Getting Noticed, Getting Scholarships & Playing the Sport You Love After High School
Each year, approximately 7.5 million students who played sports in high school graduate and decide their next steps. While not all high school athletes aspire to play at the collegiate level, many do. Playing a varsity sport in college is a fiercely competitive arena, where only 587,000 of those 7.5 million graduates moved on to play collegiate athletics during the 2013-2014 academic year. Although the numbers may make it seem like gaining a place on a college team is more of a dream than a reality, this isn't the case. Students and families who start early, stay focused, and understand the recruitment process are much better positioned to find success – be it at an NCAA, NAIA or NJCAA institution. This guide takes prospective student athletes and their families on a step-by-step path of learning what the recruitment process entails, how to stand out to coaches and when they should be making their moves throughout high school.
The High School
Student's Path to Playing Sports at the College Level
Focus on academics
A high school student can be the most promising athlete on the field, but if he/she isn't taking the right classes and making good grades it could be all for naught. Coaches are often first introduced to potential recruits on paper and they instantly look at grades to see if the athlete would even be qualified to play based on NCAA eligibility requirements.
Impress the coaches you have now
To be in competition for spots on a college team, young athletes must first find success at the high school level. Prove your abilities and potential to coaches now, and they'll sing your praises later. They may also work with students to get them on travel teams or elite programs to further build qualifications.
Make use of summer months
There are lots of summer camps available for high school athletes who are serious about their sport, and they are well worth participation. Not only do sports camps allow students to devote extended time to improving their game, they also introduce them to other players, coaches, and sports professionals who can speak on their behalf when it comes time for recruitment.
Make the most of being a prospective student athlete
Upon entering ninth grade, eligible students are considered prospective student athletes. Depending on the sport, they may start receiving some questionnaires from schools or recruiters. Students should respond to any forms immediately with both interest and gratitude.
Visit as many schools as possible
During every summer holiday, spring or fall break, long weekend, or family vacation between sophomore and senior year, students should try to visit as many schools as possible. Before setting off, prospective student athletes should make a list of the most important qualities of a school or athletic department to measure how each stacks up to their needs and wants. Most visits prior to senior year will be unofficial – meaning students and families are responsible for paying expenses – but they may provide free tickets to a game. Seniors are limited to accepting only five official visits – those paid for by the school – so they must choose wisely and pick only those they are seriously considering.
Continue playing your best
Now is the time when coaches will come watch students play, so it's important to get as much time on the field or court as possible in as many arenas as possible. Be it a high school game, travel team, showcase, outside league or special tournament, students should be giving it their all and working closely with high school coaches to iron out any issues in their game.
Interact with coaches
Outside of dead periods, coaches are now allowed to call prospective student athletes once per week, although students are allowed as many times as they wish. Still, students shouldn't take that as a sign to speak with as many coaches as humanly possible, but rather to hone in on their top choices and express serious interest.
Did we mention academics?
It's the last push toward finishing strong with a high GPA, excellent AP scores and impressive standardized test scores. These numbers will greatly impact the amount of financial aid a student receives, so it's incredibly important to remain vigilant until the last test is taken and the final paper is turned in.
Make the most of being a prospective student athlete
Upon entering ninth grade, eligible students are considered prospective student athletes. Depending on the sport, they may start receiving some questionnaires from schools or recruiters. Students should respond to any forms immediately with both interest and gratitude.
Research signing dates
Each sport has a different signing date for the National Letter of Intent, so students need to research these and keep them in mind as they're making final decisions about where they want to play.
Pick a college
After years of hard work and dedication to be the best version of themselves as both an academic and an athlete, students who have risen to the occasion now have the joy of selecting the institution that will continue shaping and growing them for the next four years. Congratulations!
Keep focusing on academics
Students typically take the precursors to the SAT or ACT during sophomore year, and these scores are an early indication to students of how much financial aid they may receive and to recruiters of what to expect from students in terms of academics in the years to come.
