Preparing for College

College Admissions for Non-Athletes

Question: My son is a rising high school sophomore. He gets great grades, has won awards for his photos and films, plays concert piano and glockenspiel, and volunteers at a local history museum. Recently a friend of mine with older children said that college admission officers will frown on the fact that my son hasn't been involved in any sports since middle school soccer. He really isn't interested in continuing organized athletics, and I'm not even sure where these could fit into his schedule. But is he hurting his college chances?

We all can recite tales of football quarterbacks or hockey goalies who, despite nary an honors course on their transcripts, jogged off to big-name colleges while the class valedictorian carted thin envelopes to the recycling center--probably on a peanut-oil powered scooter he engineered in 8th grade. Yes, sports can be a huge boost in the admissions process, and athletic prowess has shunted many an application from the "deny" pile into the "admit" stack. BUT ... that's only when the student-athlete is good enough to catch a coach's eye... and most won't be.

It's usually a quantum leap from being a high school athlete to being strong enough in one's sport to continue in college. Many students and parents mistakenly believe that anyone who is reasonably good at a high school sport can play on at least a Division III college team. But that's far from true. Granted, depending on the sport and the school, some teams do find a place--at least on the bench--for all putative participants. But that still doesn't mean that a candidate's athletic accomplishments will provide any sort of "hook" at admissions-verdict time. These are usually reserved for only the finest athletes, especially in the more common sports.

So, when parents in my purview ask about the role of their child's athletic endeavors in the college-admissions process, my first question is always, "How good is he (or she)?" And then if the answer is "Outstanding" "Excellent," "Extraordinary," or "Did you see the latest issue of Water Polo Weekly?" then I'll probably launch into a discussion of how athletic recruiting works. If the response is "good" or a more measured "pretty good," then I'll probe further.

But, for those parents who describe their progeny as "enthusiastic," "spirited," or "just okay," I'll point out that the pursuit of the sport is a terrific idea if the student wants to do it. On the other hand, if the student is staying involved in sports only because he or she (or mom or dad) believes that it's an application imperative, then that's a big mistake.

When admission officials see various varsity teams on an application, they definitely deem it "time well spent" but it won't automatically make them dance on the ceiling. They'll note, too, if the candidate has been elected captain or holds some other leadership role. This will be a plus, of course. Nonetheless, unless the student has the potential to help the athletic program at the college in question, then all those pre-dawn work-outs, 50-mile bus rides, or weekends spent in dank, unfamiliar YMCA's will mean next to nothing from an admissions-hook perspective. From that point of view, these kids might have been better off engaged in other, more atypical activities--as your son is--where they are more likely to stand out in a crowd.

So, it sounds as if your son is right where he should be. If he ever decides to dust off his old cleats, that's fine, but certainly don't feel that he has to in order to get into the college of his choice.