Many of you are working on your essays now for R1, or maybe you are thinking about them for R2 and beyond. While I am by no means an expert, I do feel that I am a good writer and I was happy with my essays. I don't think I was a "slam dunk" candidate (despite a high GMAT, it really is just 1 data point, albeit an important one), so I believe my essays were probably the differentiating factor for me. I also paid a lot of attention during the application process to what adcom's were saying about what they look for. So here is what I learned. I hope this helps some people.
1. Show IMPACT. Adcoms don't want people who are going to pass all their classes and that's it. They want people who are not only going to be engaged, but are going to have an impact on their classmates and into their careers. So don't give a laundry list of your job responsibilities. That's for the resume, and you don't need to repeat it in your essays. Show how you had an impact on your company, your project, your group outside of work, yourself. Impress them with your actions and your accomplishments, not your title. They've seen a lot of titles.
2. Focus on how you will contribute. Yes, schools want to know why you love them. You definitely need to show your fit with the program and why you are applying there. I believe this only gets you halfway there. Smarter applicants then link this to why the school should want them. Discuss the unique perspectives you'll bring to your classes. Discuss ways that you'll leave the school better than it was before you came. This is a great way to differentiate yourself from similar applicants that don't quite "get it". If you aren't sure how to do this, try putting yourself in the position of the reader, perhaps a student reader. Why is that student, who has his/her own impressive background, going to want you as a classmate?
3. Don't just describe your goals. Describe WHY they are your goals. Explain how everything you've done so far has led you to this point. Don't leave adcom wondering, connect the dots for them.
4. Tell good stories. Don't be afraid to open up. Remember that application readers are people, and all people like reading stories. If your essays are just fluffed up resumes, your reader will be bored. If you are an exceptional applicant with alumni parents that donated a building, this won't matter. But if you are not (and most of us are not), you need to differentiate yourself as much as you can. Try to write something that is enjoyable to read. But don't force it with gimmicks, like random quotes or dictionary definitions. Just try to be your authentic self, and the rest will come. You are interesting, show it.
5. Prioritize and make cuts. If you are a strong applicant, you have loads of leadership examples, extra-curricular activities, accomplishments, etc. You can't fit them all in, so don't try. You need to keep the best stuff that tells the best story in. Let the rest fall away or leave it to a brief mention somewhere in a data sheet. It's so easy to want to make sure the reader knows that in addition to starting a charity and running a professional club, that you also volunteered for the special olympics every year while you were in college. Of course these are all good things, but what value is the special olympics example bringing when you've already showed that you are volunteer-minded and a self-starter? Try to keep the law of diminishing returns in mind. Leaving some stuff out leaves you more space to reflect deeper on the most valuable points.