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Getting in: Athletes’ road to admission

Four years after early decision was abolished at Princeton, Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye still sends out letters each winter to a select group of Princeton applicants effectively guaranteeing their admission, barring a drop-off in academic performance or disciplinary issues in the ensuing months. The vast majority are singled out because they excel at sports.

The University has a long and proud history of sporting excellence, and its athletic program is widely considered the most successful in the Ivy League. Though no longer a national contender in football, the most prominent college sport, the broader athletics program regularly wins national championships in sports like crew, squash and lacrosse.


While coaching and training are important, the key to maintaining this performance is recruiting top athletes out of high school. Since Princeton, like all Ivy League schools, cannot offer athletic scholarships, its recruiting process consists of an extensive national outreach effort and culminates in the mailing of likely letters.

“Likely letters are used in lieu of [athletic] scholarships,” Rapelye explained. “Athletes often have scholarship offers from other schools, and the only way they can turn down that offer and accept ours is for us to issue a likely letter.”

The only other students to receive likely letters apply via the Questbridge program for low-income students. No applicants receive this treatment for scholastic prowess alone.

While nearly every athlete on Princeton’s radar is also sought by Ivy League competitors and other colleges, the athletics program is quite effective at enrolling those who are recruited, selected by coaches and ultimately given likely letters. Between 92 and 94 percent of these applicants matriculate, Rapelye said. This rate is more than 35 percentage points higher than the overall yield for students admitted to the Class of 2014.

Coaches target the best athletes they can find who also meet the University’s admission standards, but many recipients of Rapelye’s likely letters have test scores or grades slightly lower than the average admitted student, the athletics department confirmed.

Deputy Dean of the College Peter Quimby said the determining factor for a student-athlete’s admission is whether his or her academic abilities are in line with those of the student body.


“Student-athletes at Princeton have to be within one standard deviation of the mean of the academic population as a whole,” Quimby said of the entire group. “In other words, the student-athlete has to look like the rest of the undergraduate population.”

The Ivy League requires that the average of athletic recruits’ scores on the Academic Index, a 240-point scale that combines SAT scores and class rank, must fall within one standard deviation of the mean score of admitted students.

Quimby was quick to point out that Princeton does not use any kind of tiered system that applies different admission standards to student-athletes, which is the case at larger Division I programs. “Our student-athletes are also great Princeton students,” he said. “That just wouldn’t be true at other institutions. It’s a completely different realm.”

The University, however, takes advantage of the scholastic leeway afforded to athletes by the Ivy League and incorporates applicants’ athletic prowess into admission decisions. While the average Academic Index for recruited athletes is around 214, it is roughly 228 for all enrolled students, according to Director of Athletics Gary Walters ’67.

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Though students generally do not take the SAT until late in their junior year of high school, and class rankings can fluctuate, Princeton’s coaches generally begin evaluating athletes early in their high school careers, following a trend started by other Division I schools.

“Now [the recruiting process] has moved forward even more, to where sophomores are being recruited at the beginning of their sophomore year,” explained Tyler Fiorito ’12, the lacrosse team’s goalkeeper and the nation’s No. 2 recruit as a high school senior. “I went to recruiting camps the summer before my junior year, and people thought that was early. But now it’s been pushed forward even more.”

While some coaches attend elite summer recruiting camps to spot talented players in sports such as lacrosse and soccer, others must rely on recruits’ performances for club or high school teams.

For the women’s basketball team, which earned the highest seed ever for an Ivy League team in last year’s NCAA tournament and looks to be even stronger this year, many recruits are targeted as early as their freshman or sophomore year in high school.

“Most kids we start seeing in freshman summers on the road,” said Courtney Banghart, head coach of the team. “It’s not always true, but at this level, you get on our radar early.”

To assemble her Class of 2015, Banghart and her staff began last winter, spending countless hours traveling to their games at high school gymnasiums and speaking with them over the phone for the last few months. One star she has already secured is Mariah Smith, a 6-foot-1-inch wing from Illinois who is the 57th best player nationally, according to ESPN rankings. To locate such talent, the coaches struck out on a cross-country trip, attending prestigious high school basketball camps and contacting potential recruits.

