I recently opened my in-box to find an email from someone who "would love to interview an admissions officer from your prestigious university to measure the impact of the admissions essay on today's college applicant." The email included a bunch of questions.
Seemed harmless enough, so without thinking too much about it, I wrote the following in response:
Essays are a wonderful way to connect with the selection committee on a human level, i.e. beyond all of the test scores, grades, etc – so we read them very carefully. Quite simply, we are looking for the applicant's true voice when we read his or her essay. Not some perfect piece of prose worthy of a magazine, or something that has been edited and edited and edited by a variety of different people. Just a voice, and therefore, a connection. We can always tell when an applicant's essay has been edited to be something other than his or her true voice.
Encourage students to write from the heart and to not have their essays edited by any counselor, service, parent, etc – I can't speak for all schools, but here at MIT, that's what we're looking for.
Best wishes, Ben
After sending the email I got curious about the URL in the recipient's email address, so I checked out the site. Turns out it's run by a "team of professional journalists" who will help you craft the perfect essay… for a price, of course. (Anywhere from a few bucks for basic proofreading to three figures for a full-blown rewrite – the irony being this: the more you pay, the less it will be your voice!)
Oooops. I guess my response wasn't very helpful to them. But hopefully it will be helpful to you.
The rules are simple: write your own essays. That's the best advice anyone can give to you. Your application is full of grades and test scores and teachers writing things about you and interviewers writing things about you and things inferred from your participation in clubs and sports and whatever else you do… the essay is the one place where you get to say "hey, I'm a human being, let me connect with you on that level, here is my voice, here is who I am." That's all we're really looking for.
To clarify, I'm not telling you to shut your parents or counselors out of the process entirely. It's always nice to have someone look over your writing and fix the things that spell-check doesn't catch, like when you spell "here" as "hear" or "their" as "there" or "they're." Or, if you're so close to an experience that you take for granted that the reader will know what you're talking about, it's nice to have someone say "don't take for granted that your reader will know what you're talking about." Stuff like that is fine.
But there's a big difference between those little things and the act of someone else rewriting your essay for you to the point that it's no longer your work – or, even worse, your voice. So don't go there.
To summarize: be yourself, and let your essay be a perfect window into that person. You're the
best only person who can truly translate that into words.