Dartmouth, like all elite colleges, has qualities which are favored in the admissions process. Of the 2,092 students who were offered admission to the most recent class, 10% were recruited athletes, 9% were legacies, and 15% were the first in their family to attend college. Another 11% came from from foreign countries. Being in one of these groups does not get you into Dartmouth. It does get you an edge.
For everyone else, admission hinges on two factors. One is numbers. To be a serious candidate you need great grades and high scores. With that as a foundation, you need to stand out as someone who will make a contribution to your class and the college, who will make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Standing out is both objective and subjective. Students with clear accomplishments in music, art or sports are easy to spot. So are those who started and/or ran organizations. But the admissions officers everywhere pride themselves on spotting subtlety. They try to understand the context of a student’s life and see what how they played the hand they were dealt, which is the language of one of the Dartmouth supplement essays. Qualities that are sought after include initiative and curiosity.
For an extra peek under the hood, have a look at this article, where an anonymous Dartmouth admissions officer speaks his/her mind about the process:
ADMISSIONS OFFICER: Here's What They Don't Tell You About Getting Into An Ivy League School