Applying to Elite Colleges as an Athlete

January 1, 2019

For even the most academically gifted teen, the prospect of getting into an Ivy League or Ivy-caliber college is a tenuous proposition. In 2018, acceptance rates at the eight Ivies ranged from Harvard’s low mark of 5.9% to Cornell’s relatively generous 14% and non-Ivy elite institutions like Pomona, Williams, Tufts, and Johns Hopkins all accepted fewer than 15% of applicants.

Prestigious colleges will tell you that these paltry rates are solely attributable to the sheer volume of hyper-qualified applicants vying for a limited number of spots. Yet, such sophistry buries one key fact—that roughly 40% of spots in any given class are reserved for so-called “hooked” candidates—primarily those who are legacies or recruited athletes.

The reality is that if you can shoot, skate, cradle, putt, dribble, sprint, throw, or volley better than 99% of your peers, then you have a significant admissions advantage over your less coordinated competition. In the following blog, we will explain how strong athletes can parlay their talents into acceptance at one of the top schools in the country answering the following questions along the way:

  • What does research say about small/elite college athletics?
  • How much does being an athlete help you get into an elite college?
  • What are the limitations to athletic prowess?
  • How does recruiting at an elite college work?
  • What sports are the easiest/hardest to get scholarships for?

Let’s begin by examining what the literature tells us about changes in the small college athletics landscape over the past 25 years.

What does research say about small/elite college athletics?

In 1992 the median number of student-athletes at schools belonging to the Council of Independent Colleges (a collection of nearly 650, mainly NCAA Division III institutions) was 240; by 2015, that number had increased to 400. As of 2018, most elite colleges reserve approximately 20% of the enrollment for athletes and that figure can be even higher at some sports-focused, high-prestige schools. Dartmouth, for example, has an undergraduate population of around 4,400 students and includes over 1,050 varsity athletes (24%). It is worth noting that at many elite schools the percentage of recruited student athletes relative to the student body is far greater proportionally than at well-known jock schools like Ohio State or the University of Miami. With such skewed demographics, being a jock with a brain can truly be a decisive factor in opening the doors to America’s most selective colleges.

How much does being an athlete help you get into an elite college?

Ivy League schools and many elite colleges with Division III athletics grant a major advantage to desirable athletes. To quantify this edge, individuals recruited by coaches at top-tier schools typically scored 200 points lower on the SAT than the average admitted applicant. While tough to quantify, studies have claimed that athletes are up to four times more likely to be accepted at Ivy League schools than their non-athlete counterparts. At Harvard University, where all applicants are rated on a scale of one-to-six based on their academic qualifications, athletes who scored a four on the scale where admitted at a 70% clip. Non-athletes who were rated a four were admitted just .076%, roughly 1,000 times lower than their more athletically-inclined competition. Let that sink in for a moment and, if you are a star athlete whose dream happens to be playing for the Crimson—feel free to unleash a gigantic smile.

What are the limitations to athletic prowess?

Without question, pursuing excellence in the classroom is a must unless you are a quarterback prodigy or a 7-foot hoopster. Just kidding—sort of… No amount of gridiron glory is going to get a kid with a 2.7 GPA and a 920 SAT into Princeton. You’ve got to be, pun intended, “in the ballpark” academically. The recruiting process at top scholarly institutions, while ethically controversial, isn’t going to approach the level seen in Blue Chips, a 1994 Nick Nolte film about a corrupt college athletics department buying basketball recruits with cars, tractors, houses for their families, and suitcases full of money.

How does recruiting at an elite college work?

NCAA recruiting season officially begins the summer before a high school athlete’s junior year. However, this timeframe is rarely the first time coaches and prospective players communicate. At Division III schools such as Amherst, Middlebury, and Emory, coaches are free to contact you at any time during high school and at all schools (Division I included) athletes may initiate contact with a coach at any time. We recommend reaching out to coaches early in your high school career if you are an athlete and interested in attending an academically superior institution. Getting on the coach’s radar early can pay dividends come admission time. Remember, even at the Ivies a lacrosse coach may have more sway than a Nobel-Prize nominated faculty member.

What sports are the easiest to get scholarships for?

Since we are not athletic recruiters, we are unable to evaluate the life of your fastball or your talents with a field hockey stick. Obviously, assessing your actual chances of being recruited to a prestigious college for sports depends on your actual talent. However, we can get a decent idea of the types of odds different athletes face in transitioning from high school to a competitive college sport thanks to a useful data set put out by the NCAA.

In 2018, the three sports for men with the highest rate of going from high school to an NCAA team were: Lacrosse (12.4%), ice hockey (11.9%), and baseball (7.1%). The three sports with the lowest success rates were: Wrestling (2.9%), basketball (3.4%), and volleyball (3.5%).

For women, the three sports with the highest percentage of high school athletes continuing on in college were: Ice hockey (24.5%), lacrosse (12.6%), and field hockey (10%). The three lowest percentages were in: Basketball (1.2%), volleyball (1.2%), and tennis (1.5%)—softball was a close fourth at 1.7%.

College Transitions’ Final Thoughts

Athletically gifted high school students who have their eyes set on attending an academically elite college have a sizable advantage over many of their classmates, even those who possess superior GPAs and standardized test scores. By wisely targeting top schools that are not entirely out of range from an academic standpoint, those who excel in sports can give themselves a massive leg-up (again, pun intended) in obtaining a much-coveted elite college acceptance letter.