By Randi C. Heathman
I was halfway through writing the first draft of this piece when the architect of the “Varsity Blues” scandal, Rick Singer, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. The joke that won the Internet on this topic came from Jon Boeckenstedt, higher education data expert, who pointed out that 3.5 years is a 4.2 weighted. Yes, I laughed out loud at that because I’m a huge nerd.
Unfortunately college admission practices still aren’t a laughing matter, though. I can’t even say they’ve drastically improved in the wake of all that “Varsity Blues” revealed. More work is still to be done—especially after COVID pushed education online for nearly two years. Our students are still in the long recovery process from that.
One of the conversations that both “Varsity Blues” and the pandemic pushed to the forefront, however, is that of community—what communities students come from, what communities they will join on college campuses, and what communities they hope to build in the future. If you’re a rider or the parent of a rider headed to college soon, it’s a word you need to add to your vocabulary right now if it isn’t there already.
Since I started my practice in 2012, I’ve been asked by a lot of parents if they can use riding as an activity to help them gain entry into college and how they can do so. The short answer to that has always been, “It depends.” In the wake of “Varsity Blues” and COVID, the answer is still “It depends,” but in a longer form: It depends – on how well you can articulate what it means to you to be part of the riding community.
What do I mean by this?
Ours is a sport that already lends itself to stereotypes—clothing that evokes memories of the old money set (or Downton Abbey), tales of importing horses from Europe, school days missed to participate in shows. The existing perception is that only the wealthiest, most privileged students have the means to gain access to this sport. And though insiders know that the sport is hard and we often cut corners in other parts of our lives in order to afford it, the public image is well-established and hard to change.
Or is it?
Let’s turn the original question on its head and reform it to present the answer:
How has the riding community shaped me? What do I enjoy about being a member of it? What skills have I acquired through my experiences that will serve me well in college (and then in my future career)? What about when I’ve failed? How has my community supported me? What have I learned about myself in failure? How do I welcome others to this community? How will I continue to engage with this community as an adult? What would I like to change within my community?
And the biggest one of all: Why do I stay in this community?
The “why” of anything—riding, sports, art, theatre, volunteer hours—is usually the thing that lights you up when people ask about it. That’s what colleges really want to know about when they’re getting to know you. It’s also the thing that many students struggle to put into words. First because they probably haven’t given the topic much thought, but also because the way students are trained to respond to questions in school tends to be more rote and repetitive. It’s a sort of deeper, introspective thought required to successfully negotiate this type of deeply personal question. Also, many students are simply shy.
I’ve rarely met a young rider who isn’t proud to be part of their barn community (family). As you set out to find your college home for the next four years, think about how you’ll communicate this pride to others. It might sound corny or weird, but take notes about moments of triumph (how you feel, what makes the moment special) or talk with your parents, trainer or close friends about these things so that they can relate this information back to you later. Find ways to remember those learning moments along the way, like the times when things don’t go right but you find solutions to problems. How does your brain work through the process and who do you go to for support? What are the tasks you struggle with? No one is good at everything.
All of this adds up to the person you’re developing into, the adult you’re becoming. The job of your eventual college or university is to be a part of that journey. They’re the next community you’re going to join, so get ready to tell them what they’ll gain by granting you membership.
And then tell them why. They’ll love that.
The Equestrian College Advisor is Randi C. Heathman, an educational consultant with over a decade of experience in higher education and a lifetime of involvement with equestrian sports. Heathman holds a B.A. in English and has received her M.A. in communication studies. She honed her craft as senior assistant director of admission at Albion College (Albion, Michigan) while working extensively with their equestrian program as both a recruiter and as a mentor to the riders on the team, traveling to their shows and advising the campus equestrian club.