Athletics in the College Admission Process

Colleges are looking for students who'll perform well in the classroom and on the team. Here's what student-athletes should know about sports and admission.

Colleges are eager to admit the next super student-athlete. No surprise there. But many schools are also looking for good athletes who will perform well in the classroom and add to the campus community through participation in sports. All-State athletes, two-sport threats, and varsity-letter winners should emphasize their prowess, certainly. But less exalted athletes who may compete in fairly new or more obscure fields are valued as well. Here's a look at how college athletics are assessed in the admission process whether you're a big-time student-athlete or an intramural player.

You don’t need to be a varsity big shot

The point is to identify the college or university that offers or is known for your sport. A good source is Peterson’s Sports Scholarships & College Athletic Programs (Thomson Peterson’s, 2004). College websites contain the most current facts about teams and coaches, and sometimes they include rosters. You will need the coach’s name to contact him/her and to send a DVD of your playing highlights if appropriate. Checking out the roster, which usually indicates the players’ high schools, and the team record will give you an idea of its competitiveness and your chance of playing. If the team members who play your position are seniors, your odds are improved because they will be graduating in the spring.

“Intramural and club sports are the lifeblood of the college,” says Tracy Karr, an admission counselor at Susquehanna University, where club teams, including men’s volleyball, sometimes garner as much student support as varsity sports. Intramural teams like co-ed softball and co-ed floor hockey at The College of the Holy Cross are great places to exercise and socialize. Students are especially enthusiastic about equestrian events at Washington College and Mount Holyoke College. Crew drew so many rowers that Tufts built a stunning new boathouse. Perhaps the ultimate non-varsity sport is Ultimate Frisbee, with frenzied participation from 218 college and university teams. All these groups need replacement players for graduating seniors.

Related: 3 Awesome Benefits of Playing Club Sports in College

Exceptional opportunities for women

The greatest growth in college sports is in women’s teams. “Women in Intercollegiate Sports,” a study sponsored by Smith and Brooklyn Colleges, reports that in the last six years, 1,155 new women’s teams have been added. Soccer, strongly influenced by Mia Hamm and her Olympic teammates, has grown 40-fold since 1977. Originally, as women’s teams expanded, some men’s teams—notably wrestling and gymnastics—were cut. But these teams are making a comeback. Wrestling has returned to Bucknell, and outdoor field and track to Tulane University. How influential can athletic talent be in winning a spot at college? Plenty. Linfield College in Oregon is typical of many colleges in valuing the GPA first. The strength and quality of the high school curriculum are considered next, followed by SAT or ACT scores. And finally, up to 25% of a student’s rating may be based on what a student will contribute to campus, and that could be athletics.

Exceptional students on the field and classroom

Successful high school student-athletes are attractive candidates. Here’s why:

  • Practice makes perfect. High school student-athletes learn to fit practice, school, social obligations, and perhaps even part-time work into their schedules. “They’re able to set priorities and balance their time,” says Daniel Walls, Emory University’s Dean of Admissions.
  • Teamwork = team work. Student-athletes are accustomed to doing their best for the group. Getting along with roommates, taking part in group study sessions, and working with lab partners are natural for them. “The team ethic is ingrained,” says Paul Bradshaw, Baylor University’s Assistant Director of Compliance.
  • Your commitment. Continued participation in high school sports indicates a student’s willingness to persist in a demanding regimen. A student’s commitment to something outside himself or herself also shows maturity. Colleges, especially Division III schools, are also looking for students who weren’t stars but who performed well and stuck with a sport. These are players who will play their hearts out and stay on a team.
  • Good sports make good schools. High school student-athletes will most likely compete well on the college level and create winning teams. Athletes build pride and tradition in an institution, and that benefits all students.
  • You’ve got to have friends. Many student-athletes arrive on campus early and are immediately immersed in a small group of people who share their interests. Recalling his cross-country and track orientation program at Hillsdale College in Michigan, Marty McGinn says, “We went camping for three days, made friends, and had fun before being hit over the head with everything else. So I felt more comfortable and at ease while the other freshmen were just moving in.”
  • Who are you? “In high school, I had a well-established name,” says Kristin Carey, a former soccer and lacrosse player at Goucher College in Maryland. “Then I got here and nobody knew me. I’m not the most outgoing person in the world, and sports helped other people know who I am.”
  • No work, no play. Most students agree that athletic participation helps them to focus on their academic efforts. In fact, David Casassa, a former swimmer and water polo player at Occidental College, says, “The only time I fell behind was the last two weeks of school when I didn’t have sports and my time was unstructured.” Some schools require study halls for athletes, and some offer special academic programs, including mentoring, tutoring, and strict monitoring of athletes’ classroom performance and attendance. That kind of structure helps lots of students adjust.
  • Diversity university. On the playing fields, students from various backgrounds meet as equals and often become friends. “You don’t have to like each other,” says Crystal Butcher, who played field hockey and lacrosse, “but you do have to accept each other and spend a lot of time together, which cuts away initial cultural barriers and preconceptions and often leads to friendship.”
  • Homesick cure. Most first-year students miss family, friends, and home comforts. But as Clay Nunley, a former collegiate basketball player, found, “It wasn’t really too bad because I was so busy and my mind was kept occupied.”
  • Stress less. Academic and social tensions sometimes run high at college, and physical activity is a great release. “It was a way to work out my frustrations,” says Kristin Carey.
  • Money. Some Division I and II schools offer athletic scholarships ranging from partial awards to full stipends covering tuition, room, board, and fees. But beware: these grants are renewed yearly. If a student is injured or doesn’t make the team, the money is gone.

Related: Colleges With the Highest Total Athletic Budgets

Athletics can make a difference in admission and after, but no reputable institution will admit unqualified students, no matter how great their athletic prowess is. If student-athletes end up on academic probation, they don’t play. Ultimately, your college choice can’t be based solely on athletics. Only one athlete in 10,000 will go on to the pros, and the average pro career is only three or four years. How student-athletes perform in the classroom is what really counts. But if you have both academic and athletic ability, your chances of getting into the college of your choice are enhanced—and your chances of enjoying the experience are too. So, what should you do? Slip into your sports gear and go for it!

To learn more about the role athletics plays in higher education, check out our College Athletics section.

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