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Stanford Athletics and College Admissions


Stanford University has officially won its 17th Consecutive Division I Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup. The Directors’ Cup is an award given annually to the colleges and universities with the most success in collegiate athletics, segmented by division, with Division I being the most athletically competitive. Stanford finished with 1550.25 points, well ahead of Ohio State which finished second with 1227.05 points. Stanford won national titles in men’s gymnastics, women’s water polo, and women’s lightweight crew, extending their streak of winning at least one national title to an eye-popping 35 consecutive years. They also placed second in women’s soccer, women’s tennis and women’s rowing. While some may argue that Stanford only does well in the “country club” sports, they also finished ranked #4 in football, #4 in women’s basketball, #9 in baseball and #9 in softball. 18 of their 35 programs finished ranked in the top ten.

Given their extremely high academic standards, Stanford’s dominance on the field may come as a surprise to many given the stereotype that athletes are not very intelligent. For many athletes who are celebrated throughout their youth careers and given free passes by teachers and administrators, the thought of going to one of the best research universities in the world and sitting in class with future billionaires and Nobel Laureates may seem a bit daunting. However, Stanford targets the students who do extraordinarily well academically and athletically, and it is that unique mixture of academic and athletic excellence that allows Stanford to stand alone.*

Stanford’s resurgence in football over the past few years has been a remarkable story and highlights Stanford’s unique position. Jim Harbaugh, the recently departed football coach understood the challenges of recruiting elite athletes who had their eyes on professional football and not on higher level engineering courses. He said that unlike most major football programs he was severely limited on which athletes who could recruit, as there were no more than a couple hundred in the nation in a given year that would be able to gain admittance into the university. Harbaugh, and his successor David Shaw, and the coaches of the other teams at Stanford have therefore made the academics of Stanford a key selling point in their recruiting efforts.  In a Wall Street Journal article titled Stanford Corners the ‘Smart’ Market, it was said that there are “about a dozen blue-chip recruits who—based on their reported grades, test scores and extracurricular activities—are also elite students”. Stanford aggressively recruited that dozen, and four of them decided to enroll at Stanford. Stanford also landed three of the five finalists for the Franklin Waters Award, which goes to the top African-American scholar athlete in the nation.

Becoming an elite athlete typically requires the confluence of parents who allow their children to participate in sports that are suited to their unique talents, intense focus and dedication to training, and fortunate genetics. Obviously, unless the parents were tremendously talented athletes as well, parents shouldn’t bank on their children using their athletic talents to get them into Stanford.  However, one need not be an elite athlete to gain the admissions advantage of athletics to get into the other top colleges and universities in the country. Harvard, Yale and Princeton are outstanding academic institutions, and they want to field competitive teams as well. There are very few football players in the Ivy League that would be able to make the Stanford roster, yet the Ivy League provides more favorable admissions advantages to their athletes than Stanford does. 20% of the 7,000 undergraduates at Harvard College are student athletes, so the benefit is not nominal. For those who are not athletically talented enough to compete in the Ivy League, there are some excellent schools in Division III, such as Williams, Amherst and MIT.**

Sports can be an excellent means of developing your child’s various intelligences (bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal), to develop self-confidence, to enable them to stay socially active, and to encourage a healthy lifestyle. It can also be a great way for them to work their way into a selective college or university even if they don’t become an elite athlete.


* The only university that can hold a candle to Stanford is Duke which finished ranked a distant 5th in the Directors’ Cup and is 9th in the US News college rankings.

** The following teams were ranked in the top 15 in the Division III Directors’ Cup ranking as well as in the top fifteen of the US News rankings for national universities or liberal arts colleges:

  • Williams (#1 Directors’ Cup, #1 US News – liberal arts)
  • Middlebury (#2 Directors’ Cup, #4 US News – liberal arts)
  • Washington University in St. Louis (#3 Directors’ Cup, #13 US News – national university)
  • Amherst (#4 Directors’ Cup, #2 US News – liberal arts)
  • Johns Hopkins (#8 Directors’ Cup, #13 US News – national university)
  • MIT (#11 Directors’ Cup, #7 US News – national university)



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