar with through their other work - say, someone who you've seen perform as a comedian, or even a social media account that you follow regularly - you start to build a mental scaffolding of their tone and personality, and you can fill that in around even a brief statement. Maybe you've even experienced this when you tried to share a joke with a friend that someone else said that they don't know - often, they just won't get it, because they're missing that other context.

Your joke might be funny, but it certainly didn't land with me, a stranger. It's not clear from it whether you're trying to convey sarcasm, insecurity, or egotism.

I'd recommend using other opportunities to showcase that part of your personality, like interviews (especially during less formal contexts, like a dinner or similar social event). In that context, it's more about "fit" - you don't really want to work in a group with people who you won't get along with, and vice-versa. For sharing "who you are" in a personal statement, I'd stick to description and perhaps short narrative. It's not clear to me how having a sense of humor relates to "how your background and experiences motivate you to make positive contributions to your community" in the area of graduate studies.

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    I have to admit that what I saw first was the editing errors. Then, since I haven't seen the movie, my reaction to the punchline was not particularly positive. Stick with the facts; humor is too darned subjective. You can be funny in the dedication of your thesis.
    – keshlam
    Nov 17 at 4:30
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    @keshlam: You can watch the movie if you have time. Would not be a complete waste of 90 mins. And if you want to watch an "isotope" of Good Will Hunting, I'd recommend Whiplash. Nov 17 at 14:18
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    @keshlam: You can be funny in the dedication of your thesis. -- Or . . . Bruce Kitchens' 1979 Masters thesis at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill; supervisor) has the title Tori! Tori! Tori!, which is a word play on the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora!. I don't believe a copy of his thesis exists online, but it's reference #9 in this paper. Nov 17 at 14:34
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    One was "Proteus: The Thesis Project". Dedication included thanking the States of Alaska and Confusion. Neither of which had a thing to do with the project except for my never having been in one and often having been there n the other. (These days I'm not sure there's much difference, though one does have better scenery.)
    – keshlam
    Nov 17 at 14:42
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Here's a general rule: If you have to think about whether something is appropriate, it's probably wise to just not do it. I believe this rule applies to contexts far beyond just application documents.

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I would advise caution. The particular example phrasing you suggest sounds off to me. A humorous way to connect your carpentry to your studies (other than that the one finances the other) might work.

Ask one of the professors writing you a letter of recommendation to comment on a draft.

I can report one instance where humor was acceptable. When I was department chair a friend and colleague coming up for tenure asked me to check his personal statement. He introduced his draft with this paraphrase of the personal ads common at the time:

Assistant Professor, 40, seeks permanent relationship with urban university.

The department was small, the case was straightforward, and we decided it would be fine and fun to leave it. He was awarded tenure.

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To me, that personal statement smacks of arrogance and rubs me the wrong way. There is no way to know how serious you are being, and I've known and interacted with many people who would say and mean such things quite seriously.

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The answer is that humor at academic level should be philosophical. Anything else will be seen as at best immature and at worst dangerous to relations within the department.

You should be quietly proud of what you achieved through your self-supported studies to date. Not boastful, not embarrassed. So just state what needs to be said on how you supported yourself during study. You don't want people to see you as inferior - or willing to accept an inferior status in the new department.

I'm kind of like Matt Damon from good will hunting but just better looking and much smarter.

This is a real stupid sentence.

  1. Never compare yourself with someone else - enough people will try to do that anyway without any prompting from you. Just present your study/work to date clearly and concisely.

  2. Never EVER claim to be "smarter" than anyone else. We are all smart and stupid in some ways or others. Besides there's no agreed measures of what really constitutes intelligence in general as opposed to specific (rational, spatial, conceptual, emotional, social, etc) types of intelligence.

  3. Never EVER EVER claim to be better-looking than anyone else. If you write like you don't yet realize that looks are largely a gift from nature and not something we can really cultivate beyond making the best of what we've got, then NO ONE will want you in ANY department.

I think your humor isn't yet mature enough for you to include it in an important letter of application.

And if it was perhaps you might be seen as someone who was trying to humorize/socialize his way into a new milieu: these people seldom do hard work and are lousy at supporting struggling colleagues.

Leave it out, man.

Better to show some courtesy, understanding and respect in the way that you phrase your letter. That opens a lot more doors than humor.

