We’re excited to have a guest post from Cara Kalf, an editor and teacher who helps students write great college application essays. She walks us through how to use sports for our college application essay without being cliche or predictable.
Sports rank at the top of almost everyone’s lists of “Cliché Topics to Avoid” for college application
essays. “No one cares about your sports success,” they tell you. As I’ve said myself—you’re applying to
a school, not a sports team.
Yes – you can write about sports!
But when you’re being actively recruited, you’re applying to both a school and a sports team, which
makes things a bit different. If you’ve been pouring your heart, soul and time into a particular sport
through high school, it only makes sense that you might want to write about it. So I’m here to reassure
you: When admissions officers or essay coaches tell you not to write about your activities, what they
mean is not, “Don’t even mention your activities.” What they mean is, “Don’t walk me through your
You have an activities list in your Common App already. Your essay is not the place for a
paragraph-style summary of what you do. In the same way, you don’t want to tell the story of your time
as an athlete in a year-by-year overview. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell the story at all.
Your activities are where you live your life—it’s only natural that they’re going to feature in your essay.
And for you as a passionate athlete, your story has played out more in one particular place than many
of your peers’ stories—whether that was the field, the court, the pool, the gym, or the rink. That is the
setting for much of your high-school story, and as a result, it might be the setting for the story you want
to tell on your application essay.
Choosing a topic
College application readers love to remind students that you can write about anything! But the obvious
truth is, not everything makes an interesting essay. Finding the right topic isn’t about finding the one
story that application readers want to hear. It also isn’t about finding the one story that is uniquely
yours. (It’s almost impossible to have a truly one-of-a-kind story, and colleges don’t really expect you
to.) It’s about finding a story that matters to you and makes you excited to tell it. If you’re not
excited to tell it, colleges aren’t going to be excited to read it. If you consider yourself a “not very
creative” writer—keep in mind I’m just taking your word for it, not necessarily agreeing with you!—you
want a story that is inherently engaging, not something that requires a creative spin. And the good
news is, your sports career is probably full of engaging stories.
Preventing the “Groan” – let them get to know you
So why do college readers groan when they face another sports essay? Because too many of those
essays focus on what happened and the predictable feelings associated with it: “We won the
championship. I was proud.” Depending on how well you tell the story, it can be engaging and
exciting—but it doesn’t tell the reader much about you. The goal with the college essay is for the reader
to feel like they’re getting to know the kind of person you are. In this case, it really is, “It’s not whether
you win or lose, but how you play the game.” So you can write about the game—just make sure you’re
writing about how you play the game.
Finding Nemo and finding your story
So … how do you do that? All good stories feature both an outside story and an inside story. The
outside story is the action that’s taking place, while the inside story is what’s going on in the mind and
heart of the main character. The outside story is the exciting part, but the inside story is what makes
you care what happens.
So in Finding Nemo, we have a father fish who crosses the ocean through
many exciting dangers to find his son (outside story). At the same time, we have an anxious fish who
learns to be courageous and strong (inside story). Without “winning” his inside story—without becoming that courageous and strong fish—he couldn’t have “won” his outside story and found his son.
Look at any of your favorite novels or movies, and you will find the same pattern. The growth of the main
character is always both driving the action and happening as a result of the action. The more you
challenge yourself and grow, the more challenges you face. The more you successfully face those
challenges, the more you grow.
Personal development is key
To write a sports essay that works, you need to look at your experiences and ask, “What’s the inside
story?” Some examples might be, How you transitioned from playing for fun to playing “for serious,” or
how you found that you could handle the pressure of competition, or how you dealt with the challenges
of prioritizing sports over socializing or other opportunities.
The difficult truth is, there is almost no story that is truly unique. Would it be cliché to write about how sports has made you a leader? Yep, I’m sorry to say, it would be. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell the story. You have to write about the life
you have! Don’t choose a boring story because you know they’ve heard a soccer story before. A boring
story that’s not cliché is not an improvement!
What makes your story stand out?
When you tell a sports story, it’s often all outside story: “I practiced a lot. The team worked hard. We
played the big game. We won our championship.” If you tell it well, with a lot of details, the story can be
personal and enjoyable to read. The specific details may not seem important, but they make the story
more believably yours. But you still must provide an inside story to accompany your outside story. You
have to let your reader feel what you were feeling and see the development that happened inside.
What was it like when you realized your older teammates listened to you as a team leader?
When did you know that you were willing to put in whatever time was necessary to make varsity?
What drives you to compete?
Even among sports players, you have different reasons for why you work. Is it the thrill of the
game, the teamwork and how being part of it feels like a contribution to something important, the
competitive drive, the beauty of the moves? Athletes tell me all sorts of things about what they love
about their sports. Again, this doesn’t mean you need to expect that whatever you say will be unique. It
won’t be. But if it’s heartfelt—that’s what will speak to a reader’s heart.
Let’s recap: writing your college application essay
1. Choose a story that feels meaningful to you.
2. Dig in to find the personal development that happened during and because of this story.
3. Show and tell what made the story yours through descriptive details.
All that being said—you are not one-dimensional, and you shouldn’t feel that you have to write about
sports if you have another story that’s calling. I recommend taking the time to brainstorm thoroughly
before you jump immediately into a sports story just because it’s an obvious choice for you. But you
also shouldn’t feel that you have to avoid sports because others say so. Your essay should show the
reader a little bit about who you are and how you got that way—and for you, sports is a big part of that
Cara Kalf is a writer, editor and teacher who coaches high-schoolers to write their best college
application essays and get ready for the top-tier schools they plan to attend. For more advice on writing,
admissions, and academic success, check out carakalf.com.