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Navigating the Athlete’s Route to College

While universities primarily prioritize academic aptitude, sports are also an important aspect of college admissions. Athletic liaisons, admissions officers who work with recruited athletes, play a significant role in the placement process. Interested coaches will often pursue players early in their high school careers, eager to bolster teams. How do recruited athletes’ application experiences differ from the admissions process for other candidates?

College advisor Beth Bishop said recruited athletes are “tremendously advantaged.” Schools come to them, she said: these seniors don’t have to cope with undue concern stress through most of their twelfth grade, often committing before or during senior fall.

She acknowledges, however, that those who commit early to college do not escape the stress-filled application process endured by all students. On the contrary, they follow a different, but equally demanding process, as they are pressured to demonstrate both skill and responsibility by reaching out to schools, attending showcases and team camps, and playing their best in front of visiting coaches. Also, athletes often have to sacrifice their top-choice school or disregard college preferences when recruited.

Bishop added, “Many Deerfield students aspire to be recruited athletes, but ultimately don’t find [college] coaches willing to support them.”

Finally, injury can “change everything,” Bishop said regretfully, meaning that driven athletes may have to abandon top-level sports in college and not receive the benefits of early recruitment. “Without a coach’s support, injured athletes can lose their spot at a college,” Bishop added.

Devinne Cullinane ‘14, a tri-varsity captain for cross-country, hockey, and track, recently recruited by Cornell University for running, recounted her road to college confirmation. In her individual sports, only one coach watched her race; others primarily relied on running times, which are posted online.

For hockey, however, Cullinane has done a lot of showcase tournaments so coaches could see her play. She admitted, “It does get pretty stressful when you see those clipboards in the stands or you think about the fact that the coach at your number-one school is watching to see how you perform. It is up to the individual to put all that aside and have the mental stamina to treat it as you would any other race or game.”

Cullinane said that colleges did not focus on her extracurricular activities and other roles at Deerfield, although she is a student council member, peer tutor and proctor. Instead, the “early reads” primarily factored her grade-point average and SAT scores, in addition to her running times and performance on the ice.

Bishop underscored this practice, saying colleges expect a certain academic standard and SAT performance from recruited athletes, but do not place emphasis on participation in clubs and other student-led groups.

Both Cullinane and Bishop mentioned another prominent difference between athletes’ and other students’ application processes: the diminished role of college advisors. Bishop said, “A recruited athlete’s process often starts before college counseling. They come to us with their college decisions made, so we only help them with writing the application, not decision-making about schools.”

Cullinane reinforced this point, thanking her cross-country and track coach (and uncle), Dr. Dennis Cullinane, for “contacting coaches and advocating for [her] as a student-athlete.”

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