Take advantage of school resources
Guidance counselors and coaches can provide valuable advice both on the field and off, making them excellent – and free – resources to harness. Counselors can help students make sure they're taking core classes required by the NCAA while coaches can ensure their game is where it needs to be to garner attention from college recruiters.
Start a list
It's never too early to start identifying prospective schools and categorizing them by level of play, academic programs and other important factors. Students should also study the current roster of student athletes in their sport to see how they measure up and where improvements can be made.
If you haven't noticed yet, academics are crucially important to the success of any student athlete. Junior year is the time when many students take their ACT or SAT and submit their scores and GPAs to the NCAA Eligibility Center to determine if they're qualified to play, so every point matters.
Take advantage of all opportunities
Junior year is the most important in terms of recruiting, so any chance to be on a travel team, attend a showcase event, take part in a clinic or participate in a summer camp should be accepted – both so athletes can work on the finer points of play and meet influential people in the world of collegiate sports.
Gather and share footage
One of the most effective ways of being noticed by coaches is having an excellent highlight reel of plays. The film should be a compilation of a student's best plays, with spot shadows or arrows used to ensure coaches can easily identify the student. Coaches typically film high school games to review plays, so students should work with them to access footage and select the appropriate segments. In addition to posting the video online, students should ensure that their contact information, jersey number, uniform color, measurements and PRs or sports-specific stats are also included.
Prepare for recruitment
Coaches are allowed to send handwritten communications to prospective student athletes beginning in their junior year, while some sports also allow limited phone calls. It's vital for students to respond to these communications in a timely manner and to pay close attention to how a coach responds to questionnaires or films.
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College Athletic Association Profiles
Numerous athletic associations have been tasked with organizing collegiate athletic programs based on the size of the institution and whether it is public or private. For prospective student athletes to make informed decisions about their futures, it's important for them to understand the differences between these and how their level of play will be affected by each organization.
National Collegiate Athletic Association
The NCAA is a nonprofit association which regulates the athletes of the 1,281 member institutions. Under the umbrella of the NCAA are three divisions which are determined by the size of the school and its budget.
- Division I Typically regarded as the highest level of play at the university level, many professional athletes played at the DI level during their college years. Not only do these athletes have to be excellent in their sport, they are also held to extremely rigorous academic standards. The largest scholarships are typically available at this level. There are currently 350 higher education institutions that qualify as Division I schools and represent more than 6,000 athletic teams.
- Division II Colleges and universities qualifying as Division II schools are typically much smaller than their Division I counterparts but are still considered an excellent platform for college play and for students hoping to be professional athletes. The main difference between the two is the size of the institutions and the financial resources available for athletics. Student athletes are still held to high standards when it comes to academic performance, but there's a bit more time for them to be involved in their campus community. There are currently more than 300 schools which compete at the Division II level.
- Division III As the largest NCAA division, Division III student athletes are those attending small, private institutions looking for a challenging athletic career that's balanced with substantial time for academic studies. Playing seasons and practice sessions tend to be shorter than those experienced by Division I and II students, allowing those in Division III to truly build a campus community and engage with a more diverse array of college experiences. Currently more than 180,000 students at 450 colleges and universities play on Division III teams.
National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics
The NAIA functions in much the same way as Division II of the NCAA in that it is comprised of athletic programs from smaller colleges and universities. This organization is popular for international students hoping to play in America as there are fewer restrictions than in the NCAA. Athletic scholarships tend to be smaller at NAIA schools, especially in the first year or two of a student's tenure of being a college athlete.
Sports available at NAIA schools include baseball, basketball, cheer/dance, cross country, football, golf, lacrosse, soccer, softball, swimming/diving, tennis, track/field, volleyball, and wrestling.
National Junior College Athletic Association
Unlike the previous two associations, the NJCAA exclusively organizes athletic programs for two-year institutions. Although the smallest of the associations, students who elect to play sports at an NJCAA school often benefit from lower tuition rates, an opportunity to better their grades in order to gain more scholarship funding, and the option to transfer to an NCAA or NAIA school after two years. In fact, some of the best opportunities to transfer to an NCAA Division I school take place at NJCAA institutions.
