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The Ivy Coach Daily

February 13, 2024

Does Harvard Admissions Care About High School Sports?

A bullet board is featured with a list of concentrations and the Harvard logo.

Previously Published on October 28, 2018:

Many students and their parents are under the impression that participation in sports, in itself, is a positive in the highly selective college admissions process. They think, with great conviction, that playing a sport demonstrates leadership, commitment, and a penchant for valuing teamwork to the admissions officers evaluating the students’ applications. But is participation in sports truly a positive in the elite college admissions process, including to schools like Harvard?

Harvard Admissions Officers Value Recruited Athletes

A key objective of Ivy Coach‘s college admissions blog is to debunk commonly held misconceptions about the highly selective college admissions process — and the notion that admissions officers at schools like Harvard see athletic participation, in itself, as a positive, is misguided.

Unless a student-athlete is being recruited by a college athletic coach at the school to which they’re applying, their participation in that sport will not serve their candidacy. In fact, their participation will only make them present as well-rounded, and in the game of elite college admissions, a well-rounded presentation should never be the goal. Schools like Harvard instead seek singularly talented students who will contribute to the school’s community through their unique hooks.

If their hook is environmental science, leadership in environmental activities is meaningful. But captaining a high school varsity team does not contribute to and, in fact, dilutes that hook. Elite colleges like Harvard don’t want to merely see “leadership” activities. They want to see leadership related to the singular hooks the students will contribute to their campus.

Harvard Admissions Officers Aren’t Excited by Non-Recruited Athletes

But we at Ivy Coach have been saying for over three decades that unless a student will be recruited for a particular sport — in which case they’ll be flagged and tagged in the admissions process as an athletic recruit and enjoy significant preferential treatment in the Early round of admissions — that their participation not only won’t help but will hurt. So, allow us to share the same assessment directly from Harvard University. Of course, Harvard wouldn’t have wanted such words publicly released, but it came out in the Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College lawsuit.

As reported in a piece in The Boston Globe article by Deirdre Fernandes on the variables in Harvard’s admissions process, “Being merely captain of your high school team? Meh. Admissions officials sniffed at the abilities of a high-school varsity swim team captain. ‘Her level of talent is probably not at our varsity level,’ they summarized in a bullet point of the applicant’s strengths and flaws. ‘What, exactly, will she do at Harvard?'” 

There it is, in plain sight for our readers to see. If a swimmer isn’t fast enough to compete for Harvard’s swim team, no matter how many years they dedicate to the sport or serve as captain of their high school team, if the coach didn’t flag and tag the student as a recruit, the student’s participation in swimming doesn’t interest HarvardIt’s not a hook.

In fact, the student’s subpar butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, and individual medley hurts the student for a couple of reasons, including: 1.) there’s an opportunity cost (what could the student have been doing with the time they spent staring at a black line on the bottom of a pool, and 2.) sports like swimming denote privilege, which makes applicants less likable. Not everyone has the resources and access to pools to swim competitively.

A Final Word from Ivy Coach on Non-Recruited Athletes at Harvard

In that same piece in The Boston Globe, Fernandes quotes Ivy Coach‘s Founder Bev Taylor: “Ultimately, Harvard wants students who will add something special to its campus, said Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a private admissions counseling firm, who always advises her clients to do their best to avoid being excellent yet run-of-the-mill. ‘You want to stand out in some way,’ Taylor said.” 

It’s not that we don’t like sports. Heck, we grew up competitive swimming (loyal readers of Ivy Coach’s college admissions blog know that we always write in the royal we). Play the sport if you love it. Play the sport if you do it to stay in shape. But if you’re playing the sport because you think it will improve your case for admission to elite schools like Harvard and you know you’re not going to be recruited, you should seriously rethink those mind-numbing hours spent going back and forth and back and forth.

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