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How Do Ivy League Schools Recruit? ACT/SAT Scores for Athletes


Are you a student-athlete hoping to play for an Ivy League school? Then you’re probably curious about the recruiting process. How do Ivy League schools recruit student-athletes? And how can you increase your odds of getting into an Ivy League school as a student-athlete?

Read on to learn what the general college recruiting process looks like and how it differs from Ivy League recruiting. After, we'll go over the basic academic requisites you must have to get into the Ivy League, and show you what the typical Ivy League recruiting timeline looks like.

Feature Image: Andrew Turner/Flickr 


How Does College Recruiting Work?

First off, what exactly is college recruiting and how does it work? College recruiting refers to the recruiting of student-athletes. Basically, it’s the process of colleges reaching out to current high school athletes (mainly those who have a lot of potential to do well in college-level sports) with the hopes of getting them to apply to and attend their school.

Many college sports teams are part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), a nonprofit organization that oversees more than 1,000 colleges and half a million student-athletes.

Here’s how the NCAA describes its recruiting process:

"Recruiting happens when a college employee or representative invites a high school student-athlete to play sports for their college. Recruiting can occur in many ways, such as face-to-face contact, phone calls or text messaging, through mailed or emailed material or through social media."

While colleges that are members of the NCAA may reach out to student-athletes directly, you, too, may initiate contact with colleges and/or coaches you’re interested in playing for.

You can read our other guide to learn more about how college athletics recruiting works, but for now, here’s a brief overview of the general recruiting process:

  • Step 1: College coaches make contact with high school student-athletes (or vice versa)
  • Step 2: Student-athletes visit college campuses to learn more about the schools' athletic programs
  • Step 3: Coaches visit high schools to evaluate student-athletes’ performances in their sports
  • Step 4: Colleges offer scholarships to the student-athletes they want to play for them
  • Step 5: The student-athlete makes a (non-binding) verbal commitment to play sports for a certain school
  • Step 6: The student signs a Letter of Intent, a document stating that the student plans to attend and play sports for a certain college in exchange for a one-year athletic scholarship

Next up, we’ll look at how Ivy League schools specifically recruit high school students for their college sports teams.


How Does Ivy League Recruiting Work? 4 Key Differences

We’ve gone over the general college recruiting process, but what about the Ivy League?

For the most part, the Ivy League recruiting process is very similar to the process described above. Like other schools, Ivy League schools take time to reach out to skilled high school athletes and evaluate their abilities in their respective sports. After, students offer a verbal commitment to attend the school before submitting their actual application for review.

In spite of these similarities, there are four key ways in which Ivy League recruiting differs from general college athletics recruiting. We’ll go over these here.


#1: Higher Academic and Athletic Expectations

As you likely know, the Ivy League is famous for its academic achievements, low acceptance rates, and top rankings on college lists. On the US News Best National Universities list, all Ivies are ranked among the top 15 colleges. In addition, acceptance rates for the Ivies range from just 15% (for Cornell) to as low as 6% (for Harvard). These high stakes are evidently part of the reason that academic expectations are so high for prospective student-athletes.

While you might assume that strong athletic skills are all you need to play for an Ivy League school, in reality you’ll need to also have top SAT/ACT scores, evidence of a challenging course load, strong transcripts, and an all-around impressive college application. (We’ll go into more detail later about what you need to have in order to get accepted to the Ivies as a student-athlete.)

But it’s vital not to forget the importance of athletics in the Ivy League, too. After all, the Ivy League was originally founded as a group of higher institutions that stressed both academics and athletics.

Here’s how the official Ivy League website describes the significance of athletics and student-athletes (all bold emphasis mine):

"Ivy League schools share a tradition of academic excellence and broad-based, successful NCAA Division I athletics. The Ivy League annually finishes among the top Division I athletics conferences in national competitive rankings, and Ivy League student-athletes earn the country’s best records in the NCAA Academic Performance Ratings, operating under the Ivy League model of athletics as a significant educational component of the student's undergraduate experience."

As this quotation emphasizes, the Ivy League isn’t just known for its academia but also for its NCAA Division I sports teams. (There are three divisions in the NCAA—Division I is the highest.) Therefore, what’s ultimately at stake for Ivy League schools when recruiting student-athletes are both their academic and athletic reputations.


body_yale_columbia_women_basketballWomen's basketball, Yale vs Columbia (kkimphotography/Flickr)


#2: No Athletic Scholarships—Only Need-Based

Unlike other NCAA colleges, the Ivy League schools do not give out any athletic scholarships to prospective student-athletes. Rather, they offer only need-based financial aid, and this goes for all applicants—not just student-athletes.

Here’s what the Ivy League itself says about this policy:

"Ivy League schools provide financial aid to students, including athletes, only on the basis of financial need as determined by each institution’s Financial Aid Office. There are no academic or athletic scholarships in the Ivy League. A coach may assist a prospective student-athlete to obtain an estimated financial aid award, however only the Financial Aid Office has the authority to determine financial aid awards and to notify students officially of their actual or estimated awards."

