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What’s Better for Your Résumé—Captain of the Debate Team or Playing College Sports?

Playing college sports could have a big payoff after graduation, as employers in one recent study appeared to value the leadership skills of athletes above many other students.

The study, whose results are to be presented at a conference this week at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, asked employers to rate the value of experiences of more than a dozen types of students, including debate-team captain, resident assistant, and editor of the campus newspaper.

The employers, which were known to hire athletes, gave high marks to many graduates who held leadership positions. But athletes—particularly those who were captains of NCAA teams—scored the highest.

Among the reasons: The employers saw athletes as hard-working and goal-oriented with the ability to handle pressure.

The top scorers were captains of Division III women’s and men’s tennis teams, who narrowly beat out their counterparts at the Division I level. All-American athletes also had among the highest scores.

Among the other findings:

  • Simple membership on a team was seen as more valuable than managing a restaurant, working as a resident assistant, playing in the marching band, or serving as editor in chief of the student paper.
  • Captains of debate teams and presidents of fraternities had higher scores than members of many NCAA teams who did not hold leadership positions or stand out athletically.
  • There were no significant differences in the perceived marketability of athletes based on gender, sport (tennis, women’s basketball, or football), or level of competition (Divisions I or III).

More than 80 companies were invited to participate in the study, including AT&T, Deloitte, KPMG, and Northwestern Mutual. Thirty-five to 40 companies responded, but the respondents were promised anonymity.

The study’s authors are Peter Chalfin, Barbara Osborne, and Erianne A. Weight, all of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They are working on a follow-up study looking at search firms and the values they place on different students’ experiences. They expect to release results of that study in May.

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