Parenting Teens: College Athletic Recruitment


Like most college-bound kids, Chris Johnson went through the wringer between his junior and senior years in high school. He took the requisite tests and academics. And he tried not to let a bout with pneumonia, which caused his grades to drop precipitously from the 4.0 GPA he'd earned going into his junior year ­ and sidelined him from cross-country competition ­ get him down too badly. But the decision-making process proved especially wrenching. Like his peers, Johnson first wrestled the question, "Where should I apply to college?" Then he faced, "Where do I really want to go?" He flip-flopped and floundered before settling on a choice. Don't feel sorry for him, though. Johnson will attend the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2001. In fact, when he entered the get-into-college fray, the Marin County resident had a proven edge over the competition: He can run ­ fast. So fast, he's ranked eighth in California. In the fall of his junior year, the Redwood High School track and cross-country standout was contacted by a number of coaches from prestigious colleges, with Princeton and Columbia among the first. Penn was not among them. However, after meeting with a college counselor at the start of his senior year, Johnson was encouraged to take the initiative with Penn. He did, and the more he learned about Penn, the more he liked. Located near a big city, with a very low teacher-to-student ratio, a great business program, and "one of the best track teams in the nation," Penn "had all the benefits," said Johnson. "My first visit, I fell in love with it." Funny thing is, before this school year he'd "never considered going Back East too much," he said. As for the Ivies, "My grades alone would not have gotten me into any of these schools." Learn the Process He's probably right. In the book "Getting In ­ Inside the College Admissions Process," author Bill Paul writes, "The candidate who is a great athlete ­ someone who has earned state, regional, or national recognition in a sport ­ has a huge advantage in the admissions process." Interestingly, Paul uses Penn as one example. Overall, Penn admits about a third of its applicants, according to Paul, a Princeton graduate and journalist. But among those whose names appear on a coach's recruiting list, "better than one of two" are admitted, he contends in his 1995 book. Furthermore, "For those who are first, second or third on the list, chances of acceptance are 90 percent." Paul goes on to explain that since Ivy League schools "tend to have more varsity sports" and smaller student bodies than some of the big state universities, the combination "means that recruited athletes at the elite liberal arts colleges constitute a much higher percentage of the student body." That's not to say student-athletes are academically unsuited for the Ivies. But at the same time, many highly qualified candidates are routinely turned away from these highly selective schools. "Playing sports can be an excellent way for a child to get a boost at decision-making time," maintain Sally Rubenstine and Sidonia Dalby in their book, "College Admissions: A Crash Course for Panicked Parents." Drawing from their experience as Smith College admissions officers, they write that a "superstar can get a full scholarship," while "a less exceptional enthusiast can still up the odds of an acceptance." But don't get overconfident, they warn. "Some students and parents overestimate the weight that athletic ability carries in the admission process ­ and they overestimate the student's athletic ability, period." Even the fortunate few who attract the interest of college athletic recruiters should be wary, they add. "Just because your child is recruited by a coach, don't assume admission is a given." Many parents and students read way too much into a coach's letter, especially in the early stages of recruitment. The coach of a top-notch Division III team may send out a thousand letters to prospective students when, in reality, the number of athletes offered spots will be in double digits. Conversely, many smaller and less prestigious schools would welcome these students with open arms, but lack the budget to go out and recruit. Also, garnering a spot on a Division I or II team may not mean more playing time. Sometimes student athletes are better served going to a two-year school, where they can get lots of playing time to improve before moving on to the next level. It's a matching game. And very often, students armed with the best strategies win. The Right Blend Blanche Virk, a San Francisco Bay Area college counselor whose expertise in athletic recruiting brings her clients from as far as Sacramento, helps chart the course for interested students and parents. She begins with the basics, looking to mesh student interests with college characteristics. And she urges kids to think broadly: "I like to encourage them to keep their mind open, be