Why you should care
Because wouldn’t you like to know how fah they’ll lower the bah to let someone into Hahvahd Yahd?
What’s the best way to increase your chances, or your child’s chances, of getting into Harvard? Being valedictorian with a perfect score on the SAT helps. So does having a parent or grandparent — preferably both — who wore crimson. And so does starring in The Karate Kid, as Elisabeth Shue did before she transferred to Harvard in 1985. But perhaps the best thing you can do to tip the admissions scales in your favor is to get on Harvard’s list of recruited athletes.
Despite boasting alumni like Houston Rockets’ guard Jeremy Lin and Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Harvard has not been regarded as a sports powerhouse for close to a hundred years, although basketball coach Tommy Amaker is helping to change that. And for good reason: The college, along with the rest of the Ivy League, decided in 1945 to eschew awarding athletic scholarships in order to maintain the type of integrity that comes from decades of getting your pants beaten off by scholarship-awarding schools.
But if you think there is no place for recruited athletes at Harvard, think again. (And not just about a spot on the basketball team, which got slapped with a secondary recruiting violation a few years ago). There are several places — about 1,200, actually. Harvard has 42 varsity sports teams, more than any other university, and over 20 percent of its student body participates in intercollegiate athletics. By contrast, traditional college sports giants like Notre Dame and Michigan have about 25 varsity teams, and just 3 to 5 percent of their student bodies are composed of athletes.
Moreover, the vast majority of Harvard’s student-athletes are not walk-ons; they are heavily recruited, and because there are no athletic scholarships and athlete attrition rates are high, coaches tend to over-recruit. These recruited athletes receive a substantial admission preference at Harvard and other elite universities — increasing their odds of admission fourfold, despite having SAT scores about 93 points lower than non-athletes.
So, what’s the catch? Well, most of the sports for which Harvard recruits — crew, squash, sailing, water polo, fencing, lacrosse, rugby, skiing and golf (to name a few) — are not what public high schools typically offer, and the travel, equipment and instruction these sports require make the cost of participation prohibitive for many American children, particularly minority and low-income kids.
Which is why, despite appearances on the gridiron or court, most Ivy League teams are much less diverse than the colleges themselves, and sports provide just one more avenue through which students from privileged backgrounds can gain an admissions advantage at prestigious universities like Harvard.
On the bright side, it’s probably not too late to audition for the next Karate Kid movie.