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MIT staff blogger Ben Jones

Advice On The Essay by Ben Jones

The rules are simple: write your own.

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.

65 responses to “Advice On The Essay”

  1. Leko says:

    Great advice. Thanks.

  2. Reg says:

    Thanks for the great advice, came at a very good time too!

  3. Star says:

    So true Ben. And really, I don’t get it; I *want* to be the one writing my essay, how could anyone else write what I want to say? Even though I’m not such a great writer, it’s the one part of the application that I’m actually excited to write. Although I’ll probably be singing a very different tune in a month or two, after 20 drafts of the essay, when I still can’t get my point across like I want to…

  4. Snively says:

    Mmmmmmmmmmmm, essays.

  5. Vytautas says:

    Uhm… Yeah… this is second thing hear from MIT about essays in two days. The first one was about MIT and several other schools(but mostly MIT) not taking SAT essay into account when decision time comes. Looks like MIT is really taking this seriously.

  6. Isshak says:

    Great advices Ben ! A little to late for me ^^’ but still great advices !

  7. Hunter '11 says:

    This IS good advice. EVERYONE, FOLLOW IT.

    I had a particularly awesome English teacher sophomore year, so I asked her to edit my essays. She never changed much – usually, my issues were minor grammatical errors (COMMAS) or just putting random words down. In the past I’ve written…

    “Cherry personality” instead of a “cheery” one
    “Saving American livers” instead of “lives”
    Etc etc.

    And then there was the optional essay, which I wrote the night of submission on a whim and therefore was not edited.

    Oh applications.

  8. Harrison says:

    BEN JONES IS GOD DO AS HE SAYS. Just a suggestion.

  9. Snively says:


    HI GOD.



  10. Paul '11 says:

    I’ve heard a story about someone who wrote that he “tortured students every day after school.”

    Sort of makes you wonder if he was actually a good tutor, doesn’t it?

  11. milena '11 says:

    Ha, essays!

    I kind of have to agree with Snively and Harrison on this one, Ben is God, listen to him. Write from the heart, don’t write whatever you think they want to read about. Try to make it easier for them to read your essay; reading the 1,037th essay about how your father is your biggest role model is kind of lame (unless, of course, you write a kick-ass essay about your dad that somehow stands out from the rest). Choose a topic that describes you in the most unique way, whatever it may be. My essay was a little tragic, but I know people that wrote fantastic funny essays and got into their top choice. Point is, use your essay as a way for them to get to know you!

  12. Hawkins says:

    lol! Love the irony.

  13. Nihar says:

    Thanks a ton Ben(or God, should I say?;)!!!
    Its fantastic how MIT throws a completely new light onto the application essay.
    Hope all the applicants this season do exactly as you say.(Come on ppl!…Its “Gods wish!”..haha:D)

  14. Ranjodh says:

    Thanks a lot Ben. Your advice will be very helpful to poor souls like us who are still trying to figure out what kind of essay should we write because we don’t want anyone else to fabricate our essays. By the way, though its good that you found out who those guys were (who sent that email), i hope that you don’t start doubting/ignoring all the emails your receive. Still, most of the applicants do need your advice many a times, be it through blogs or emails or personal meetings.
    here’s a bow to GOD.
    Good bye.
    Take care.

  15. Ben says:

    No no no, God is a much better writer than I am! grin

    And no worries, I never ignore email – as any of my colleagues how obsessed I am with checking it. Response times may vary, however, depending on where we are in the admissions cycle. wink


  16. Sanja says:

    Hey Ben smile
    SAT question smile I’m taking 3 SAT subject tests (Math, Physics and Literature) and all three scores will be sent to MIT. Will my lower Literature score hurt application or you won’t even look at it since MIT asks for only 2 tests?

  17. Hawkins says:

    @Sanja – MIT will not use your Literature score for the admissions decision. They only require a Math and a Science subject test, so that’s what they’ll be looking at.

  18. Shruthi says:


    Thanks a lot!! smile Great timing…. Just starting to write my essays…..


  19. Josh says:

    Thank you so much!

    I just started part II of my application, and your entry came just in time! ^.^

    Thanks again!

  20. Caitlin says:

    Do you know anything about sending in essays separately? The MyMIT account sent my Part II before I’d attached the essay. Of course, it was probably just my own mistake and had nothing to do with the account, but I still want to send my essay!

    Thanks, and I hope you guys know how awesome your admissions process is. In the dark garden of college-applications, my MIT application has been the sungold tomato vine in the patch of brussels-sprouts. smile

    And yes, a vegetable metaphor was completely necessary to express my point.

  21. Domenzain says:

    Ah, this is indeed a truly refreshing perspective.

    It takes off the usual weight put on the essay by faculty and fellow students; allowing us to be ourselves.

