College Recruiting: Not Just For Athletics

Most high school students, and their parents, are quite familiar with the fact that great (and sometimes, mediocre) athletes can get recruited to colleges by virtue of their athletic abilities, accomplishments, and potential. What most people aren’t familiar with, though, is what the process of “getting recruited” actually entails. What’s even more of a mystery to most people is that athletics isn’t the only ticket to college admissions.

There are many different kinds of unique “hooks” that students might have to help them get into college. Each process of gaining traction with those “hooks” has subtly different contours and consequences, but for each, the underlying principle is the same: colleges are looking for a diverse and talented incoming class.

Speech and debate, often considered “the academic sport” because of the intense preparation and competitive spirit that characterizes the activity, is one of the best “hooks” you can have when applying to college. Naturally, the parallels to athletic recruiting are abundant.

Just as in athletics, there are three major categories of college “recruiting” activity: (1) recruiting with guaranteed admission and a full scholarship, (2) recruiting with guaranteed admission and no scholarship, and (3) preferred admissions “walk-on” situations.

The first two categories are fairly self-explanatory, and are much less common in the world of speech and debate than they are in athletics, but they still do exist. For instance, USC offers full tuition scholarship and admissions help for policy debaters. Schools like Dartmouth and Harvard, however, are more similar to “walk-on” situations with preferred admissions. This means that if you are a debate prospect coveted by the debate coach at one of those schools, they will often send a ranked list or compilation of recommendations for a list of preferred candidates to the admissions office.

According to my own experience and the collective experiences of the 45 former admissions officers on the InGenius Prep team, the “admissions bump” that you get from this endorsement from the school’s debate coach varies significantly from school to school depending on the debate program’s history and relationship with the current admissions officers. The best way to find out as much as you can about the school you are interested in is to network with debate coaches and judges that you encounter over the years and to talk to debaters or former debaters at those colleges. Just like athlete have to go to camps and go out and advertise themselves to coaches to get college recruiting attention, so will you have to network and posture for similar attention. With several former debaters and admissions officers familiar with the “bump” that debate can give your application on staff, the inGenius undergraduate admissions counselors can help you navigate through the process.

Personally, I am convinced that debate was the reason that I got into Dartmouth after being deferred in the early admissions cycle. In fact, the Dean of Admissions at Dartmouth relayed to a college counselor at my high school that “we have a debater at your school that we are very interested in admitting” a month or two before my acceptance later came in the mail. Of course, debate wasn’t single-factor that got me in, but it most definitely put me over the edge as a candidate who was otherwise on the bubble numerically speaking. Dozens other debaters and debate coaches over the years have relayed similar stories to me, and the former admissions officers at InGenius Prep have verified their extremely favorable view of successful high school debaters.

The reasons for this favorable view align very closely with the reason that we counsel our candidacy-building students to aim for excellence in activities that are both intrinsically and extrinsically valuable.

An activity is intrinsically valuable if participation in it (and especially success in it) demonstrates important qualities about a student. For instance, the captain of a state-championship winning football team, by virtue of his position and accomplishment, must be respected by his peers, valued for his leadership and dedication, and must clearly be someone who works relentlessly at his craft. Likewise, a successful high school policy debater usually has graduate-level research and communication skills, a voracious appetite for knowledge, and fierce competitive spirit, ability to think on his/her feet, and a willingness to accept constructive feedback. In both examples, these skills translate very well to success academically, personally, and later, professionally.

On the other hand, an activity is extrinsically valuable in that more tangibly demonstrates that you can make a distinct contribution to some activity or group in that college. In the football example, the state-championship winning football captain would almost certainly make an impact on the field playing for the college’s football team. Similarly, a school with a strong debate program will want to have an incredibly successful high school debater on its squad.

Aside from the overwhelming anecdotal evidence of my experiences and those of my peers, and the confirmation of dozens of former admissions officers hailing from the most elite universities in the world, the list of former debaters in positions of power in just about every industry imaginable speaks volumes about the value of debate. Here are just a few names as food for thought: Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Lugar, George McGovern, Hillary Clinton, Karl Rove, Ted Sorenson, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Tom Ridge, Malcolm X, Kofi Annan, lee Iacocca, Ted Turner, Arianna Huffington, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Brad Bitt, Alan Dershowitz, Johnny Cochran, Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, and Antonin Scalia.

About the Author


David Mainiero, Co-Founder and Director of Operations of InGenius Prep, is an experienced educator and academic and admissions counselor with over almost a decade of experience helping students unlock their potential and achieve their dreams. Having founded and run multiple and small businesses, David has a strong entrepreneurial track record.

He graduated from Dartmouth College Summa Cum Laude with Highest Honors in History with a focus on Nationalism in the Near East and was inducted as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Several years later, he earned a JD from Harvard Law School. To this day, he believes that the most important moments in his own education were learning with his peers during his time as a Policy Debater in high school and college.

David knows firsthand what success looks like and how to achieve it; his passion to help students discover their own passions and realize their fullest potential motivates him to travel all around the world to share his visions for educational access.