Inside Admissions Committee: Sports Matter More Than You Think
by Steve Ahn, copyright 2016

So some of you already get it – on the college application, sports count. A lot. But the surprising way they count in many admissions evaluators’ minds may have you re-thinking your approach to pursuing athletics. And to those of you who think sports don’t count, assuming strong academic performance can eclipse the lack of an athletic activity or because non-athletic activities like debate team, the Latin club, and orchestra can replicate the same experiences as those found in sports – well, you’re in for a shock.

To begin to understand the importance of athletics in college admissions, you have to first understand that from an admissions perspective, applicants are generally evaluated in two broad areas: intellect and character. Intellect is evidenced in academics. Character is evidenced in everything including academics just not completely. Add to that, the criteria applied in each of these categories – development and potential – and the character-building benefits of sports become even more important. Development is aimed at ability and achievement. Potential is aimed at future impact. An applicant’s development from a character point of view focuses on maturity: introspectiveness, control of emotions, multi-tasking, responsibility, a results-orientation, toughness, persistence, discipline, integrity, competitiveness, results-orientation. An applicant’s potential from a character point of view focuses on impact: leadership, contribution, vision, adaptability, and the ability to influence others,

The question then becomes, “Can intellect be fully evaluated in terms of academics?” Simply put, yes. Now ask, “Can character be fully evaluated in terms of academics?” Simply put, no. Though all of the aforementioned qualities can arguably be developed and evidenced via either academics or athletics to varying degrees, they are not seamlessly interchangeable. Admissions committees cannot automatically assume a three-sport letterman can handle the intellectual demands of three AP courses. Conversely, they cannot assume a national-level debater can handle multiple sports. Or even one.

So what’s so unique about sports? The reality is that experiences are most impactful when realized preferably in the most basic sense – or rather senses plural, as in literally the five senses. For example, sure, you can imagine a beautiful landscape. But then you can imagine it while also reading about and later discussing it. But you can most fully appreciate it if you imagine it, read about, discuss it, and then see a beautiful landscape, especially one that can surpass imagination and words. In the same way, you can compete against yourself, striving to continually improve upon your best. Or you can compete against yourself as well as everyone in your class and emerge with the highest grade especially if there is a forced grading curve. Or you can get on a wrestling mat with nothing but your under-sized wrestling singlet and over-sized wits and grapple toe-to-toe with someone else who seems to be bigger than you even though you’re in the same weight class.

But before you think, “I’m set because I do well in academics and in my sport,” consider the sport you do. Many admissions committee evaluators distinguish between team sports and individual sports. Though all sports help develop character more fully than the way academics alone do, leadership and teamwork are ingrained in some sports more than others. Consider swimming. Though a swim team cannot win a meet without everyone’s contribution, swimming is ultimately an individual sport. It’s the swimmer against the clock. Sports like cross-country, gymnastics, and golf are the same. You’re doing your individual best hoping it’s better than everyone else’s best. Sports like fencing, taekwondo, and tennis are a step up in the type of competition where the athlete must not only compete against his/her best but also react in the face of direct confrontation. Sports like football, soccer, and volleyball ideally encompass self-competition, direct confrontation, and most importantly from a team and leadership point of view, dependence and influence on others to achieve. The running back needs a blocker. The striker needs a passer. The striker needs a setter. It’s this dynamic interaction that is ideal in so many ways.

That’s not to say there is anything wrong with any sport – even chess. Don’t change your lifelong passion for the sake of what you think might be perceived in an admission’s committee member’s mind, as long as you feel you are developing in the unique areas that sports can offer. And don’t feel you have to be athletic-scholarship-bound or a four-year letterman – one of the best sports-related application essay’s I’ve ever read was about a student who was the worst player who mostly rode the bench for three years. What character she had!

If you’re not convinced that sports are uniquely developmental to one’s character, consider that many admissions committee members are former athletes and are convinced.

So maybe you concede that sports might develop character in unique ways that academics cannot. You wonder, “Why can’t a student demonstrate such superior academic performance and potential such that sports-related character development and potential don’t matter as much?” The truth is that character can even eclipse below-average academic performance.

The increasing importance admissions committees place on character is a result of the ever intensifying competitiveness in academics. Academic performance (i.e. transcript, standardized tests, activities, and distinctions) used to be the predominant factor, but now it’s far less dominant relative to character. That’s not to say academic performance is less important in an absolute sense. On the contrary, for the most competitive colleges, think of outstanding academic performance as a first hurdle. Unfortunately for students, there is such an abundance of students with outstanding performance, once certain performance standards are met, colleges focus less on the application and more on the applicant’s character, which is the only way colleges can differentiate applicants. This explains why colleges are placing a greater emphasis on interviewing and are interviewing a growing percentage of applicants each year. For example, Ivy Leaguer UPenn last year interviewed nearly 100% of its over 35,000 applicants. This also explains why so many students who achieve a perfect score on the SAT or are valedictorians do not get accepted. Harvard for example routinely rejects about 50% of perfect-SAT applicants and a greater percentage of valedictorians. So consider the applicants who indeed do get admitted to certain schools – particularly the Ivy’s – who have lower academic performance than even the average – that’s about half of them notice. It’s about character development and potential.

And if you’re still not convinced, consider that the kid with the highest grades isn’t nearly so often the kid who goes on to achieve the highest levels of success no matter how you define “success.” In other words, say “goodbye” to school and “hello” to the real world.

It’s just you with your outstanding intellect and well-rounded character set to achieve and impact the future. But that shouldn’t be surprising. That’s what going to college is about.
Steve Ahn is an admissions application reviewer and interviewer for Emory University and the University of Pennsylvania / Wharton and a college consultant. He also leads seminars on college planning, application content, essays, and interviewing. Read more about him at or contact him at or