College Admissions Essays
How to Write About Your Sport–Or Think Again
If you are a serious athlete, and intend to play your sport in college, it’s hard to pick a topic for your college application essay that’s not related to your sport.
Chances are, this sport has consumed much of your life for at least the last four years.
Ironically, that is why you should do your best to find something else to write about in your college essay.
The goal of these essays is to show schools that you are a unique, multifaceted individual, and not just “a tennis player,” or “a swimmer” or “a football player.”
They want to know what else you care about, how you think and what you value–besides sports.
In your college application, it will be clear that you care deeply about your sport and excel at it.
So you really don’t need to focus on that any further.
The college essay is your chance to show your other sides, qualities, strengths and interests. Write about one of those. WARNING: Do not write about “The Big Win” or “How I Won the State Championship.”
You do not need to strut your stuff in these essays. Humility goes a long way.
For help finding other topic ideas, check out my topic brainstorm guide or my tips on summer jobs as topics or how to find a topic if you don’t think you have anything to write about.
However, if no other topic jumps out at you, and you keep coming back to your main sport as a topic, here are some ways to write about your sport and still show other parts of yourself:
Pick a quality that you want to highlight that you feel makes you effective at your sport. Then find a story or examples of this quality outside of playing your sport.
Example: You are a leader when you play water polo. That’s great. But think about some other area in your life where you have developed leadership qualities.
Try to find a time when you encountered a challenge, obstacle or problem that forced you to step up as a leader. Search for examples in your classes, or in a summer job, or with your family or something else you like to do.
Write your essay telling about that experience, and if you want, mention how those leadership skills also come into play in your water polo career.
This way, you have shown that you are a rounded individual, but that all your strengths enhance your favorite passion–water polo.
You can use this approach for almost any sport–dance, volleyball, football, track, baseball, etc. Just look for a quality or characteristic that is central to who you are, and find other places where you have used or developed it–outside your sport.
Here are some possible qualities–passion, discipline, supporting role, team player, funny, determination, patience, timing, control, flexibility, originality, ambition, strength, focus, speed, endurance, drive, humility, on and on.
Think about how some of your strengths in your sport have a figurative side, something you could spin into a metaphor.
Here are some other examples of ways to stretch your sport into a metaphor:
Football: You are a defense guy on the team. Your job is to always protect the quarterback and help him succeed.
Do you play this role in other ways in your life, say, with friends or family? Or maybe you are the opposite in real life, and take a more offensive role. Why is that?
Do you like that about yourself?
Dance: You are all about movement and grace and self-expression on the dance floor. You are super disciplined, almost to a fault. Are there other parts of your life where you let down your hair?
That could make an interesting essay. It’s unexpected.
That a ballerina also loves Hip Hop and Rap.
See if you have a passion that is the opposite of what people might expect of you–and Boom, great essay topic!
Track: You run the 100 meter dash faster than most people.
Are there any parts in your life where your speed has served you well? Or, maybe take the opposite approach–are there times when you find it’s best to go slow, and be deliberate and smell the roses? Why is that?
Could be a good essay.
Just give an example, and then share how you think about it.
Here are more ways to take a literal quality and turn it into something figurative or metaphorical:
Flexibility: As a gymnast, you are super flexible, physically, literally. But how flexible–in a figurative sense–are you in other parts of your life?
Think of an example from your past, whether you are flexible or not, and analyze that. (This could be your essay.)
Has your literal flexibility affected your figurative flexibility in any way? How? Is it a good thing? Why?
Endurance: In cross country, you can run forever, and how to pace yourself. How do you pace yourself in other areas of your life? Why is this important? How did you learn this?
Discipline: In baseball season, you workout daily at 6 a.m. at the gymn, or run the hill five times a week to get in shape. But it also can mean good study habits or making time for other things you value.
Were you always self-disciplined? How did you learn this life skill? Is it possible to be too disciplined? Is there any area in your life where you break your own rules?
Powerful: You can kick the soccer ball into the goal from across the field, but how powerful are you in your relationships with friends and family and others?
What is real power?
Control: You are amazing at getting the golf ball in the hole, but how do you control other things in your life.
What have you learned in other areas about the nature of control–maybe, sometimes you have to understand you can’t control everything?
Good Timing: This can mean everything in many sports.
Chances are you have good timing in your sport.
But are there other areas in your life where your timing has been off? How have you dealt with that? Is it sometimes okay to have bad timing?
