Athletic AND academic fit?

I am curious about others’ experience with being recruited/admitted/attending an academically selective school as an athletic recruit. If your child’s stats were lower than average for the school, did they struggle a lot once they got there or was it ok?

If it’s an academically selective school, they won’t take an athlete with stats way below the norm. (That’s why coaches get gpa and scores early, and why there’s a preread process). Even if they are in the bottom quarter of the class, so are 25% of the other admitted students. So – as a rule – no one (coaches, admissions) wants a kid to struggle. If the Admissions Office thinks a kid will struggle they won’t admit them.


I don’t completely disagree, but I think it is a bit more nuanced than that. Probably for the most selective D3’s that’s true. The Ivies will dip a bit lower though. Not so low that they can’t do the work and graduate, but low enough that the work may be a lot harder than it is for the typical student, and there may be some majors that realistically are out of reach.

If I’m being brutally honest, my son is “regular smart” not “exceptional smart”. Most of his classmates are “exceptional smart”. I have no doubt there are plenty of kids in his classes who work a lot less hard for an A than he does for a B. I haven’t seen percentiles of graduating GPAs (not sure if that is publicly available anywhere) but I would be shocked if S isn’t solidly in the bottom 25th percentile, quite possibly bottom 10th.

His major isn’t engineering or pre-med, but it is pretty science heavy and is not known as an easy major. His opinion is that it is probably average difficulty for the school overall, but it is probably the toughest major on his team except for the very occasional engineer or pre-med. And the engineer/pre-med kids that I know of are more backups, not starters. Not that those majors are not available for the starter level kids, just that between them generally being bottom 25th percentile kids coming in, and the commitment to the sport required of starter/hopeful starter, it just isn’t realistic for most of them to do all of the work necessary to keep their head above water in those majors.

He has teammates who have been steered into easier majors. Some completely by choice, some less so, but the reality is that they couldn’t get through some of the more difficult majors at the school.

It’s a bit like deciding on playing level. Do you want/need to be a starter, or are you content to go somewhere where that may happen, but you may also end up a backup or role player? Do you want/need to be one of the smart kids in your class (even the “dumb” Ivy kids were likely considered one of the “smart” kids in HS), or are you content to surround yourself with exceptional students where you may be one of the less naturally intellectually gifted kids in the room? He probably has learned more at his school than he would have at most of the other schools that recruited him. But at those schools his GPA would be much higher.

It’s humbling. He could have gone to our state flagship, or a local directional, and have been one of the “smart” kids. Just like with the athletic step up in the competition, the academic one can be tough, and some kids do better with it than others. He is fine, but I know a kid from his HS (different sport, different college) who did a year at an Ivy and then transferred to a directional state school. There were several issues, but one was definitely that his ego struggled not being the smart kid anymore.

I don’t know if this is universal, but I will say that the connections my son has made on his team and with alums is worth a lot. His GPA may not be anything to get excited about, but he got a soft offer for a great job when he graduates a couple of weeks ago from an alum who was on his team. As a team they probably have a GPA decently below the class average, but they also largely graduate with really good jobs already lined up. Even the 2.xx GPA sociology majors. So while there is some short term stress (I had to talk him off the ledge a couple of times when he was afraid he wasn’t smart enough to make it), there isn’t really any long term career damage being done.

I guess the notable exception would be if they want (engineering/premed/prelaw/something else specific and difficult), and they are set on that particular career, they may want to do some digging to make sure they can complete that major with an acceptable GPA at the school. It’s pretty easy to find out the prospects for that when you look at individual schools. Look at what majors the team is taking. Also when on a visit your kid can ask other athletes about how realistic that particular major is. Coaches may sugarcoat things a bit, but usually the future teammates are brutally honest, especially later in the evening when no coaches are around and everyone lets their guard down a bit.


This is why academically selective schools do pre-reads for athletes. Coaches will ask for academic materials(transcripts, test scores, senior class schedule, sometimes even essays) to present to their admissions office. Admissions offices will give feedback to the coaches on each candidate. The timing and exact process of this varies by sport, school, and sometimes by division or conference.

Also kinda funny story about S. Or disturbing, but I’m going with funny. His school, like most of the selective academic schools, has a first year writing requirement. They have a few sections that are set aside for students who need extra help. As I said, he is definitely overall a 25th percentile kid, and his natural talents are more stem focused, not writing focused.

To get into the extra help sections, you have to do a timed writing sample on a prompt, and then meet with someone to discuss your writing and get counseling on whether they suggest one of the extra help sections for you.

He wasn’t going to do it, but I encouraged him to do the writing sample and just see where he stood because I suspected he was not as prepared as he thought he was. When he went in for his meeting, at first he felt like he was being accused of deliberately tanking the writing sample to get into an “easy” section. Unfortunately he didn’t deliberately tank it, that really was his best work given the time limit for the writing.

