Undergrad in Columbia with Sports (Tennis) Scholarship - Nada Zaher
Updated: Jun 20
Hometown: Alexandria, Egypt
Undergraduate: Columbia University
Field: Political Science and Business
Position: Founder of Pas-sport
Nada Zaher grew up in Alexandria, Egypt and played tennis competitively. Excelling at tennis and academics, and after a stressful, back and forth recruitment process, Nada pursued her undergraduate degree at Columbia University as a member of the college’s varsity women’s tennis team - an experience that changed her life! As a former Egyptian collegiate tennis player, Nada learned of the hardships and uncertainties that young athletes, specifically international ones, face during recruitment. Nada’s passion for sports and gratitude for her student athlete experience is what led to pas-sport - the road to every international athlete’s collegiate experience. Her vision is to educate young student athletes about how your sport is your passport to a prestigious, affordable, and well-rounded educational experience in the United States, like tennis did for her.
I. College Application Experience
Nada, when did you first consider applying to universities abroad?
I had a lot of exposure growing up. I went to summer camps such as Weil Tennis Academy and Bollettieri in California and Florida when I was a kid. These camps were not academic, they were for sports especially tennis. Through these camps, being in the US, hearing people, and visiting universities sometimes, I had extra exposure to the US. I was also born there. I knew from a young age that I wanted to do my undergraduate at an Ivy league or Stanford. I was also in one of Egypt’s top American schools all my life, Schutz American School, so that as well gave me extra knowledge of the American university system.
How did you prepare for the application?
I knew that if I wanted to get to something competitive I had to be different, I had to be the best at most things. I wasn’t the typical student trying to get into a good university. I took as many AP classes as I could, ran for every leadership activity at school, and joined all extra-curricular activities to improve my resume. I understood universities, especially ones in the US, cared about “well-rounded’ people and I focused on that.
How did Tennis fit in the picture?
I started playing Tennis from a very young age. My brother and my mother played tennis. Growing up, it was a repetitive routine like it is for athletes - days are split between school and tennis practice. Often, I’d have to go to school in Alexandria in the morning then leave mid-day to catch my match in Cairo and head back to Alexandria at night to catch school the next morning. On weekends, I’d either practice or I’d have a championship in Cairo. It was mentally draining, but it was part of trying to be different and to reach a goal.
I officially applied for 12 universities. When I was applying to universities, I knew tennis would help, but I did not understand the extent at the time. I was surprisingly late to reach out to tennis coaches. I started in grade 12, and emailed 60 coaches. I guess at some point I decided that tennis is a big part of my achievements and that I wanted to be able to continue in university. If I had more information, I would have reduced extracurriculars and academic focus, and invested more time into sports recruiting.
I had even paid a counsellor in the US who helped me with my college essays, but they were not as familiar with sports recruiting as it is an entirely different process. They gave me good advice about applying to dream schools, target schools and safety schools to increase my chances.
Wow, you reached out to 60 coaches. Tell us more about that.
I looked at different tennis programs to try to assess where I’d fit athletically by looking at different team rankings and the level of individual players in each team. It was a looooooong process. And then I also had to find the right academic fit, and finding the balance between my academic interests and my tennis interests was the difficult part.
Universities have athletic departments and I’d check their websites and reach out to the relevant coaches. It was like selling yourself in an email - I’d explain who I am, tell them a bit about myself academically, share a link to a video of myself playing in a certain match, and share my tennis ranking.
Some coaches never answered, but I followed up a lot. Coaches are super super busy and they get many emails from all over the world. They also scout for talent on their own and are not just waiting for students to reach out. Sometimes they know who they will accept 2 years in advance. It is very competitive. Because I started later in grade 12, some coaches had already given their available spots.
Some followed up with me requesting a Skype or phone, but after I had followed up 3-4 times. My coach said she took me because I was so persistent in following up. They want a persistent character on their team. Yes, your character really matters with coaches when they come to pick who to choose on their teams.
Can you tell us a bit about your time at Columbia? As an athlete, how would your day look like compared to other students?
I studied political science and minored in business. My day is different compared to other students. We are division 1, so we are competing on the highest level. I used to practice 6 times a week, oftentimes twice a day. On a normal day I would go to classes and I practice. I am wearing sports clothes 24/7. Everyone knows athletes very well. Workouts are in the morning and on weekends, and we also have championships so you are away on weekends. Coaches make mandatory practices on Saturday - they want to keep you in the zone.
That is why athletes go crazy - we miss classes to attend matches, but we are allowed to get excuses. We are also allowed to take finals from wherever you are. Our coach will communicate with professors and even proctor your exams.Some professors will hate it. Some will be more collaborative. We get to register earlier than everyone else. It gives you the chance to fit your practices.
The downside is that some athletes will never be able to take classes they love - if it conflicts with exercise/practice time.You could even change majors - to manage the workload because practice takes a lot of time already and you need to be realistic about balancing your time.
II. Founding Pas-sport
You started an awesome company, Pas-sport, to help young student athletes apply to universities in the US. Tell us about your career decision to start Pas-sport
When I was a student at Columbia, I looked up different companies that do college sports recruiting in the US and there was one where the founder was friends with my coach. I connected with a company and called the founder and told them “I’m Nada X” and I wanted to learn the recruiting process and send Egyptians and help them. I was on the ground scouting… Like I’m their Agent in Egypt. I set up a booth based on his brand, and people were asking about the scholarship and telling them that this is the process, etc.