Ivy League schools often give estimates for need-based aid to prospective students and student-athletes. You may compare these offers with any other offers you receive from different schools (including other Ivies).


#3: The Academic Index (AI)

In order to determine which student-athletes are strong contenders for Ivy sports and academics, the Ivy League established a system called the Academic Index (AI). This point-based system is used to rank prospective student-athletes on the basis of academic factors, namely GPA and standardized test scores (SATs or ACTs). (It used to include class rank as well, but since fewer high schools calculate this, it’s no longer part of the AI.)

According to an article in The New York Times, the Ivies created this system in the 1980s as a way to ensure that "no vastly underqualified recruit has been admitted at a rival institution [another Ivy]."

While many are aware of the AI, how this number is ultimately calculated is largely a secret. It’s typically said to have a score range of 170 to 240, though other sources claim it uses smaller scales of 1-9 or 1-6, on which either the lowest or highest number is considered best. Due to the confidential nature of the AI, it can be difficult to determine whether you’re likely to qualify for admission as a student-athlete to an Ivy League school.

The New York Times article mentioned above states that student-athletes typically need at least a 3.0 GPA and an 1140 on the SAT (this is for the very old SAT from before 2004, however, so its relevance is debatable).

Additionally, the minimum AI required for Ivy League schools can vary widely depending on the institution. In other words, the AI needed for admission to Princeton is likely higher than the AI needed for admission to Penn, as Princeton is a higher-ranked Ivy with a lower acceptance rate.

You can look for Academic Index calculators online, but know that most are pretty inaccurate and won’t really help you figure out whether you’re on track to getting into the Ivy League as a student-athlete or not.


#4: The Likely Letter

The final big difference between the Ivy League recruiting process and the general college athletic recruiting process is what’s called the likely letter.

This letter is sometimes issued before an official admission decision is given out and basically just says that a student is very likely to be admitted, provided there are no sudden issues with the student’s college application, academic performance, etc.

Here’s what the Ivy League website states about likely letters:

"This letter means that as long as the applicant sustains the academic and personal record reflected in the completed application, the institution will send a formal admission offer on the appropriate notification date. Only the Admissions Office can issue a likely letter, and only after receiving a completed application and all required materials. Likely letters may not be issued prior to October 1 of the prospect’s senior year in high school."

Likely letters are often issued by Ivy League schools in place of Letters of Intent. Since Ivies don't offer any athletics-based financial aid, they cannot offer Letters of Intent (which specifically agree to give student-athletes admission and a year of athletics-based funding).

That said, note that likely letters are not always issued to prospective Ivy League student-athletes, and not getting one doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be admitted.

In addition to Ivy League schools, other tier-one colleges in the NCAA might offer likely letters to student-athletes they want to attend their schools. However, the majority of schools follow the general recruiting process and use Letters of Intent.


body_dartmouth_swimmingWomen's swimming, Dartmouth (D Allen/Flickr)


What Do Recruits Need to Get Accepted to the Ivy League?

Just being a great athlete doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get accepted to an Ivy League school; you also need to have a strong academic record, complete with a good GPA and high SAT/ACT scores. And you don’t want to flub your application by submitting a subpar college essay or lukewarm letters of recommendation.

Below, we explain exactly what you should have to increase your chances of getting accepted to an Ivy League school as a student-athlete:


#1: A Rigorous Course Load

All applicants to the Ivies, whether you’re a student-athlete or not, should definitely have a record of succeeding in challenging coursesHere’s what the Ivy League states on its website in regard to admissions criteria for student recruits:

"Ivy League schools base admissions decisions on each candidate’s academic achievements as well as personal strengths and accomplishments, such as athletic achievement, other extracurricular activities and community service.

Remember: To best prepare for admission to an Ivy League school, and as a strong basis for a rigorous college education, you should take the most challenging high school classes available to you throughout secondary school. The following courses are recommended:
  • four years of English;
  • four years of a single foreign language;
  • three years of history/social science;
  • four years of mathematics;
  • four years of science;
  • frequent practice in writing expository prose.
Consult the website of each institution for more specific recommendations"

These are the general recommended courses for prospective student-athletes to the Ivy League. As noted, be sure to consult individual schools directly for more information on what specific classes you should take to further increase your odds of getting accepted.


#2: A High GPA

Besides a rigorous class schedule, you’ll have a stronger chance of getting into the Ivy League if you have a high overall GPA. Ideally, you’ll have at least a 3.0 GPA, or B-average. This is a minimum recommendation, though, so know that it's probably better to aim for something closer to a 3.5 (or even higher). Check out our guide for tips on how to raise your GPA.


#3: Strong Standardized Test Scores

Part of your Academic Index number will be based on your SAT/ACT scores.

But what scores specifically should you aim for? Unfortunately, we can’t give you an exact answer as to what good ACT or SAT scores for Ivy League athletes are.

