The Ivy Coach Daily

June 3, 2024

How Playing Sports Affect College Applications

A person bikes on a path beside a brick building covered in red ivy and a yellow tree at Dartmouth College.

When The Common Application only has room for ten activities on a given application, every slot must be used strategically. Fortunately, Ivy Coach’s college admissions experts know the best strategy to employ to optimize a student’s chance of admission. We have made it our mission to dispel the myth of the well-rounded applicant, who pursues many different disciplines without specializing, because we understand the power of a singular hook. In 2024, the most competitive players in the elite college admissions game are the experts and specialists who have taken their individual passions as far as they will go. For this very reason, we discourage listing sports on college applications (unless, of course, the student is being recruited by that college’s coach for the sport).

Sports Make an Applicant Seem Well-Rounded, Decreasing Admissions Competitiveness

It might sound cynical, but this is the thought process underlying how highly selective colleges make their decisions. The only applicants who should be listing sports on their applications are those who are in the process of being recruited by a coach at their prospective college. In short, if a student can’t help a college’s athletic team, admissions officers don’t care about their athletic pursuits. Everyone else is better off using those precious slots to convey how passionate they are about their thing. Students with a thing that has driven them throughout high school make up the ranks of recently admitted cohorts at Ivy League schools and other highly selective institutions.

Even if the dedicated community activist, talented public policy debater, or budding math whiz plays on her varsity basketball team, admissions officers would rather see her reflect on the experiences that have contributed to these specific talents — the kinds of activities she will continue to do once she is on campus. Sure, she might join intramural basketball her first year at Dartmouth, but she will be spending most of her time on campus continuing to develop her passion.

High School Sports Are Not As Impactful As Many Believe

This truth about listing sports on college applications is a hard pill to swallow for many families. Many have and will continue to ignore our advice and lead with sports on The Common App.’s activities list. They might even put down multiple teams, from varsity to club, or even AAU. These families have been fed years of rhetoric about the benefits of high school athletics. They point to these benefits — the leadership, commitment, and teamwork instilled by athletics — to rationalize listing sports, despite their best interests to the contrary. This is especially true of families who have spent a lot of money on their child’s athletic career.

The reality is that admissions officers do not buy into these benefits. Listing sports will only serve to make an applicant seem well-rounded, dramatically decreasing their chances of admission. When a mere ten activities may be listed on The Common App., there is a heavy opportunity cost that must be paid when families focus on sports at the expense of the activities that admissions officers actually value: pre-professional, academic, and artistic pursuits oriented around a singular hook.

Are Sports a Waste of Time for the Ambitious High Schooler?

This is not to say that high school sports should be avoided like the plague. If a student enjoys swimming or baseball, by all means they should join their local team. In fact, those students who excel at their sport and are flagged and tagged by an Ivy League coach enjoy a significant boost in their admissions odds. And there is certainly an argument for the character-building benefits of sports participation. However, admissions officers are more interested in the likelihood that an applicant will take advantage of their institution’s resources. Character-builder or not, sports participation is not an accurate predictor of this key selling point.

We simply discourage those who have no plans to play at the collegiate athletics level from listing their sport on college applications. We know that this argument in favor of high school athletics has no purchase with admissions officers, and we hate to see ambitious students face rejection over the well-roundedness of their application. Those who take this advice will thank us later!

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