You Don’t Have to Be a Sports Star to Shine in College Admission

By Brian Cook and Neil Chyten

When filling out activities for college applications, student athletes typically want to lead with their greatest accomplishments. They want to present a narrative consisting of an endless array of successes—and who could blame them? Certainly, this is only natural and, after all, doesn’t everyone love a winner? Don’t colleges want winners? Absolutely. And this is why the activities section should be reserved for the things that make you proudest: four years of hockey, becoming team captain or co-captain, holding the state record for the high jump, being a member of a division or state winning team, being awarded the most improved player on your team, or even your school’s version of Conn Smythe Trophy or Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

But there are other parts of your college application in which accomplishments might want to take a backseat to challenges and setbacks, where you can demonstrate your fortitude, grit, resilience, and mettle. Indeed, many college experts will tell you that your application should not just be a brag sheet, but rather an accurate reflection of who you are and who you can become, given exposure to the right college environment. It should provide insights into how a college education will be a resource you will use to better yourself and the world around you. It is for these reasons that college admissions officials like to see not only accomplishments but also how you deal with adversity, how you make the most of every opportunity that you are presented with, and how you make those around you better versions of themselves.

At Avalon Athletes, much of our work is done with highly touted, recruited (or recruitable) student athletes. We are often surprised and a bit dismayed by the number of high school athletes who choose not to highlight their experiences or fail to mention them altogether. But why? Anyone who has ever participated in sport, either team or individual, will tell you that sport represents a nonstop barrage of challenges, opportunities, unimaginable heartbreaks, and the highest highs. They will also likely tell you that sport requires commitment, focus, sacrifice, pain, and that sport often negates the possibility of participating in other activities they might prefer such as going to camp, taking a pre-college class, taking a summer internship or job, or just relaxing with friends. There is no doubt that sport teaches lessons, as well as personal and professional skills that will prove critically important to life in, and after, college. Skills such as teamwork, empathy, humility, compassion, and humanity are intrinsically connected to sport in a way that cannot be exorcised, and so the very act of participating in sport makes you a more valuable college candidate.

It is for all these reasons that college admission officers consider participation in sport to be one of the more important activities that a student can undertake in high school. So, whether you are a state champion, a highly coveted recruited athlete, a benchwarmer, or the equipment manager, chances are you have a story to tell that will make you a more valuable candidate to colleges. Whether you succeed or fail, there is a lesson learned that you can highlight in your interviews, write about in your essays, and place appropriately into your activities list. Success is great, and there’s no doubt that it helps to strengthen your college application. But don’t discount the importance of all the other qualities that are intrinsically linked to participation in sport. Sometimes it is those honest, heartfelt comments, how you dealt with disappointment, how you recovered from injury or failure, or those magical recommendations from coaches that resonate with colleges more than a picture of you in front of a bunch of shiny trophies.