College Admission Essays For Athletes

Every year, students who are accomplished athletes come to us with the same College Essay Myth. “But College Essay Advisors,” they say. “I can’t write my essay about sports. That’s what EVERYBODY does.”

The notion that all student who play sports write college essays about their athletic pursuits is simply inaccurate. Last year one our our students, a star football player, wrote about his aptitude for solving puzzles. Another student on the school rowing team wrote about her family’s immigration story. Athletes are not just athletes — they are complex humans with varied talents and experiences, many of which are worth exploring in essay form. Still, it is impractical to think that students who devote thirty hours or more of their lives each week to a sport, won’t feel compelled to write about their passion for soccer or aptitude for tennis or cheerleading. And rightfully so. Sports teach valuable skills like leadership, teamwork and discipline. They foster bonds of friendship that often last decades or longer. A working knowledge of sports can even be a lifelong conversation starter among strangers.

Students do not have to shy away from detailing these experiences and what they learned from them — they just have to shift the lens, add another layer, or approach these topics from creative perspectives to make them both original and reflective of a greater range of interests and talents. For example, maybe your experience diving for the ball as a volleyball player allowed you to take a risk in applying for the job of your dreams. Perhaps the qualities needed to be a good basketball player and also the skills needed to command a boardroom. Students might want to steer away from major tropes like getting injured before a big game or scoring the winning goal — though if those stories are treated with sincerity and an innovative perspective, they can make for effective essays as well. The test of whether or not you have achieved the level of creativity necessary to set a sports essay apart from all the rest is this: Could any other basketball player have written your essay? If another lacrosse player put her name on your application, would the details still be mostly accurate? If the answer is yes, find another way in; add another twist; push towards a more compelling and creative conclusion. So, yes, you can write a sports essay — it just has to be a sports essay unlike any other.

Are you a student athlete planning to play sports in college? Finding the right school for you is still about best overall fit. Make sure you are considering academics, campus culture, and financial aid—in addition to the athletics program—during your college search. 

Whether you have dreams of going pro or just want to play for fun, here's an overview of your sports options in college and some specific admission tips for athletes.

Playing Sports in College

Varsity-Level Sports

Varsity athletes represent their schools at the highest level of competition. Funded by college  athletic budgets, varsity  teams  play in conferences across the country. Athletes are recruited by college coaches  or “walk-on” the team at the beginning of the season.

What are the NCAA Divisions?

The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCCA) is the largest organization that governs varsity sports at colleges and universities. The NCAA divides its member schools into three divisions based on 1.)  school size, 2.) funding for athletics, 3.) campus experience for athletes, and  4.)  availability of athletic scholarships.

Division IDivision IIDivision III
Overview

Bigger student bodies, larger athletics budgets, and more media attention on their elite teams

(Ever heard of March Madness?)

Emphasize a balance between academic life and athletics.

Student athletes can compete at a high level and still have a traditional college experience.

Focus on academics and for athletes to be well-integrated on campus.

Tend to have shorter sports seasons with an emphasis on regional competition.

Number of Schools346307439
AdmissionsProspective student athletes must be certified as NCAA Eligible to practice, compete, or receive an athletics scholarship during their first year.Prospective student athletes must be certified as NCAA Eligible to practice, compete, or receive an athletics scholarship during their first year.Process is exactly the same as the rest of the student body, and you’ll be held to the same admissions standards.
RecruitmentStrict limits on when and how college coaches can recruit you (with some differences for football and basketball)Limits on when and how college coaches can recruit youSome limits on recruitment
Financial AidAthletic scholarships are available for cost of attendancePartial athletic scholarships are available, in addition to academic and need-based aidDo not offer athletics scholarships, but student athletes are eligible for academic or need-based aid

Source:  NCAA

Club Sports

Club sports teams compete with other universities and colleges but are not regulated by an athletics association like varsity sports. Club teams are run by students who plan everything from hiring coaches to fundraising for gear and uniforms. Competition can still be fierce with rigorous weekly practice, regional tournaments, and national championships.

Intramural Sports

These recreational sports teams are for students of all athletic abilities. Instead of competing against other universities you’ll compete against other student teams at your school. Intramural teams can run the gamut from traditional sports like soccer, rugby, or softball to quirky options such as Ultimate Frisbee, Quidditch, or inner-tube water polo.

College Admissions Tips for Athletes

Meet with your college counselor early and often to make sure you're moving toward your goals! Follow these tips for a smooth admissions process. 

Understand the rules of recruitment.

If you have your eye on a varsity sport, be aware that members of the team are usually recruited by college coaches. There are rules for when and how coaches can get in touch with you. Check out the NCAA recruiting guidelines. 

Plan ahead for NCAA Eligibility.

If you are applying to Division I or II schools, you will also need to meet NCAA Eligibility. These academic standards include: 1)  required courses 2.)  GPA cu t-offs  and 3.)  SAT/ACT score minimums. Eligible students may  practice, compete, and get NCAA funding for their first year in college. 

Raise your GPA.

NCAA Eligibility does not mean automatic admission! You’ll still have to go through the school’s admission committee, so work to get good grades in challenging courses. Our online tutors are here for you if your GPA needs a boost!

Choose your SAT/ACT test dates wisely.

Consider your sports schedule when choosing your test dates so that you can get in enough prep! For example, if you play a spring sport, you’ll have more time to prep for the SAT and/or ACT tests in the fall. Learn more about when you should take standardized tests.

Be original in your application essays.

Strategize with your college counselor about how to talk about playing sports in your college essays. Many essays sound the same—tell your sports story that nobody else can tell. Get feedback on your application essay.

Think beyond sports.

Your best fit college is one you would attend even if you don’t make the team! Learn more about how to find the right school for you. 


Need help crafting the right application plan for you? Our  College Counselors will help you find, apply, and get accepted to your dream school. Get a personalized college admissions plan today!


The Staff of The Princeton Review

For more than 35 years, students and families have trusted The Princeton Review to help them get into their dream schools. We help students succeed in high school and beyond by giving them resources for better grades, better test scores, and stronger college applications. Follow us on Twitter: @ThePrincetonRev.

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