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Recruited or Not: How Sports Affect College Applications

By Meg, IvyWise Premier Admissions Counselor

When watching the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, I was in awe of the high school-aged kids like Chloe Kim and Red Gerard on Team USA. How do they balance their intensive training and extensive travel schedules with homework and school commitments? Surely being an Olympic athlete is impressive, but how do sports affect the college admissions process for regular students?

While I haven’t (yet!) worked with any Olympic athletes as an admissions counselor, I’ve been interested in following the educational paths of several other high school-aged Olympians. Having once served as a coach of the varsity swim team at an all-girls independent school in Manhattan, I was especially captivated by the achievements of Katie Ledecky and Lia Neal, both of whom attend Stanford University, after having won medals in swimming at the Rio Olympics in 2016 while they were still in high school.

But, let’s be clear, most high school athletes do not end up getting anywhere near the Olympic games, or even participating in intercollegiate sports. So, why do so many teens, particularly academically inclined and ambitious ones, devote countless hours to sports? Is it all about the love of the game? Or are students hoping that their athletic achievements will give them an edge in the college admissions process?

Do Sports “Look Good” On College Applications?

When I meet with students for an Initial Consultation, many tell me that they participate in sports solely because they — or their parents — think that it “will look good on college applications.” And while I can rattle off many good reasons to participate in both individual and team sports as a teenager, that, sports fans, is not one of them! If sports are simply not your thing, relax. You do not have to be an athlete to get into college.

Indeed, for a very small segment of the high school population, excelling in a sport, and thus being recruited to participate in intercollegiate sports, can and does translate into fantastic college opportunities, including, in some cases, scholarships. For those students, it may all be worth it.

But, for most kids, I recommend looking at the big picture. It may be helpful for students to know that admission committees at highly selective colleges generally don’t value athletic involvement over participation in other extracurricular activities unless an applicant is a recruit.

Sports Take Up a Lot of Time

When I prompt student-athletes to examine how many hours per week (multiplied by weeks per year) they spend on sports, they are often shocked by their calculations. Although time commitments vary greatly, participating in a competitive sport is usually the most significant extracurricular time commitment a student has.

There are only 24 hours in a day, and sports often consume an inordinate amount of a student’s time. Student-athletes invariably go directly from school to practice or a game, and they frequently don’t get home till after 6pm. On game days, it can be much later. Serious athletes often travel great distances to tournaments or competitions on weekends. This obviously affects how much time a student has to complete homework and study, and it also impacts one’s ability to participate in other extracurricular activities. In counseling students, I repeatedly advise them to be mindful of the trade-offs that participation in sports often necessitates.

Of course, students who are serious and accomplished musicians, dancers, and actors also expend many hours rehearsing and performing. As we all know, developing and honing one’s skills — whether athletic or artistic — takes time and concerted effort. There’s much to be gleaned and gained from challenging oneself to strive for excellence.

In the end, it’s the sheer fun combined with life lessons about hard work, determination, practice, accountability, resilience, teamwork, and leadership learned over and over again through sports or the performing arts that make participation in these endeavors so valuable. For this reason, I am comfortable seeing students who don’t have the long-term desire or ability to play a sport in college participate in high school sports. But, know that you can and probably should determine your limits regarding the amount of time you are willing to spend on athletics.

Understand Recruiting

For a few star athletes — the Chloe Kims, Red Gerards, Katie Ledeckys, and Lia Neals — choosing to focus and compete at the highest level appears to have been their destiny. These individuals seem to be at their very best when training to execute a perfect McTwist or setting another record in the pool. And for some, it is likely that their athletic prowess and accomplishments may have determined their path to the college of their choice. As Stanford teammates, Neal and Ledecky helped win the NCAA D-1 women’s swimming championship in 2017. And even though snowboarding is not an NCAA sport, it will be fun to see where Chloe Kim attends college!

I’ve worked with students who have aspired to play a sport in college and who have been recruited at all levels — from Ivy League rowers, water polo players, fencers, and football players to D-III hoopsters, swimmers, soccer, and squash players. I frequently encounter students who don’t seem to grasp what it takes to be recruited to play a sport at the collegiate level.

However, if playing a sport in college is your ultimate goal, there are several things that you can do when exploring the possibility of playing a sport in college, keeping in mind that the college athletic recruitment process varies by sport and by the institution.

  • Find out as early as you can what it takes to play a specific sport at the college level, understanding that there are different “levels” depending on the sport and the institution.
  • Talk to current collegiate athletes and coaches at a variety of colleges that interest you.
  • Acquaint yourself with the NCAA website including recruiting rules, timelines, and more.
  • Understand what the designations D-I, D-II, and D-III mean.
  • Explore specific college athletic department websites to learn more about teams/sports that are of interest to you. For most sports, you’ll find a roster of current athletes/team members. Most rosters note where each athlete attended high school.
  • Familiarize yourself with the type of information that prospective student-athletes are asked to submit to coaches. In addition to info about your athletic ability/accomplishments (some coaches will want to see you play or see a videotape), many will want to see standardized test scores, GPA, and a copy of your transcript.
  • Ask your coach(es) about the recruitment process. If they’re unfamiliar with how athletes in your sport typically are recruited by college coaches, seek guidance from someone who knows how the system usually works. Don’t assume that the athletic recruitment process for a specific sport works the same way at all colleges/universities.
  • Consider working with a college counselor who specializes in assisting athletes in your sport.
  • Remember that sports career-ending injuries happen. Keep your future options open by prioritizing academics and/or exploring some other interests, clubs, and community service activities, as time permits.

Athletics are a valuable extracurricular endeavor, but just like any other activity, make sure it’s something you enjoy and are truly passionate about. You don’t have to be a recruited athlete to reap the benefits of participating in a team or individual sport, but it’s important to make sure that it doesn’t take away from your academics or other extracurricular pursuits that are more relevant to your interests and goals.

Examining your extracurricular activities and determining how to best develop your interests is a large part of the college prep process, and many students wait until the last minute to make adjustments to their time commitments. At IvyWise, we work with students to determine how to make the most of their time inside and outside of the classroom — including athletes serious about the recruitment process. For more information on our college counseling services and how we can help put you on the right track for your admissions, and sports, goals, contact us today!

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