Other Athletic Associations
Aside from the three most recognizable collegiate athletic organizations, a few niche groups exist throughout the country.
- National Christian College Athletic Association The NCCAA represents Christian universities and colleges along with Bible colleges offering college level sports.
- United States Collegiate Athletic Association The USCAA is a national organization supporting intercollegiate athletic programs at 81 colleges, most of which are small, private institutions.
Beyond Athletic Scholarships: Financial Aid for Athletes
Aside from being accepted to a college sports team, the next biggest question student and their families often have is about financial aid. After spending thousands of dollars ensuring high school athletes get the equipment and training they need to be competitive, many tend to have blinders on when it comes to scholarships. A common phenomenon amongst these families is the idea of “DI eyes,” or the refusal to look at any other options outside Division I sports. The following section is meant to help students and families to learn about funding options and recognize that, although they may need to pay for some schooling, there is a place for them to play their sport, whether it's Division I or otherwise. Types of Scholarships
- Full-ride These are the most coveted type of scholarships, and full-rides don't just cover tuition and fees. They also provide funding for books, supplies, room and board, and possibly even additional living expenses. These are most common in Division I athletics, but still quite rare.
- Partial As the name implies, partial scholarships cover a portion of expenses – most commonly starting with tuition and fees – but students will still need to pay for a portion of their education. They are typically allocated based on a set percentage and are commonly found in Division II athletics.
- Merit Division III doesn't actually award athletic scholarships, but that shouldn't stop prospective student athletes from applying to one of the more than 450 excellent colleges and universities in this grouping. While they may not receive that particular type of funding, more than 75 percent of all student athletes at Division III schools are awarded a merit scholarship for academic achievement or receive financial aid.
- Two-year tuition Not all two-year institutions provide scholarships, but student athletes who complete the first half of their degrees in these schools before transferring to a four-year school can save thousands of dollars in tuition and fees, often without sacrificing their level of play. While only one percent of high school freshmen were recruited to play on DI basketball teams during the 2012-2013 academic year, transfer students made up 14.5 percent of recruits during the same time frame.
Scholarships by Sport per School
Athletic associations like the NCAA and the NAIA provide guidelines on the maximum number of scholarships schools can award each academic year based on the sport. These numbers vary by association and some sports – such as bowling or triathlon competitions – may receive no allocations.
|NCAA DI||NCAA DII||NAIA||NJCAA|
|Cross Country||12.6 (men's)|
|Track & Field||12.6 (men's)|
* Based on the 2015-2016 academic year.
Athletic scholarships aren't guaranteed
Athletic scholarships are not a promise for four years of funding, but rather a type of financial aid that must be renewed annually. While it can't be reduced or canceled during the academic year, it can be – for any reason – at the end of the year.
Injuries could mean loss of funding
While this depends more on the individual coach and school policies, some institutions elect to cancel academic scholarships if a student receives a career-ending injury. Prospective student athletes need to research institutions and ask how they handle these situations.
You may not be eligible the whole time you're in school
College athletes are eligible for four years of play, meaning if it takes them longer to graduate, they may exhaust their eligibility and lose athletic funding. The National Letter of Intent Since 1964, the National Letter of Intent has been used by NCAA Division I and II colleges and universities. Over the years, the number of institutions using the NLI has swelled to more than 650 as a way of cementing the first year of college for student athletes. Signing this document isn't required, but lots of student athletes are happy to do so as it provides assurance in the recruitment process. By signing a National Letter of Intent, students agree to join the institution for minimum one year. In return, they receive a written promise that the school will provide an athletic scholarship during that year.
The National Letter of Intent is used only at four-year universities and colleges and only for first-time freshmen students. After signing the NLI during the mandated signing period, students are in a binding agreement, regardless of whether or not they quit the team. To meet the terms of the NLI, students must stay at the school for the entire academic year.
