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Articles / Applying to College / Athletic "Hook" in Non-Intercollegiate Sports?

Athletic "Hook" in Non-Intercollegiate Sports?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | June 19, 2015

Question: I’m the parent of a high school student and would like to know how much weight do admission officers of elite universities give to athletic performance in non-college sports?  By “non-college,” I mean fairly well known sports in which a particular college does not compete, such as skiing, rock climbing, boxing and martial arts.   Does it help students’ admission chances if they’ve placed highly at nationals, have successfully competed internationally, are internationally “ranked” or if they hold a US record?  

 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.


Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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