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What Sports Can Help You Gain Admission to Top Colleges?

Varsity sports have long been a steadfast element of U.S. college life. Students rally around their college’s team, providing a great way to unwind from the stress of studies and fostering a deeper sense of affinity with their university and peers. Members of the public often also attend matches of the more popular sports, which helps elevate the reputation of a school and brings in extra revenue. And for the athletes themselves, not only do varsity sports offer an unparalleled chance to dive deep into their passion and potentially be recruited to the professional leagues, but for top athletes, varsity sports can also be a ticket to a free or discounted college education.

All across the United States, top colleges offer scholarships for athletes in various sports, allowing the top contenders in different athletic domains to study for free or at a steep discount in exchange for representing the university on the field. This gives athletes a competitive advantage over other university applicants, as academic performance is far less important. But the world of varsity sports and athletic scholarships is itself highly competitive, and some sports are more likely than others to help you secure admission to a top college.

Why Sports Differ in College Admissions Competitiveness

Various factors play into the college admissions process of a student-athlete, and since the circumstances surrounding each sport differ, so too do the nuances around securing athletic scholarships for each given sport. It’s a delicate balance of supply and demand.

On one hand, you have to consider how popular your sport is as a varsity sport. For some sports, you’ll find teams and athletic scholarships at nearly any university in the country, whereas others are more niche, and you may have to look harder to find colleges offering slots. The more popular your sport is, the easier it will be to find athletic scholarship opportunities, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into admission.

Universities also offer a different number of slots for different types of athletes. The more popular a sport is or the more important it is to that given university, the more slots there are that are likely to be available. In some cases, universities offer admissions slots for entire teams, increasing your chances to play your way to college. Look into how many slots are available for your sport for each university you’re considering.

The number of universities catering to your sport, and the number of slots each one offers for athletes in your field, represent the demand, which is offset by the supply: the more people who play your sport, the more competition you face. Typically, the highest-demand sports also have the highest supply, making it hard to rise to the top, even if the opportunities themselves abound.

Play to Your Strengths

While it’s a fact that some sports offer a stronger competitive advantage in university admissions than others, you shouldn’t necessarily switch games in the hopes of impressing college administrators. Even in the sports that offer the highest chances of admission, it requires remarkable skill to earn one of the few coveted slots any given college offers. You’re competing against athletes who have poured countless years of blood, sweat, and tears into polishing their skills, and many possess natural talent or attributes that give them an automatic advantage. If you’re after an athletic scholarship but specialize in a highly competitive sport, rather than pivoting to a new domain, it’s best to focus on how you can succeed in your own field.

Understanding the Gender Imbalance

The world of sports can differ significantly between the genders, and that’s reflected in the admissions process for student-athletes in different sports. Some sports have traditionally been the domain of one gender or the other, and the popularity of different sports are often not equal between the genders. If you play a sport that’s less popular for your gender, you’ll have less competition and will therefore have a higher chance of securing an athletic scholarship.

The Hardest Sports to Get Recruited For


Football is the most popular sport in the US, including at the varsity level. The top football players are culturally celebrated in a way that usually isn’t seen in other sports. Most high-end universities have a football team and offer several athletic scholarships to recruit promising new talent, but the competition is ferocious, so you have to be at the top of your game to make it. Football may lose popularity in the long term due to safety concerns, but for now, prospective varsity football players face steep hurdles to securing an athletic scholarship.

Baseball, Softball, Basketball, Soccer, Hockey

While not quite as popular as football, these major team sports are popular both to play and to watch, and that makes them hypercompetitive. Whether it’s for the men’s or women’s team, the sheer number of people you’re up against makes it hard to come out on top. Essentially, any sport that has a major professional league in the US will also be highly competitive at the college level.

Track and Field

Track and field collectively represents another popular varsity sport, with diverse events for different types of athletes. While the precise events within track and field are many, so are the athletes, especially among high schools. This means you’re competing against a lot of other people, and unlike team sports, where your skills can usually be judged more subjectively, success in track and field events is generally quite objective: the person who runs the fastest or jumps the highest wins. To secure an athletic scholarship for track and field, you truly have to be the best.