    But, alas, what if I tend to write meticulously enough for a paper to seem déjà revised?

  22. Paul '11 says:

    Hey Caitlin – yikes! Probably the simplest way to send in your essay it is to send a hard copy of the essay to the Admissions Office (address is at the bottom of the page), perhaps with a cover letter explaining your situation.

    You can also email or call the Admissions Office, and I’m sure someone will be able to help you more specifically.

  23. Eldrick Saw says:

    Hi Ben, thx a lot for your advice. appreciate it..By the way, do you mind to furnish me with more information about what kind of person MIT basically is looking for?and how can i actually get to catch the eye of the admission officer when i send in my application?

  24. Snively says:

    I try not to give a ton of advice on here, but Caitlin, don’t worry too much. You’ve submitted your application really early, so there’s probably not a ton of paper floating around the admissions office yet. Also, they’re very understanding about stuff like this (Unlike Harvard or Stanford) so they more than likely just tell you to hard-copy it to them so they can staple it to your application. Don’t worry about this at all, Admissions is really cool about all this stuff.

  25. essays, oh sweet *cough* memories :D

    haha hunter’s comment about the typo ‘saving American livers’ (lives) cracks me up!

  26. Karen says:

    Thanks for the advice, Ben! I’m going to print out your entry and show it to my English teacher so that she finally stops asking me if I want her help getting into MIT smile

  27. Hey Ben,
    Being an International Student, I am considering taking the TOEFL since i am eligible. I read about the minimum scores required as stated by Matt. He also stated specific scores that we should aim for or exceed.
    For the Internet Based Testing this particular score was 100/120. Although i know this is incomparable to the SAT Reasoning Test, I curious as to how you would compare a 100/120 in TOEFL iBT to an SAT score.


  28. Sanja says:

    Tnx a lot smile
    I supposed that would be the answer, but it’s better to check smile

  29. Sarthak says:

    Great advice (as always), Ben. Obviously, its always better to write an original essay.

    I had an enquiry about financial aid for international students. I’m an international applicant, about to apply for the class of 2012. I’m also going to apply for financial aid. On the MIT Financial Aid web site, it is stated that the first $ 5250 of the undergraduate student’s need is covered in loans and/or jobs. If there is any remaining need, then it is covered in scholarships and grants, which is money that doesn’t have to be paid back.

    I would like to know whether the process of granting financial aid at MIT is the same, or different, for U.S. and international undergrad students. Is the maximum amount of need covered in loans/jobs equal to $ 5250, even for international students? Or can it be more?

    In the MIT Freshman Application (PDF format), it is stated that MIT “may favor US citizens or residents in admissions and financial aid”. But it’s also stated that MIT meets “100% of a family’s calculated need”.

    So does MIT meet 100% of the need of international students? If an international student’s need is large (e.g. more than $ 45,000), then will that international student get all the aid (incuding scholarships and grants) that he needs? And will scholarships and grants be the major aid component? (More than $ 39,750 in the example above.)

    I’ll be glad if someone here can answer my queries.


  30. Emma says:

    hey, thanks for the advice!

    I’ve recently been getting frustrated over the MIT essay topics because they do confine you into choosing one topic or the other, thus ruling out an essay that I wrote for my other top choices that I’m really sure represents me well.

    so I’m just curious – why did MIT choose these two topics specifically, and do you know how the admissions at MIT would review essays differently than, say, Harvard, which does give you the option to choose “A topic of your choice”?

  31. Isshak says:

    Hi! I’m no expert (not even in yet), but they need to know if you have “the match” to come to MIT. So I think they choose specific essays that can tell if you have it or not, and maybe that’s why they don’t give you the right to write about anything, in fear that they won’t have the informations about you they want. But that’s just a guess. But I find restrictions sometimes better because you have a direction to follow.

  32. Hawkins says:

    @Emma – I think the topics have been carefully crafted to produce the type of response that tells the admissions committee what they need to know. As effectively as you believe some things may represent you, if they didn’t help you overcome an “end of the world” situation, and if they weren’t part of the world that “shaped your dreams and aspirations”, MIT may not need to hear about them.

    But then again, there’s always the completely optional question 14 on Part 2 of the app:

    “No admission application can meet the needs of every individual. If you think that additional information or material will give us a more thorough impression of you, please respond on a separate sheet.”

    Sounds like a topic of your choice is still an option. =)

  33. Hawkins says:

    @Caitlin – Nice vegetable metaphor. =) As many have said, the admissions office is totally amazing and cool about things like this. No worries, just send them a copy and let them know what you’re doing (Ben probably already knows, as we’re all talking about it on his blog, lol).

    @Eldrick Saw – Try the What We Look For in Applicants page. The Match Between You and MIT page has some good info as well.

