Determining your child’s level of skill and how it can help in the college admissions process

AbilitySkill.jpegColleges and universities have diverse needs that people with skill and talent in multiple areas help them meet.  The symphony orchestra may need a bassoonist, for example, and varsity soccer may be losing a goalie to graduation.  Getting flagged as a recruit can give your child an edge in the admissions process, although it does not guarantee an acceptance letter.  Understanding where your child falls in the talent and skill pool, however, represents a challenge in and of itself, as does bringing that level of accomplishment to the attention of an admissions committee in an appropriate way.

If you think that your child demonstrates exceptional skill and accomplishment in a particular area but do not know for sure, get out there and seek additional opinions.  Start by asking yourself who, if anyone, has recognized your child’s level of performance.  I still have a box of athletic trophies from my years of captaining my high school’s gymnastics team—but we stood out at the “Bad News Bears” of our league and all my trophies laud effort rather than results.  Even my mother, looking through her rose-colored glasses, could not have misinterpreted my athletic awards as a sign that a college or university gymnastics team would want to recruit me.  If your child’s lacrosse team has won the state finals, however, or if her mathematics team has achieved national ranking, talk to the coach, teacher, or instructor who shares your recognition of your child’s accomplishments and get a real sense of where your child falls among her peers.

It pays to ask.  Take one of my former clients, a committed volleyball player who came to me as a junior in high school.  She was playing on a junior national team, which suggests talent, but her team had a losing record.  Her parents did not know how attractive she would look to college coaches, so they started talking to her junior national coach and seeking out scouts at her tournaments.  They learned that the coach had been receiving letters of interest about her, primarily from Division III schools, and enlisted a professional to help their daughter put together a game tape and an athletic resume.  (I recommend Catherine Gordon, who has done great work for my clients.)  My client gained early admission to her first-choice college, in large part because the volleyball coach there had designated her as a top recruit.

The earlier you and your child recognize a potentially recruitable skill set, the more you can do to cultivate it.  Another past client of mine, a young woman who began working with me in her freshman year of high school, showed signs at a young age of extraordinary talent in tennis.  She took lessons and played in tournaments throughout middle school, but then took some time off from the game as she adjusted to her new high school.  There, she joined the tennis team but found the level of play disappointing.  She decided to drop the team in favor of the tournament circuit again (with private coaching) with the express goal of gaining a national ranking and preparing herself for possible college play.

Student athletes who are approaching the college application period and do not have access to private coaches or national scouts can use a little elbow grease to find out where they stand compared with their athletic peers.  A javelin thrower with whom I was working had a good sense of schools that might want him because he had visited dozens of college websites, looked for javelin throwers of similar height and weight, and had compared his performance statistics to theirs.  He concluded based on the information he gathered that he compared favorably to javelin throwers at middle to lower ranked Division III schools (rank in this case refers to athletic standing).

Many college websites provide detailed information on how a candidate can contact coaches to bring herself to their attention.  Swarthmore College, for example, has an entire area of its website devoted to athletic recruiting, including an inspirational video, video introductions to student athletes who chose Swarthmore, and contact information to facilitate connecting with the coach of any varsity sport on campus.  Look for similar information on the websites of the colleges and universities on your child’s list.  Consider also sending your child to attend summer sports clinics at her top choice colleges, as these summer sessions give her direct access to coaches and allow them to see her play.  Remember that the NCAA regulates when college coaches may initiate formal recruiting discussions with students, so you will need to respect that timeframe.

College websites also provide invaluable guidelines for students with skills and talents in other areas, outside of athletics, such as artists, dancers, actors, musicians, and filmmakers.  Admissions offices generally want candidates to prepare samples of their work according to specific guidelines and to submit those samples online.  Each institution has its own procedures and protocols for these submissions.  Take a look at Duke’s website, for example.  If a university website does not provide instructions, have your child call the admissions office to find out where and how to submit materials for evaluation.

In the same way that my volleyball client’s parents sought guidance from their coach, your student artist or performer can seek input about the caliber of her work from her orchestra leader, choral director, fine arts instructor, or other person under whom she is studying—a step that I would recommend prior to preparing a formal submission.  Once again, keep in mind the size of the universe to which this person is referring.  Saying that your child compares favorably with previous students of his who went on to study at premier conservatories or fine arts institutes differs substantially from identifying your child as a standout among all the students whom he has taught in introductory art at the high school.  As with athletics, recognition of your child’s particular artistic or musical skill set rises in value as the pool of students with whom she is being compared increases in scope and level of performance (state champion outranks city and national outranks state, etc.).  It is worth noting that coaches transmit to admissions officers the final list of their recruits, but generally do not spend time going over students in whom they have no interest.  Submissions of art, music, film, and other types of evaluated work, however, can result in a formal evaluation from the relevant department going into your child’s folder.  In those cases, a mediocre or poor assessment of her work gets considered as part of the admissions discussion.