Yet on these trips, coaches are barred from speaking with high school underclassmen about their programs.  These athletes must visit Princeton’s campus in order to speak with coaches, and they must pay for the trips themselves.

On July 1, rising high school seniors can be officially contacted by coaches, setting off a frenzy of activity across the country.

“We’re gone the full month of July,” Banghart said of her staff. “We spend 28 nights in a Marriott, all three of us, all July.”

Once coaches identify players that might be good fits for their team and are likely to meet the University’s admission standards, the next step is to invite recruits to visit campus early in their senior year for official visits, which are financed by the athletics department.

More recruits are brought to campus than will eventually be offered spots on the teams, and some are successfully recruited by other schools at this phase.

In order to sign as many of their preferred recruits as possible, coaches design visits that highlight the best aspects of their programs and of the University. Many athletes said that it was on these visits that they decided to attend Princeton.

Tommy Wornham ’12, who was the starting quarterback on the football team this year until he was sidelined with a broken collarbone, said the personal attention he received while visiting campus was “huge.” He added that coaches were “very honest,” encouraging him to spend time with players and ask questions.

But differentiating between programs all offering their best sales pitch can be difficult. “So many people tell you so many different things ... Everyone’s a nice guy, coaches at every school are going to be nice, everyone has something different to offer,” said Kareem Maddox ’11, a starting forward on the basketball team.

Maddox said he decided to come to Princeton upon seeing that players on the team had “their priorities in line,” focusing on their schoolwork when not in the gym.

Once coaches finish evaluating their recruits, they attempt to build classes that balance athletic and academic talent. First, they select those athletes who would make the biggest contributions to their team and meet the University’s academic standards. Sometimes, the stars of a recruiting class also have among the highest Academic Index scores, but generally coaches raise their recruiting class’s overall academic profile as they fill out the class.

The department must also balance academic and athletic talents across teams to ensure that standards are met across the entire athletic program. This is because the Ivy League requirement — that the average Academic Index score for recruited athletes falls within one standard of deviation of the student body’s mean — is applied at the University level, rather than for each team. This is particularly important for sports with recruiting classes that can be as small as a few students per year. For example, if two golf recruits are slightly below the overall athletic program’s target for a given year, this can be offset by recruiting academic stars in tennis. 

The Academic Index is used for all sports at Princeton that compete for official Ivy League championships, which excludes sports like men’s volleyball and water polo. The Ivy League requires individual students to have an Academic Index of at least 171.

One sport, however, has a unique set of standards: football.

In “Playing the Game,” his 2004 book on athletic recruiting in the Ivy League, Chris Lincoln described the Ivy League standards for football recruits. Given a maximum recruiting class of 30 players, recruits are divided into four Academic Index bands: At least eight players must fall into the top band, which ranges from a perfect 240 to one standard deviation below the average for admitted students. Twelve can fall into the second band, which goes down to two standard deviations below the mean. Eight players can fit in the third band, with scores as low as two-and-a-half standard deviations below the mean. Coaches can also recruit up to two students with even lower scores, but Lincoln pointed out that this is extremely rare.

When asked about Princeton’s policies on the Academic Index, Walters decried what he called the “tyranny of numbers,” referring to an institutionalized over-reliance on numeric scores in recruiting.

While the Academic Index and other standardized metrics provide coaches with a mechanism to quantify the academic abilities of student-athletes, they are less of a determinative factor for admission at Ivy League schools than at larger Division I institutions.

“We have to worry less and less about the Academic Index, because there’s never been a time in the history of Ivy League where the academic credentials of the athletes ... is closer to that of the student body,” Walters explained.

This is the second in a four-part series on the lives of student-athletes at Princeton. Tomorrow, a look on balancing athletics and academics.

Correction: The print edition of this story states that women's basketball head coach Courtney Banghart began speaking with recruits last winter, when in fact she did not begin official contacts until she was permitted to do so by NCAA rules.