  34. Vytautas says:

    To correct Isshak, I would like to say that we might now what CAN happen(like a meteorite striking me 15 seconds after I post this comment), but we certainly don’t know what WILL happen and that makes life fun.

  35. Vytautas says:

    No meteorite, what a shame…

  36. Ben, this was hard for me, because I had such great ideas for my son’s essays!

    His disability gave him the perfect topic for Essay A: the heartbreak of not
    being able to attend mainstream school, the struggle with speech therapy and
    physical therapy, the search for a diagnosis, the years of home schooling, the
    fight for access to GCSE exam centres as a private candidate, and then finally
    his successful return to mainstream school. A heart-warming story about
    overcoming adversity. Perfect!

    Well, he would have none of it. “That’s your story, not mine,” he said, and
    he was right. I was the one crying buckets over school, searching for a
    diagnosis, fighting for access to exam centres. He didn’t see himself as a
    victim; he was just getting on with it.

    All right, then how about Essay B? We live near Stratford-upon-Avon, home
    of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and as a result he knows the works of
    Shakespeare as well as others know the works of J K Rowling. What a fantastic
    opportunity to show off his literary erudition!

    No, not interested. If he’s honest, he, too, prefers Harry Potter to Hamlet.

    In the end, he wrote about a disappointment of great significance to him that
    meant absolutely nothing to me. At least no one will ever think that his essay
    was penned by an expensive college preparation service! I can’t imagine what
    the admissions committee will make of it, but it’s all his.

  37. Isshak says:

    @Mum in England
    Do not give up! The essay is not te only part of the application ; and do not forget that they MIT wants a picture of your son, and maybe his essay that doesn’t mean anything to you will reveal a lot of things to MIT, who knows ? I’ve been told many times not to give up, so you too don’t give up! We never know what can happen.

  38. MIT Office of Admissions, will you hate me if I send in a resume listing my community service? Because I’ve done so much more than just 5 activities during high school. But I won’t send it in if it will give you guys an automatic reason to reject me ! Thanks.

  39. Ginger says:

    Hi, quick question: I was at MIT and was told by a tour guide that my teacher recommendations need to come from a teacher who’s known me for at least a year and has had me in junior or senior year. Is this true, or can I submit a recommendation from a sophomore year teacher?

  40. bipin says:

    Writing your own eassay is certainly the way that MIT can understand the candidate. Only writing onself can reveal his/her originality which MIT wants to know.But does not it mean that to reveal yourself you should get a chance to select the topic of your own.For the easasy1 I shall be telling a story of mine but i have no context to write something like i like making freinds , I hate discrimination and lookism etc.

  41. Ally says:

    Thanks so much for this blog entry, it made me feel 100000x better about my essays.

    I have a question for you regarding the optional “Tell us about something that you have created” essay. Does this have to be something unique? Say, for example, that I really love to bake apple pies (I don’t, but use your imagination). Could I write my optional essay on a pie that I’d made, even if it had been from a recipe in a cookbook and had little or no relation to math or science? Am I stretching the question too far to fit my hobby?

  42. Akshay says:

    I have a question about length of the essay. My essay is around 550 words. Are the admissions counselors going to get mad over that?

  43. Anonymous says:

    I have a quick question about the online application…

    there doesn’t seem to be an area for the required-but-not-core-classes section of the self-reported course work and there wasn’t enough room in the Additional Classes for all the art/computer/PE/Health/Theory of Knowledge classes I took.

    …should I just fill them in other spaces?

  44. Hello Ben,
    My son is applying for early action at MIT. We are coming to the information session in East Brunswick next week. I have been reading your blog entries and have found them very helpful.
    I do have a question, why doesn’t MIT accept the National Merit Scholarship money?
    Looking forward to seeing you in person,

  45. Ginger says:

    Hi Ben,
    thanks for the awesome advice! I’ll be sure to keep it in mind when I write my essays. smile

  46. Hawkins says:

    @Self-Advocator – The adcom will not hate you if you send them a resume, but they may think you’ve missed the point. Most every applicant has more than five activities they can rattle off, but your application readers want to see what is most important to you. The intensity of your involvement is much more important here than the number of activities you’ve done.

    @Ginger – Your recommendation can come from any teacher who knows you well. I got recommendations for my app from my teachers after I had been out of high school for more than two years, but it was fine because they knew me well enough to write good recommendations.

    @Ally – I don’t think you’re stretching it at all. Your creation could be anything, even an apple pie. The point is simply to hear about how much fun you had creating something of your very own and why you chose to do so.

    @Akshay – I doubt they’ll get mad; the word limit is a guideline (as opposed to a strict rule). But be nice to the admissions people and see if you can shorten it a bit. They have over 10,000 applications to read.

