Updated: Aug 18, 2020
It's true that admissions officers want to see the real you in your essay. But they really want to see if the real you lines up with the qualities they're looking for in students.
What can you do? This is where, though no one likes to admit it, marketing comes in. Marketing is all about creating convincing, win/win connections between people. One example is a beverage company that shows joggers how their new, portable bottle of electrolyte-enhanced water can refresh them on the road. The company wins by increasing sales. The customer wins by having a more comfortable run.
In your case, you want to convince the schools you want to attend (you're only applying to places you want to go, right?!) that you'll help them build the culture they have created or are building.
How do you do that? Well, like a marketer at a beverage company, you have to understand your audience: what are their needs and hopes? Do they want a sports drink to increase their endurance? Or a sugary, bubbly soda to pair with salty popcorn while they binge watch Netflix?
You, like a marketer, have to do some market research before you start writing an admissions essay. Why are you applying to a particular set of schools? What are the schools looking for in their applicants? It's easy to talk about what an elite school will do for you, but how will you help them fulfill your mission? They want accepting you to be a win/win. If you're a sports drink, make sure you're looking at schools that are runners!
Lay the groundwork like that and your essay will be a million times easier to write – because you'll be writing from your heart.