Men’s Wrestling

Wrestling is a relatively niche sport, but the stark gender imbalance renders it one of the most competitive sports to get recruited to a college for. Title IX states that U.S. colleges must provide equal opportunities for male and female athletes, and while that doesn’t mean they have to offer all the same sports for both genders, it does often entail balancing the overall numbers of male and female athletes. Since high schools typically only have a men’s wrestling team, this relatively uncommon sport is often sacrificed when universities are looking to address their athletic gender imbalance.

The Easiest Sports to Get Recruited For


Fencing is one of the bigger niche sports that you can be recruited for. Although demand is relatively low—not all colleges even have a fencing program, and the ones that do usually only recruit one or two athletes per gender for each academic year—supply is also low, with few fencers in the nation’s high schools. The supply–demand equation works out in favor of fencers (but, of course, you still need to be great at the sport to get an athletic scholarship).


Squash is similar to tennis but far less popular, both at the professional and varsity levels. It’s an indoor sport, where players take turns hitting the ball with their rackets against the walls. College recruitment for squash can be relatively competitive in the areas where it’s most popular, particularly in New England, but it’s still far less competitive than major sports like football. It’s also much less competitive in areas outside of New England.

Women’s Crew

Crew, also known as rowing, is a niche sport that can be relatively easy to earn a scholarship for if you’re good at it—and if you’re a woman. Universities will also recruit male rowers, but women’s crew has emerged as a prime strategy for colleges to balance out their male football teams, for which there is typically no female alternative. Skilled female rowers may find bountiful opportunities for their sport at universities around the country.


Equestrianism refers to sports involving horses and can include polo. Equestrianism tends to be disproportionately popular among women and thus constitutes an excellent way for universities to balance out their more male-dominated sports, like football or wrestling. Colleges usually don’t offer many slots for equestrian sports, but participation is also low at the high school level, so securing an athletic scholarship for you and your horse may be relatively easy, especially if you’re a woman.


Sailing is a niche sport even among niche sports, but still, you can find different universities across the country recruiting for sailing teams. While slots are severely limited, there’s more opportunity at the college level than at the high school level, which makes it easier for the few sailors out there to get recruited for their sailing skills.

Unofficial Sports

Even if your sport isn’t usually officially recognized at colleges, it may still give you a leg up in the admissions process. While you won’t be “recruited” or secure an athletic scholarship, your athletic achievements will be recognized as outstanding extracurricular activity, which can give you an advantage over other applicants.

Leveraging Your Sports Skills for the College Admissions Process

Pursuing college admissions is a stressful time for anyone, athlete or not. But if you’re a skilled athlete—whether in a major sport or a niche domain—your sports competencies can give you a significant advantage over your peers. The ease of university recruitment differs from sport to sport, but you still have to be a great athlete to earn a slot for any sport. This list is not meant to encourage or discourage you from pursuing any particular sport but rather to provide a basic overview of the outlook for different sports.

Many of the easier sports for recruitment—equestrianism or sailing, for instance—entail a high financial cost of participation, favoring wealthier students who have the resources to pursue such activities. Most likely, it’s precisely the prohibitive cost of these sports that result in their low participation at both the high school and university level, skewing the supply–demand balance in favor of the athletes. While it’s not fair that activities generally restricted to wealthier students are easier to be recruited for, the unfortunate reality is that the college admissions process isn’t always fair. Students—athletes or not—with fewer financial resources are advised to take advantage of financial aid programs, whether offered by individual universities, private donors, or the U.S. government.

Work with a College Consultant to Maximize Your Chances of Recruitment

We work with students from all walks of life, no matter their background and aspirations, helping them plan out their college life and secure admission to one of the many great universities in the United States. If you’re aiming for a coveted recruitment slot for your sport, we can help guide you through the journey. We’ll help you identify which universities are recruiting athletes in your sport and ways you can make yourself more competitive throughout high school, in addition to advising you on the conventional academic and financial aspects of your college applications.

Our college consultants are skilled and experienced individuals with a passion for helping ambitious youth achieve their college dreams. Reach out today for a free initial consultation to discuss your situation and goals.


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