As an instructor, I frequently receive questions from scrambling parents and students about the college application process. Besides the obvious (good grades, extracurricular activities, stellar SATs), what else do I need to stand out?
A recent NPR article provides an opinion on this and its take may be a little surprising - just be honest! Many students struggle so much with the finer details of an application that they forget to step back for overall perspective.
When I say "be honest", I don't mean you shouldn't lie (as that is obvious). I am more talking about an earnest approach. Apply to schools you are genuinely interested in, spend some time to fulfill each application completely, and be straight-forward in your essay!
The essay part is probably the best advice I've heard in a while for my many anxious students that spend weeks thinking of creative essays. Don't try to over impress as that may seem arrogant. Don't try to stretch an essay topic as that may seem awkward. Don't be too esoteric as that may not seem practical. Rather than turning an essay into something that is contrived, just be yourself.