  47. Tina says:

    For the first essay prompt about overcoming a situation that seemed like “the end of the world”, does the situation have to be serious? Or can it be something that was discouraging while I was a child but seems funny now?

  48. Pinochet says:

    Thanks for the post, It was very helpful

  49. KaYnaR says:

    Hi Ben, thanks a lot! It is really hard to show who you are in 500 word-essay grin, but it is possible.
    I still can’t choose from dozen of situations one which I could send…

  50. MITMom-2010 says:

    A tip for applicants – Choose what you are going to write about, make an outline and just write. You may end up closer to 1000 words than 500. Restructure sentences to convey the meaning in fewer words. Look for whole sentences that you can remove without losing continuity and impact. Beleive me, there will be quite a few lines in the essay that can be taken out this way. You may have to make a few iterations. You may find you are down to 550 and that’s the best that can be done for what you are trying to convey. Good enough. Proofread, get one or two pairs of eyes to look it over and send it in.
    One more advice – Don’t wait until the last moment. If you finish the essays ahead of time, you can put them aside for a week and read them over. There is a good chance that you will be able to make it at least a notch better.

  51. banke says:

    Thanks alot for your advice. I believe you are absolutely right and it will be way easier for me to write from the heart and with my voice than composing an essay even i do not understand.

  52. Dunkley says:

    Essay that is written the goodest you can will be liked muchly. Y do peepel tries to be somthin they is not just to oppress otters and unknown individuals. I Like Mit and their fresh approach. If yer stupid, but honest they while leht you in.

  53. Freddy says:

    thanks for all the comments and suggestions, they are in really good time.

    good luck

  54. Anonymous says:

    could i know that approximately how many applicants to MIT were there from india and how many were accepted?

  55. Chris says:

    Woot! can’t wait until you come to NJ for the info session. Anyways, I have a question. I am a transfer student who switched his major. On one MIT admissions site it says that I am ineligible for transfer if i’ve been at my current college for more than 5 semesters (which I will be upon my applying for transfer), the other site says that I need to spend at least 4 semesters at MIT to be eligible ( which I will be upon applying). Are they both correct?

  56. Steve-O says:

    Hey, I just went to the Philadelphia Info session… it’s curious that I heard the same sort of thing there about the essay as there is in this blog…
    Oh wait, that just means MIT is legit… wink
    Not sure if Ben is a god, as you previous-posters stated, but he seems pretty cool…
    Thanks for the advice Ben, I’m glad it’s not too late for me.
    Nice to know that you guys care.

  57. Ale says:

    I agree with your comment on how the essays should be written.

    However, I don’t think that the prompts encourage it. I am applying to MIT early, and I don’t feel that most of the prompts allow you to really connect and let someone know my real personality.

    Thanks for the advice.

  58. Taylor says:

    I’m working on my essay right now. Actually, I’m doing two essays and then figuring out which one I want to use, because I have two different ideas and I’m not sure which would represent me best.

    Would it be best to include an essay that demonstrates my love of math and science or an essay that talks about something unique that I do? I want to make myself stand out, but I also want to make sure MIT knows that I love Chemistry.

  59. Applicant says:

    Do 3-letter words count in the word counting process. My English teacher claims they do not. Just wondering- Thanks.

  60. Kate says:

    I just sent in my application online – and it completely ruined the format of my essay – taking out all quotation marks and making reading it very confusing. I uploaded a plain text file as my essay that was formatted with indentations and spaces between the paragraphs, but on viewing it in PDF, all the formating and quotation marks are gone.

    Is there any way to fix this or will this just be a hard-learned lesson?

  61. Jacob Lozano says:

    Hi im a sophmore at cass technical high school and am striving to go to MIT. but i know my english has always been a challegened for me and have never done real well on standarized test and was wondering if you could give me tips on writing better and for my vocabulary skills as well.

  62. Zhexi says:

    I just have a quick question on submitting the essay. SO basically, when i try to preview my application everything up to the essay looks fine. However, when i get to the essay it looks like someone was beating me over the head with a skillet as i wrote it (which is NOT that case wink. Do you know what i should do to correct this problem. I am trying to send it using a .doc format which is supposed to be okay.

  63. Dan says:

    Even after reading this blog and all of the comments about it, I am still unsure about my essay decision. I was planning to write an essay, which would describe a particular day of my life, but is not exactly the answer to either of the prompts. Once I started writing it, it became quite obvious that 500 words is definitely not enough to say what I want to say. On the other hand, I feel that I could write a 500 word essay that described one particular side of me. I know that the first essay is way too long (1000 – 2000) words, but the smaller one would not show all of what I want to show about myself. I have been trying to make decision about what to do, but I just keep going in circles about it. Any advice?