Many admissions officers become upset when told of students' positioning their applications to highlight specific strengths. Somehow, such an enterprise is perceived as commercializing the admissions process. Yet, turn to politics, business, sports, art...and you'll note everyone must compete hard to sell their unique strengths to a very demanding public. The admissions process is no different. Actually, it just might be a bit more competitive than these other areas, if the targets of your desire are the most selective colleges.
The first step in positioning your application is to research thoroughly the schools on your list. I wrote a column in May 2008 that addresses doing the research, "The Importance of Researching Colleges and How to do it." It can be found by searching within this blog. In any case, from your research, you want to know the composition of the recent college class, for each of your target schools, in terms of standardized test scores (if still required), GPAs, and ethnic composition; then you need to pinpoint where you stand in such a class. A lot of this information can be found on College Navigator (http://nces.ed.gov/), or on the website of each school. Better still, if students in your high school have gained admission to any of your schools, speak to your counselor. That information is going to tell you a lot about your application's chances. Schools such as Whitney High School in Cerritos, CA, have a program mapping out the qualifications of successful applicants across a range of colleges.
Next, you need to look at your candidacy across five categories: academics, extracurricular, work experience, summer activities, and personal background. Now comes the hard part (for some of us, the lethal part): you need to determine your strengths and weaknesses. In short, you need to look at your activities over the last four years from the standpoint of an admissions officer. You need to get a clear picture of whom you are and what your strengths are.
You also want to determine what makes you unique among a large pool of competitors. That uniqueness must then be communicated to the schools. For example, let's say you're a master basket weaver, you speak French with reasonable fluency, and you won a basket design contest in Montreal. Now, with these credentials, you're applying to Yale. Assuming that you'd fit in at Yale from the standpoint of test scores, grades, temperament (after all you did your research, right?) then, according to the Yale admissions office, you're one of 5,000 candidates that are equally qualified for an admissions offer. How special are you and how do you make your case? Speaking French is fine (there are probably 100s of others in the applicant pool that do as well). Basket weaving, though, is a bit different. Further, taking the initiative to participate in an international contest (where you might have used your French skills and where you definitely used your basket weaving prowess) makes you unique.
You might even divide some of your qualities into themes: 'international traveler with working language skills,' 'diligent worker' (after all you have a substantial portfolio of innovative basket designs), and 'a risk taker,' as your passion for basket weaving has propelled you on a very individual course.
You have your themes. Now, as the opportunities present themselves, you want to layer them into your admissions efforts by emphasizing them in your essays, through recommendations, through interviews, and through special submissions (e.g. on the Common Application there is a special arts supplement application). Further, how you position yourself at Yale, might change when applying to another school (say, to Cooper Union, where you might emphasize the art or innovative designs of your baskets, and downplay the French skills).
Is positioning unfair or underhanded? Any tool that allows you to distinguish yourself from others in the applicant pool, and clearly defines who you are, is fair game. We're all unique in some ways. It's our duty to nurture whatever qualities make us so, and display them for everyone's benefit, especially our own. That's a theme you will benefit from for the rest of your life.