Brian Underwood: Using your foot and not your ego for door to college admission

It’s one thing to try to get a foot in the door in life, but it’s quite another to try to sneak in the back door.

That’s what a number celebrities, captains of industry, college coaches, and one bold private college counseling executive found out the hard way last week in the fallout of the college admissions scandal that captured headlines.

There are, indeed, some legitimate and lesser known portals to college admissions that offer uniquely talented and strategically angled students the chance to be considered for admission within the guidelines for all candidates. These, however, do not involve “pay to play” for admission, or paying to have insiders alter SAT answer sheets for improved scores.

This was the path some of society’s A-listers chose when colluding with the president of a Newport Beach, California college planning company, some corrupt insiders at a few SAT testing centers, and a handful of unscrupulous college coaches who collectively accepted money under the table from the rich and famous to illegally arrange admission for celebrity children. Including a couple of kids who, reportedly, didn’t want to even be there.

The stain these improprieties caused will, presumably, prompt some level of reform in college admissions practices. What is worth pointing out, though, is the presence of legitimate admission considerations all students have the right to pursue based on their unique gifts and talents in conjunction with established university policies, and emerging opportunities they may have.

Now, with a few exceptions, the institutions associated with the illegal admissions scandal were private liberal arts schools. This is likely due to the more holistic approach such schools observe in their admissions practices.

The ability that liberal art schools have to consider admissions factors beyond grade point average and test scores, unlike most state systems, generally allows for a wider admissions perspective. Regardless of the type of school, students understanding the value of early networking and actively engaging the appropriate individuals at their preferred schools, within their passion zone, can play a positive role in admissions, or even later once a student is enrolled.

College athletics is definitely a visible port of entry to a university for aspiring student-athletes. However, students and parents must know that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reported last year that only 6 percent of 7.3 million high school athletes receive an opportunity to play in one of the NCAA’s three levels (e.g. D1, D2, D3), and only 2 percent of aspiring high school athletes receive athletically-related aid.

Extrapolating things further, the NCAA also reported that only 2 percent of all NCAA student-athletes move from college sports to the professional level. That means that only 9,840 out of 7.3 million high school student-athletes last year will go on to play professional sports. That percentage is 0.0013.

With this sort of recognition, high school athletes who are not being actively recruited (Test: when is the last time a school called and how consistently has it called?) and wanting to stay connected to the sports world might consider researching some of the supporting roles and careers connected to the athletic world.

Students interested in pursuing things like sports medicine/athletic training, sports information (e.g media), marketing, and business/management, to name a few, should personally reach out to administrators of these areas at the colleges they want to attend and express interest in being involved. University athletic departments want and need student assistance, and the experience can be incredible.

For those interested in teaching and coaching, they should first be committed to studying/mastering a core subject (English, math, science, etc) to have solid options in the future. Non-traditional majors can be hard to parlay into teaching jobs, and college coaching jobs are nearly as hard to come by as earning scholarships.

The next step for one enthusiastic about coaching is to contact one of the lead assistant coaches of their sport of choice at their top schools. It’s almost always one of the lead assistants, or a program’s operations manager, who typically manages student assistants, managers, or digital media personnel.

Formally contacting a program about potential involvement should occur after a full checklist of application materials has been sent to demonstrate investment when asked about this. However, if a student knows now that he/she wants to teach and coach, and he/she has “dream schools” already in mind, why not contact one of the lead assistants now about working a summer camp as a counselor, etc.

Making these types of inquiries may, or may not, result in priority admission, but it can. Relationships matter, and all this is about creating relationships. If these recommended steps do not result in a tangible benefit now at an institution, advanced networking might later on lead to an undergraduate role in the department once admission is secured, which could later mean such things as priority registration, team travel, and other benefits.

These ideas reflect things I’ve seen and also facilitated early in my career as a college coach and administrator. I know and understand the desire students have to keep running, jumping, hitting, catching, and vaulting, etc., because I was part of the 98 percent who, frankly, wasn’t good enough to be part of the 2 percent. What I did learn is how to consider other ways to be involved in the world of sports, which I dearly loved. But I also learned something else, and much more valuable.

There are no shortcuts to getting to where you want to go in life. It takes unwavering integrity, an uncommon work ethic, and the ability to get up off the mat when you’ve been knocked down. This is what a worthwhile life connected to sports teaches. Not backdoor politics.

Brian Underwood is director of school development at Sierra Lutheran High School.


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