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The Role of Athletics in College Admissions


Every so often, an article comes out in a major publication highlighting how students who play a unique sport in high school get a preference in college admissions. Last week, the New York Times took its turn to publish a write-up about the sport of fencing entitled: “Fencing Can Be Six-Figure Expensive, but It Wins in College Admissions.” Most of these articles ultimately take the stance that it is unfair that athletes in country club sports like fencing or squash get an advantage in the admissions process. Whatever you think about the role of athletics in choosing a class, articles like this typically don’t really understand what it takes to be recruited and just how impressive these student-athletes usually are.

Let’s consider fencing, not just because it’s the subject of this article but also because we happen to work with a good number of fencers every year at Union Hall Advising. To start, the highly selective colleges with fencing teams recruit very few fencers to their teams every year. Even the best fencing schools might recruit just a few students per gender per year. The entire men’s fencing team at Harvard is made up of about 15 students (for context, the football team has over 80 men on it). That works out to 3-4 new fencers per year, and not all of them are formally recruited. Some are walk-ons, which is very possible at many schools if you have another angle in. So, what does it take to be one of those few recruited fencers to Harvard? A lot of success in the sport plus academics that put you squarely in the middle of the rest of the class of admitted students. Take our word for it that you don’t get recruited to Harvard for fencing or any other country club sport unless you have both the highest athletic ability and stand-out grades and test scores that Harvard would consider anyway. This goes for nearly all of the highly selective colleges that have these teams.

You don’t get recruited unless you have both the highest athletic ability and stand-out grades and test scores.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether colleges should value sports ability at all when selecting a class. Some see varsity sports and the school spirit they build as beneficial to the college experience. Others believe sports are fine at the intramural level but that only academic ability should be considered in admissions. We see the merits of both arguments, but what really angers us are those that put down athletes and their accomplishments merely as some predetermined output based on parental investment. No, fencing does not need to cost $100K, and college coaches will tell you there is no need to participate in international tournaments, as the article implies. But even if it did cost that much, spending that money is no guarantee that you’ll become successful enough to be at the top of the sport. You don’t spend $100K, become an elite fencer and walk into an Ivy League school. There are thousands of fencers competing every year, and just a handful get into elite colleges. The athletes that rise to this level are dedicated to their craft, spending countless focused hours to improve while also gaining the kind of grades and test scores that are required to get them accepted. They have little time for other activities, and their success is earned. Additionally, the level of investment needed to succeed at the highest levels of anything are typically high. There is just as much money and time spent by parents on other pursuits, including “mainstream” sports like hockey (arguably much more expensive than fencing, squash, or crew), as well as the scholarly research done to win awards like Intel and Google Science Fair.

Students who succeed at the highest levels of their chosen activity, be it a sport, Model UN, debate, music, or something else, typically have spent great amounts of time and money in pursuit of that success. The kinds of accolades these kids have are appealing to colleges, and with good reason. They represent drive and determination, and whether you think they are worthy of admissions benefits or not, you can’t question the accomplishments of these kids.

Tim Brennan
October 25, 2022
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