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    "Humor at the academic level should be philosophical" I think we've interacted with very different people in academia if you think that... Nov 19 at 12:25
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    "humor at academic level should be philosophical. Anything else will be seen as at best immature". From genes named after Sonic the Hedgehog to the (completely intentional) innuendo of "black holes have no hair"; Academia is full of immature humour.
    – Davidmh
    Nov 21 at 7:54
  • @Davidmh Sadly, yes - that tendency is there in a free-thinking and tenured environment. But should (or ought) it be so - I mean from the point of view of good faculty or faculty-student relations ? That's the perspective of a PI of a large group or a Head of Department. How much of this stuff is tolerable and when does it become a free-for-all ? This sort of thing breaking out in a letter of application or interview is a bad sign for things to come.
    – Trunk
    Nov 21 at 14:07
  • @Carl-Frederik It looks like you interpret the words "should be" as meaning "likely to be". Colloquially this is a common connotation. But the primary meaning - and the one applied in my post - is "ought to be". Yes, lower forms of humor are more often observed in academia. And too often tolerated perhaps although it is often hard to change the habits of adults and impossible to get a dismissal on such grounds.
    – Trunk
    Nov 22 at 1:56
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Whenever I deal with applications, I do my very best to ignore such stuff. It should really neither give an applicant an advantage nor a disadvantage. Where I currently am there is a points system where points are allocated to various features of an application. Humor is not one of them, and neither is "personality".

It may be that the process is different in some places, but I'd be very wary of making admission decisions in any way dependent on this kind of thing. It should be well known that all kinds of stuff is written in personal statements because applicants were advised that XXX makes a good impression (or they believe it without being advised) regardless of whether it has any relevant informative value, which it normally hasn't.

Ultimately I can't tell whether this kind of thing is ignored everywhere, but for sure it is in many places (and in my opinion it should).

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I wasn't going to write an answer, but unusual that there are six answers that I mostly disagree with.

I would make two points:

  • I thought your joke was funny. Perhaps I am in the minority -- but maybe not, hard to tell from a handful of datapoints on one website.
  • While it's a little risky to use humor (people might not get it, and a few might even say "this is a real stupid sentence"), it's also risky to write a thoroughly boring, forgettable personal statement.

Overall, I would have to see the rest of the essay before I could confidently make a recommendation either way. And certainly you should work hard to get the phrasing and everything right. But personally, I find the negative reaction here a little extreme. While it's unlikely to have a significant effect in either direction, I would in general encourage writing an interesting, memorable essay -- if you find that humor is the best way you can do so, then fine.

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    It seems that you have watched Good Will Hunting. For those like me who have not, then the joke flies completely over my head and it comes across as annoying in a personal statement. The problem is not humour; the problem is that the humour has a high chance of not coming across as funny to whomever happens to read it, and so it would work against itself.
    – Tripartio
    Nov 19 at 18:40
  • I think it's reasonably clear that OP is comparing themselves to a famous Hollywood actor, and someone who claims to be "much better looking" than a famous Hollywood actor is probably joking. Though I agree it's important to phrase the joke very carefully; awkward, confusing attempts at humor are regrettable.
    – cag51
    Nov 19 at 19:37
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    I like the fact that you bring up the opposite risk of writing a boring/forgettable personal statement. The risks have extremely asymmetric consequences though! A forgettable personal statement is the norm and will not sink an application. But a personal statement that comes across as clueless or arrogant can definitely sink an application. Nov 19 at 23:15
  • @cag51, yes, the general idea of the joke is clear, but for someone who has not watched the movie, the joke is simply not funny. An attempt at humour that does not come across as funny is not appreciated. On the contrary, it can be somewhat annoying to those who have not watched Good Will Hunting that the candidate expects us to have watched it to fully appreciate their personal statement. So, while some readers might appreciate the humour, it is likely that some might not. I don't think it is worth the risk.
    – Tripartio
    Nov 21 at 6:42
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    I think it depends on what is your mental image of the person when you read that sentence. I know people that, if they were to write that, I am sure they would be joking; I know others that would be dead serious. The second group are really not fun to work with, and lacking any other indications, I don't know if I would risk it.
    – Davidmh
    Nov 21 at 8:03

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