adventurous, and look for the best fit." They may begin by targeting 18 to 22 colleges, said the Marin resident and mother of four, including three sons who played sports in college. (Her daughter is in eighth grade.) Virk encourages students to market themselves and, if they're freshmen or sophomores, to consider attending a summer sports camp "where the coaches are going to be. It's a very good thing," she noted, "because many coaches wrap up their recruiting by the end of the junior year." And if a coach doesn't initiate contact, don't be shy, she says. Put together a package of materials to send to coaches, including a resume, a validating letter from your high school coach, a schedule of upcoming games or competitions, and a transcript. After all, she said, "A lot of colleges don't have the money to recruit, and all of a sudden this little marketing packet drops in their lap." It's okay for parents to send the packet along with an introductory letter and to follow up with a phone call, she said. And it's perfectly all right to ask the coach if he or she had a chance to look at the package and inquire, "What do you think?" At this stage of the game, that's about as far as you should go, Virk said. "You don't want to talk about how great your son or daughter is." As the process moves along, students should start shortening their college lists. Virk advises kids "to be careful that on your list you have the whole range of selectivity. 'Knock on all the doors,' I say. But every one of those on your list (of six to eight colleges) should be a school that you would love to go to." She strongly recommends visiting college campuses. But don't be hasty. "I would not set foot out the door until I knew the coach was really interested in me," she cautioned. "This saves a lot of time and money." How can you tell? "You're not recruited until that coach is calling you once a week," she said. "Then you're being recruited." Ready to Commit? When Molly Callahan knuckled down in her college-search process at the end of her junior year in a Sacramento private school, she was pretty much set on sticking to the West Coast. Virk encouraged Callahan, an excellent diver, to consider Middlebury College in Vermont. Callahan pursued the lead, and grew increasingly interested. When she visited the picturesque campus, "I just liked everything about it." She met with the coach and mingled with the diving team. "It was important to me to see how the divers got along," she said. During diving season, which starts in the fall, "Typically we practice every day of the week together for four hours," she said during spring break, after the season had concluded. "We eat dinner together, have a team dinner Friday night, have Saturday meets, and spend Saturday night with the team." It's a huge commitment, obviously. But Callahan has no regrets. However, some high school athletes aren't ready or able to take the next step, and maybe they shouldn't. "When they love their sport, and they feel they would like to continue in college, go to the coach and have a heart-to-heart talk," Virk said. Most high school coaches will give an honest opinion. Even Johnson, a clear champion in his class, wavered somewhat. "There's a lot of fine runners that don't go on to the next level," he acknowledged. "For me it came down to, 'Why not just try to use running to get me into an Ivy League school?'" The Juggling Act Danielle Mainas of Kentfield, who calls herself "insanely committed" to crew, also harbored some worries as she planned to enroll at the University of California, Berkeley, which is "one of the best rowing schools in the country," she said. "I don't think I would have considered [Cal] had I not rowed, because I don't think I would have gotten in. I didn't make it with academics," said the Redwood High School senior, who has a 4.0 GPA and scored 1330 on her SAT I. Contemplating the load of coursework, practice, and competition, she said, "I think I can handle it, with the support they give." Essentially, she was wooed. "They definitely were interested in Marin girls, and Marin Rowing has a really great reputation," she explained. "They've been after us for a really long time. They offer amazing support academically, the best dorms." Anyway, juggling academics and year-round sports is nothing new for Mainas. "Crew really teaches time management," she said. "And it kind of becomes your family. When we have a week off in the fall, I definitely don't know what to do with myself." Mainas' experience is not unusual, said Virk. "For many people, a sport keeps them structured. It just takes balancing." As for a social life, "You really don't need a fraternity or sorority when you're on the team," said Virk. "You have instant friends." Do It for Love So, should your shining-star student enter the athletic-recruitment competition? College sports requires more than talent, suggests Virk. "You have to do it because you love it. You have to have passion."