After he talked to them a bit about his writing, they realized that in fact he did turn his best work. And he definitely belonged in one of the extra help sections. IMHO he still isn’t a good writer, but he is MUCH better than he was. Getting the more hands on help in a smaller class with a professor that was particularly good at helping that level of student was huge to help him get there.


Many teams provide additional study sessions and tutoring for athletes.

I think that is pretty standard at schools outside of the most selective. S talked to schools over a wide range academically. There were mandatory study sessions for many/most of them outside of the super selective, at least for the first semester or 2 then it seemed like it was GPA dependent, if you were being successful study sessions were optional. I don’t think at the Ivies or most other selective academic schools you are going to have that though. They sort of assume you are smart and motivated enough to ask for help if you need it, but they don’t enforce it like a typical Power 5 school would (or whatever is left of the P5 at this point) unless you are clearly struggling. I’m not sure schools outside the big D1s, but I would guess it’s similar. Your odd ducks like Northwestern/Michigan, etc. who are highly selective but also very set up for an athlete-centric experience may still have mandatory study hours, we never really got far enough in conversations with them that we asked. Or I guess I should say I never talked to those coaches, and S never told me anything they may have said about mandatory study hours.

Having said that, if you ask for help most of the highly selective schools have plenty of it available, frequently free, to all students. You don’t necessarily get anything extra as an athlete, but tutors and other resources are readily available for everyone who wants one.

Of course, my son did not really take advantage of that, as is reflected in his GPA. He did occasionally seek out help from teammates, he had a housemate who was a premed student, and he was pretty helpful a few times with math/physics/chemistry concepts when he just wasn’t vibing with the way it was being explained by the professor.

I think you have to decide how much work you are willing to do. My daughter was in engineering and I’d say she was just ‘average smart’ not super smart. She’d also learned English as a second language, and was the S-L-O-W-E-S-T reader ever. But she was and is an extremely hard worker, both in academics and on the athletic field.

I’d say pick the school at the academic level where you are willing to do the work. Can any good student do the work at Yale? Probably. The help is there if you need it, but it may take you 6 trips to the writing lab, going to office hours for the prof or TA, or forming a study group with teammates/classmates. It may require reading an assignment more than once. It may mean spending an hour on a math problem when others can complete it in 15 minutes. It’s work.

If that’s not how you want to ‘do’ college, find a school with a better academic fit. Honestly, there were a few kids on my daughter’s team who really weren’t a good academic fit for the school, but they got by and graduated. Two had to do an extra semester but that was too much partying and not paying attention to the graduation requirements.

IMO you can do the work but do you want to work that hard? Up to you.


This is incredibly helpful - thank you for taking the time to respond!

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This is a really good topic for discussion, as the hardest school you can get accepted to isn’t always going to be the best fit. I came up with 6 different questions that should be answered for each student-athlete and college match:

  1. how good is the student-athletes academic background and ability compared to the rest of the student body.
  2. how much support is available to help students (either for all students, or just student athletes).
  3. how hard will the student’s major be.
  4. how much work is the student-athlete willing to put into academics at the cost of social life or athletic accomplishments.
  5. can the student athlete pursue their desired major, or will they have to compromise to get through and earn a degree.
  6. how comfortable is the student-athlete being average, or even below average in classes.

I really appreciate some of the thoughtful replies that this thread had generated. I will say that some of the advice (outside of things that are athlete/sport specific) are good things for ALL students to be thinking about with respect to finding a school that will be a good academic fit for them.


Another thing to consider, for athletes and non-athletes, is the true rigor of your kids’ school vs the rigor of some of the top private and public schools where a lot of their future classmates are coming from. On objective measures, my kids were above the 50th percentile in terms of grades and test scores, and had taken the highest rigor of courses in their school. While the public HS that they went to was fine, it was not an Andover or TJ HS. They felt it freshmen year and saw how much better prepared some of their classmates were. My D was an athlete and she came close to dropping her STEM major, but she put her head down, got through and eventually thrived with the help of 3 professors who took a personal interest in her. That was clearly the advantage of a LAC. Not sure how easy it would be to get this level of support from professors at R1’s.


My non-athlete at Amherst definitely saw this. It was a much bigger adjustment for her than many of her classmates. I think she is just as capable as most of them, and the raw intellectual power isn’t lacking. But her prep was far below that of many of the private school or competitive public schools that the majority of her classmates attended in HS.

My athlete had that too. He did NOT compromise on the social side, or at least not as much as I would have preferred. Hence his less than stellar GPA. I’m hoping (and thinking) that his first couple of jobs will probably be connection based, from people he knows in his sport, or who just hire a lot of Ivy athletes. After that, outside of a few areas most people don’t really care about your GPA anymore. I have no worries that he can’t work at a high level. But when he had to balance athletics, academics and social, he did not necessarily tilt things the way I thought he should.


IMO, there are two things that give prep school (for lack of a better word) school kids an early advantage.

The first is writing skills. The second is making use of resources. These are kids who are already used to making good use of office hours.

The good news is that eventually everyone catches on and the gap closes significantly by the second term.