Hope this has gotten you thinking!
If you have an idea you like, take a stab at it and write it up. Chances are, it’s good stuff!
If any of these tips and advice helped you with your college essay,
please take a few seconds and use bottons below to share this post and my helpful blog!
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The essay is perhaps the most daunting part of college applications, alongside standardized tests. SATs and essays essentially act as bookends to the admissions process. While students will not be let in on their SAT or ACT scores alone, for many selective colleges these results function at least as a simple “sorting hat” that divides the possible admits from the merely hopeful. Similarly, while an outstanding personal essay will probably not overcome the weight of poor grades or lukewarm letters of recommendation, they help admission officers choose from among a surfeit of strong candidates.
They’re mattering a lot more. The percentage of all colleges, public and private, for which the essay is a significant factor in selectivity, has increased from 14% in 1993 to 25% in 2012, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling in its latest annual report. Inevitably, the more selective private institutions with their growing pools of high-performing applicants tend to review applications more holistically and, therefore, place the most emphasis on non-quantitative elements such as the personal statement.
Given the opaque but obviously significant role of personal essays in American applications, it is not surprising that a recent blog post that revealed essays written by students admitted to Columbia’s class of 2017 elicited the vitriolic response that it did. While some decried the release of these “sacred texts” and the public mockery of their young writers, others pointed to the banality, absorption and self-aggrandizement of the published examples.
Admission officers at highly selective institutions like Columbia are well aware of the skill, social breadth and intellectual depth they can reasonably expect from some of the world’s highest performing students. But they also remain deeply conscious that they are poring over the writings of high school children.
Meanwhile, a recent decision by the Common Application (the online application used by 400 universities) to radically overhaul the personal statement has once again highlighted the role of the essay in an American college application. Some counselors responded strongly to the new absence of an open-ended “topic of your choice,” while others sighed in relief on behalf of admission officers who will have fresh horizons of teenage angst to explore as questions change each year. Many others, including me, have pointed out that the new questions are effectively asking students to address the same essential ideas, and perhaps that is a good thing.
Inevitably, as admission officers slog through literally thousands of essays, they will continue to develop a personal catalog of the kind of essays that annoy, bore or simply leave the reader cold. In my own experience as a former Ivy League admission officer, the worst college essays tend to fall into definable categories within which they can be tagged by type. They leave the reader with questions about the creativity, good judgment and depth of the writer.
- The road less traveled is oddly crowded. The problem with countless essays about courageously traveling off the beaten path and boldly exploring new places is not that admission readers will doubt the students’ sincerity, but rather the fact that teenagers usually lack the perspective to know that notwithstanding their desire to be different, others have already arrived at the same places, explored the same worlds, and wrote essays about it.
- Poor but happy peasants. Summer trips and mission tours to exotic locales, both overseas and in the Deep South, have become grist for the college essays of both affluent Americans and their counterparts in countries like France and Singapore, where students still refer to their activities by blunt reference to “charity” work. However good their intentions, or those of the parents footing the big bills, these students’ essays often persuade readers that their experiences have been so sheltered that they return home with no deeper understanding of the impact of their unequal access to resources on those they went to serve.
- I have overcome. Many students apply to US colleges having struggled against and having overcome astonishing odds. Such inspirational accounts leave those who have lived happy, secure lives casting around, however, for a hook on which to hang their own stories of growth and change. Admission officers will not doubt the sting a teenager felt on being overlooked for the varsity captaincy or on scoring a poor grade, but they can and do expect bright 17-year-olds to take the relative measure of their suffering.
- Take me to your leader. Given their recruitment pitches, admission officers often have only themselves to blame when they are deluged by essays in which students treat leadership not as a process in which they participate and their hard work is reflected in the regard of their peers, but as a trophy to achieve and display on the mantle piece that is a college resume.
In contrast, admission officers will recall great essays in specific details. The teenager who sits on a Queens rooftop at night to ponder her city; the Boston boy who sees in the condition of his mother’s feet, her sacrifices on the factory floor on his behalf; the wannabe comic honing his skills in comedy clubs, usually with mixed success; the mathematician trying to describe the beauty he sees in Mandelbrot sets—these are essays I still remember because each offered a distinctive insight into the specific experience of an individual teenage life. But even the exceptional essays play a role only within a broader narrative that encompasses all the academic and social choices a student made throughout high school. They are the exclamation points to that story, not the centerpiece.
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