Although recruited athletes usually go to the front of the line at admission-decision time, it can also be a plus (although a smaller one) if your child is a star in a sport that the target colleges don’t offer. Admission officials are usually impressed when an applicant has achieved at the national or even international level. But the higher up the selectivity pecking order you travel, the more unusual this achievement has to be in order to put a spring in an admission official’s step. Holding a US record or an international rank will typically fall into the spring-in-the-step category. Placing high at nationals or successfully competing overseas are pluses as well, but it also depends on the sport and on how its competitions are structured. Admission officials realize that most “international championships” truly include only the top performers from around the world, but they also know that some activities have a number of “championships” (think “Toddlers and Tiaras” 😉 ) where bringing home the gold is not as extraordinary an achievement as it is in those endeavors where there is truly only one top dog.
But elite colleges do like to collect true national and international champions—even in the sports they don’t offer (and in non-sports as well, such as chess, debate, and music)—much in the same way that my son collected Pokemon cards when he was 9. If Harvard grabs a Junior Skeet Shooting Champ of Champs (yep, that’s an actual title), then Yale may want to counter with a boxing or BMX superstar. (“Gotta catch ’em all!”)
So, yes, being at or near the pinnacle of an “outsider” sport will still work to a candidate’s advantage at admission-decision time, but it will NOT compensate for sub-par test scores and grades, as it might for a sought-after football quarterback or hockey goalie. However, because the majority of applicants to the most hyper-competitive colleges have near-perfect grades and test scores on their transcripts, being a world-class athlete—regardless of the sport—can be the tie-breaker that will push an application into the “In” pile.