Applying College Well: The Student Athlete

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Athletic talent can be the biggest hook of all when it comes to admission at a selective college. If you are an exceptionally strong athlete and want to play in college, you should read this article.

The more than eight hundred colleges that are part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) are divided into three divisions. Division I houses the most athletically competitive programs and, with eighteen exceptions, all offer athletic scholarships. The Big Ten schools (actually eleven since Pennsylvania State University joined the conference) are all Division I, as are Stanford, the Ivy League, and many others. Division II schools, which offer some scholarships, are less competitive both athletically and academically than most Division I schools. They tend to be regional universities like the University of Wisconsin, Parkside, and California State University, Chico, as well as private colleges that draw students primarily from their local area.

Division III schools are more selective academically than Division II schools but less competitive athletically. Liberal arts colleges like Bowdoin College, Amherst College, and Lafayette College are in Division III. So are some selective universities like Emory University, New York University, and Carnegie Mellon University. Division III coaches want to win just as much as the well-publicized Division I schools. Almost every college takes athletic recruitment seriously, with a few exceptions like the University of Chicago and Cal Tech. A complete list of NCAA membership by division can be found at

Coaches are always looking for athletic talent. Sometimes that talent comes to their attention when high school students are nationally ranked in their sport or when they receive other sports-related honors. Coaches keep track of such students with an eye toward actively recruiting them when it comes time for college admission. These students are fairly rare. Far more often, talented student-athletes bring themselves to a coach’s attention by expressing interest through correspondence that provides relevant athletic and academic statistics.

The NCAA sets rigid guidelines that govern student eligibility as well as the recruitment process. Strict rules govern when and how often a coach can contact a prospective athlete, as well as what can and cannot be reimbursed if an athlete comes to campus for an interview. The rules ensure that eager coaches do not overwhelm young athletes. You can find the guidelines that govern the division you are interested in at the NCAA Web site noted above. By and large, the rules bind the coaches more than the students, but you should know what they are just to be safe.

The Role of the College Coach

At many colleges, coaches are given a number of slots they can fill with their highest-priority recruits. They can submit additional names, but those athletes won’t get priority from the admissions office beyond the merit of the rest of their nonathletic credentials. The problem for recruited students, however, is that they rarely know in advance where they rank on a coach’s list. It is OK to ask, however, and an honest answer can be helpful. Coaches have to recruit more students than they actually need, since they have no guarantee all will enroll. This is one reason for an increasing emphasis on using early action and early decision for athletes. A coach may tell you that your status as an athletic recruit can help you only if you apply early, but not in regular. This can put you in a bind. Sure, you like this school, but are you ready to commit to it, to the exclusion of all others? This is the dilemma of the recruited athlete: to take advantage of being recruited at the risk of foreclosing the college search experience. There is no right answer for everyone. Nonetheless, a coach’s influence, even at Division III schools, can be crucial. Another problem for the recruit is that coaches may not know their full potential talent pool until the recruiting season is over. A student who is high on the list at an early stage may be bumped down by talented late arrivals.

A young athlete at my child’s private school was superb in her sport. An Ivy League coach showed intense interest and encouraged her application so forcefully that the private school’s counseling staff thought it was a done deal. The girl was denied early decision. Turns out that the coach was new and inexperienced, and had encouraged the girl without checking with admissions to see if she had an admissible profile. She didn’t make the Ivy League grade forathletic recruits. - Mother of two athletic recruits

The Academic Index, or AI for short, is a formula that has been used since the early 1980s by Ivy League colleges to ensure that the academic credentials of recruited athletes do not deviate too much from the credentials of their college classmates. Computed from SAT or ACT scores and class rank, the AI is used to ensure that a recruited athlete’s academic record falls within the broad parameters of the prior year’s freshman class. In addition, only a few athletes whose AIs fall significantly below the mean of the preceding year can be admitted. Although their admissions processes give a big boost to athletes on a coach’s list, Ivy League colleges have agreed to accept common constraints on just how big that boost can be. A number of other colleges have established constraints as well.

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