What we can do, though, is show you what kinds of SAT/ACT scores admitted applicants to the Ivy League typically get. The following chart gives each Ivy League school’s 25th and 75th SAT/ACT percentiles:

25th %ile SAT
75th %ile SAT
25th %ile ACT
75th %ile ACT

As a student-athlete, you shouldn’t need to aim as high as the 75th percentile, which, at all Ivies, is extremely close to (if not) a perfect score (though there’s of course nothing wrong with aiming this high!).

Rather, it’ll be more helpful to use the 25th percentile score for the Ivies you’re applying to as a general benchmark for what you should aim for. And if you can score higher than that, even better!


body_princeton_rowingMen's rowing, Princeton (Princeton University Rowing/Flickr)


#4: An Overall Impressive Application

Finally, you’ll need to make sure that your overall application is impressive. This means you should have the following:

Just like any other Ivy League applicant, you must take care to craft a compelling application that will make the school want to admit you. Don’t just assume that your athletic prowess will automatically get you accepted. Even the most skilled student-athletes can get rejected for things such as sloppy essays or poor interviews!


Ivy League Recruiting Timeline Overview

Now that we’ve gone over what you need to raise your chances of getting into the Ivy League as a student-athlete, you're probably wondering what the Ivy League recruiting timeline looks like.

The exact timeline will likely vary depending on the Ivy League school(s) you’re applying to and on what sport you play. For example, look at the differences between the NCAA’s 2017-18 calendars for Division I Football and Division I Men’s Basketball.

For the most part, though, the biggest and most important aspects of recruiting will happen during your junior year of high school.

There will also be lots of different periods of recruiting, which are defined as follows:

  • Dead Period: Coaches may not have any face-to-face contact with prospective student-athletes but may communicate by email, mail, and/or phone.
  • Quiet Period: Coaches may only meet in-person with student-athletes on-campus and may not visit students’ high schools. They may communicate by email, mail, and/or phone.
  • Contact Period: Coaches may come to students’ high schools to watch them play and may have in-person contact with them, either on- or off-campus. They may also contact student-athletes by email, mail, and/or phone.
  • Evaluation Period: Coaches may come to students’ high schools to evaluate their athletic performances and skills but may not meet with them in-person off-campus. However, they may continue to reach out to student-athletes by email, mail, and/or phone.

Here is a very general overview of what you can expect in the Ivy League recruiting process at each grade level in high school:


10th Grade and/or Earlier

  • Prospective student-athletes can make contact with Ivy League schools and Ivy League coaches to express their interest in applying as a student-athlete. (You may begin this part of the process even earlier, in 9th grade.)
  • Students take unofficial campus visits to Ivy League schools they're considering playing for.


body_cornell_wrestlingWrestling, Cornell (Jenn Vargas/Flickr)


11th Grade

  • September to November: This is generally a quiet period for college recruiting. This means that while Ivy League coaches may not come to your high school to watch you play, you may visit the campuses directly to speak with coaches and may contact coaches via email, phone, and/or mail. Consider taking your first SAT/ACT at this time.
  • December to February: This is typically a contact period, meaning coaches from Ivy League schools may come and watch you play and may meet with you in-person.
  • Spring: Around this time, student-athletes are typically offered at least one official campus visit. This is also usually an evaluation period during which Ivy League coaches may come to high schools to evaluate prospective student-athletes' skills. There will typically be some dead periods thrown in, too, making this is an ideal time to retake the SAT/ACT.


12th Grade

  • July 1 (before applicant’s senior year of high school): This is when Ivy League coaches may give prospective student-athletes' information, such as their transcripts and test scores, to Ivy League admissions committees for a preliminary evaluation.
  • Winter/Spring: If you get a likely letter, you'll get it after October 1 but before the school’s official admission decision (which is usually around March or April). Remember that not all Ivies give out likely letters, so not getting one doesn't necessarily mean you've been rejected.


Recap: How Do Ivy League Schools Recruit?

The Ivy League has some of the most prestigious colleges and also many successful sports teams. As a result, Ivy League schools often look for applicants who are gifted in both athletics and academics.

If you're a student-athlete considering applying to the Ivy League, you’ll need to have a strong GPA, evidence of a rigorous course load, and high scores on the SAT/ACT.

Here are the biggest differences between Ivy League recruiting and general college recruiting:

  • The Ivy League has much higher expectations in terms of academics and test scores
  • The Ivy League offers only need-based scholarships—no athletic scholarships
  • The Ivy League uses something called an Academic Index (AI), a point-based system to rank student-athletes based on their GPAs and test scores
  • The Ivy League (and other NCAA Division I schools) often offer likely letters to prospective student-athletes who are likely to be admitted

As for the Ivy League recruiting timeline, expect to have the most important events happen during your junior year of high school. This is when Ivy League coaches may begin contacting student-athletes and visiting high schools to evaluate their skills.


What’s Next?

Got more questions about the college recruiting process? Take a look at our in-depth guide to college athletic recruiting to learn even more about what the process entails.

Curious about the NCAA? Read about the differences between the different NCAA divisions, and get the full lists of NCAA Division I, Division II, and Division III schools.

Interested in sports but not sure which ones to pursue? Our guide offers tons of helpful tips to help you pick the best high school sport for you.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Hannah Muniz
About the Author

Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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