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What’s the college application process like for student-athletes?

It’s no secret that the college application process is different for student-athletes. It boils down to establishing and maintaining good relationships with college coaches. For starters, college coaches who want to recruit you become your advocates at the school you wish to get into.

They usually start by passing your grades and/or SAT/ACT scores on to the admissions office, as to get informal feedback. It’s worth noting that college coaches can ask admissions for pre-reads on potential recruits, even before these potential recruits formally apply to the school. Admissions would then determine how likely a particular student will get in: A.) a certain yes; B.) borderline/has to improve academically; and C.) not at all possible.

If their answer is an A, then you’re guaranteed a slot when you send in your application. If it is a B, there would also be feedback on how to improve your chances. Should you be able to hit those targets based on the feedback, then you would also be guaranteed a slot. There are also instances wherein the coach writes a letter to admissions, vouching for a particular recruit. That is, if the coach deems you as exceptional and could make a significant impact to the team (even if you fall under borderline in some criteria).

Now let me share my own experience. When admissions office of Harvard University looked at my information, one of the concerns was my language ability. Since I grew up and studied in a local school in Hong Kong—where Chinese is the predominantly used language—they thought my language ability would be a major hindrance to my academic performance in Harvard. This was despite the fact that my SAT scores were decent compared to most other American students.

Fortunately I got to know the tennis coaches quite well during the process, so they offered to write a letter to admissions personally vouching that although my language skills might not be the best on paper, I can work on doing better academically in Harvard. Since I have been speaking to these coaches for months prior to this, they’ve gotten to know me enough to be comfortable with putting their names on the line to help me through this final hurdle.

This goes to show how and why it’s important to build relationships with college coaches and allow them to know you on a personal level. It definitely makes a difference when they are willing to vouch for you to the admissions office, therefore making the process smoother. Ultimately, admissions offices understand that these coaches have their reputation on the line, hence they wouldn’t vouch for an applicant on a whim unless he/she truly is exceptional.

And so going back to my experience—later on I proved to these coaches that they were not wrong about vouching for me. 4 years later, I graduated just like everyone else who had better language skills on paper during the admissions process. On top of that, I was able to take away some world class experience in NCAA Division One Tennis and play a significant part in contributing to the Harvard Men’s Tennis program.

Needless to say, it’s important to not only know the right people, but also proving to these people that they were right about taking a chance on you.

Kelvin Lam