The challenge is that his prices were too much. It was really expensive. You know how people in Egypt can expect that it is guaranteed that their kids are accepted, but it is not. Parents can be intense, and the guy can be expensive. That was my first experience seeing that there was interest, but I knew there was something wrong and that I would have to customize my own package offering to athletes in our region for it to be successful here.
After college, I took some internships. I worked at IBM - in IBM Watson, in a product manager role. I used to think to myself day in and day out: Is this really what I want to do? Am I passionate about it? Am I learning? Am I valuable? I kept thinking about Egypt and wanting to give back. I knew that athletics is something I like and I’d like to go back. At that time, the startup world was getting a lot of attention, funding, etc. It has been exciting. So I decided to found pas-sport.
When looking back at my experience in Columbia: I was impressed with the system. I guess you don't know what to expect until you are there. You get special treatment, your own career services, nutritionist. It is the perfect system to create yourself and develop yourself as an athlete.
I really enjoyed myself working in a team. I had always played individually. When you go there, and see people and how good they are. I was thinking “am I only here because of tennis?” and I really wanted people to be aware of tennis. From my first year, that was a feeling.
III. The Sports Recruiting Landscape
What changed in the past 10 years in sports recruiting?
I applied in 2011, almost 10 years ago. Many more people travel for scholarships now. For example, the entire Squash community knows that there are scholarships for Squash because of all the Egyptians that have already gone. Parents know that this is a possibility from their young kids. There are many successful examples of Egyptian athletes. For example, people know of Ali Farag (Harvard - Squash), Mayar Sherif (Pepperdine - Tennis), Farida Osman (Berkeley - Swimming). This really helps. The best thing is that all the previous Egyptian athletes who travelled are always willing to help, mentor and give back. The internet and technology also happened and people are more connected which helps build awareness in Egypt.
However, even in top private international schools in Egypt, college counsellors still aren’t completely familiar with how sports scholarships work and how they can greatly help their students.. They understand the academic path, but not the sports path. Even consultancies in Egypt all focus on the academic path and the general application help and not the sports path.
Which universities are interested in Tennis players?
There are more than 1000 universities in the United States offering tennis scholarships. It really depends on where you fit and your preferences. There are three divisions, 1,2, and 3 - this depends on your athletic level.
When can students approach you to help them apply to athlete scholarships?
A student can approach a coach at any age, but a coach can only approach a student once they enter complete grade 10. This is where we, as pas-sport, can also help because if a coach finds a younger athlete that they really like but they can’t reach out to them yet because of the rules, they can notify us and we become the middleman. If a coach is really impressed with a student, they can give them a verbal offer promising they can join their team. This can happen as early as in grade 10 or 11.
What is the perfect age to start?
14 years old as you are starting high school so you know how competitive you are athletically. It is a good time to assess yourself athletically, while deciding your high school system. Coaches can scout and assess talent early. If you start talking to coaches early, you can share updates and have an ongoing conversation. Remember they want to have their roster in advance so it is good to start early.
Are there any useful sources to understand the application process?
Not fully. We are working on creating a thorough vlog on our pas-sport website to familiarize students with the process more.
The (National Collegiate Athletic Association), which is the US college sports governing body, has useful information, but it can be difficult to digest. There are also many companies in the US that specialize in this. For example the NCSA has useful articles. But honestly people don't read much, it is sometimes easier to present in a session or have a podcast or a video.
Can a student transfer get a sports scholarship?
Transferring and getting a sports scholarship is very hard. Especially if the athlete started university, and is no longer focused on sports. Not playing is never a good sign. I guess if a student is competing, and flexible and does not mind repeating university years, it is ok.
How do academics fit in the picture?
In the Ivy league, there is an "academic index” that each team has to match meaning they have to balance out the academics of all incoming athlete freshmen to equal a certain score so they can admit someone with higher athletic ability, less academic score in return for a higher academic score, lower athletic ability.
In non-Ivy Leagues, the athlete has to match certain academic standards that they agree with through the university. The coach may have SAT requirements that they have to adhere to - you can go below the average of the university depending on their history of working with athletics, their relationship with admission, but typically 100-200 points less than the SAT.
There is something called a “Preread” where admissions can “preread” your academic scores so far - and the coach can negotiate with the admissions and they can make a case for you. From grade 11 - they can send a preread.
If there are 3 spots a coach can fill, you only have those. A coach can give you a verbal offer - but it is not a binding offer, not an official admissions letter. Coaches need to go back to the admission office to get their approval, or recommendation on how to improve the athlete application.
If a coach says you are in, chances are you’ll be in. Unless something very bad happens, like an F grade. If someone has a very bad SAT score, we may not connect them. If you are close enough, they can push for you.
What advice do you have for athletes applying to college?
The earlier you start, the better.
Athletically, learn about what tournaments matter? What physicality matters? What position is needed? Are they looking for fitness vs tactics? What can give you an edge in the US? We at pas-sport can help you with all that.
Sports 60% and school 40% - sports can pay off which means that schools are willing to be lenient with students for sports. Excelling in sports can add so much to your college application more than you think - you can be OK with normal if you do well with a good GPA if you take advanced courses.
What sports help to receive a scholarship and what sports do not help?
The main sports we focus on in Egypt are - squash, tennis, swimming, diving, waterpolo, soccer, and basketball.
Next we will get into volleyball, fencing, gymnastics, and golf, but they are not as popular yet.
There is no demand on the sports of martial arts, handball, horse-riding, crossfit, special sports, badminton yet because the NCAA doesn’t offer them.