Academic Requirements for Recruitment
As mentioned previously, aspiring college athletes could be the best in the state in terms of their sport, but coaches and recruiters also demand high academic standards. For students aspiring to NCAA Division I, these standards are the highest of all. In order to better understand the level of academics a student hoping to play collegiate sports must attain, the following table outlines common requirements.
|Class requirements||Level of play||GPA/Test Scores|
|Students must complete 16 core courses, including: Four years of English Three years of math Two years of natural/physical science Two years of social science One additional year of English, math, or science Four years of additional courses including any of the above, foreign language, or religion/philosophy 10 of these courses must be completed before the seventh semester of high school, with grades being locked in after that time (students cannot retake for the possibility of a better score)||NCAA Division I||The GPA is calculated based solely on the required core courses. Students must hold at least a 2.3 GPA and achieve an ACT/SAT score that corresponds to their GPA. A list of the sliding scale for GPA vs. SAT/ACT scores is provided by the NCAA.|
|Students must complete 16 core course, including: Three years of English Two years of math Two years of natural/physical science Two years of social science Two additional years of English, math, or science Four years of additional courses including any of the above, foreign language, or religion/philosophy.||NCAA Division II||The GPA is calculated based solely on the required core courses. Students must hold at least a 2.0 GPA and achieve at least an 820 on the SAT or a summative score of 68 on the ACT. These rules will change after August 1, 2018.|
|Students applying to Division III institutions are held to the admission standards of the college or university they attend and do not need to register with the NCAA's Eligibility Center||NCAA Division III||N/A|
|Students do not have to take a set list of core courses to be eligible, but they do have to meet two out of three requirements. Outside of GPA and standardized test requirements, the third is that they graduate in the top 50 percent of their class.||NAIA||Students must have at least a 2.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale. Minimum scores for standardized tests are 18 for the ACT and 860 for the SAT (Critical Reading and Math sections only).|
|The NCAA doesn't have an eligibility center. As such, the only requirement is that students be graduates of a high school or that they earn a GED. Students planning to transfer to a four-year institution after completing courses offered by an NJCAA should research and keep in mind requirements set forth for transfer students.||NJCAA||N/A|
Source: NCAA, PlayNAIA.org The Chances of Playing Sports in College
After meeting all the academic requirements to be a collegiate athlete, some high school students may still be wondering if they can make the cut when it comes to being chosen for a college team.
A study of these athletes found that, of the incoming class for the 2013-2014 academic year, 7.6 percent of male students and 7.9 percent of female students who were active in sports at the high school level were able to play on college teams. Still, there are great variances amongst different sports.
- Six percent of male high school basketball players were chosen for collegiate teams, whereas 13 percent made it through to college lacrosse teams.
- Five percent of female high school tennis players were chosen for college teams, compared to 38 percent for college fencing teams.
The Importance of Title IX to Women's Athletics
During the 1971-1972 academic year, the number of female college athletes was fewer than 30,000 due to inequitable playing restrictions. Only two percent of athletic budgets were spent on providing opportunities to these athletes, while scholarships for women didn't even exist. As of 2011, more than 190,000 women were playing college level sports and receiving funding and support equal to that given to their male counterparts. The change in these numbers is due almost exclusively to the passage of Title IX.
Passed in 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act is a federal law that made it illegal for any person in the United States to be discriminated against, denied benefits, or excluded from participation from any educational program or activity receiving federal funding on the basis of sex. Although it may seem like this law only applies to public institutions, the vast majority of private colleges also receive federal funding, making it applicable to them as well.
Students and families may be wondering exactly how this important federal law applies to them. Here are a few things to keep in mind during both the recruitment phase and after being accepted to a collegiate team:
- Female student athletes must receive equitable opportunities to play sports at the college level. While institutions don't have to offer the same sports to each gender, they must have equal opportunity to participate.
- Both male and female student athletes are eligible to receive scholarship funding, and amounts awarded must be proportional to their level of participation.
- Student athletes, regardless of sex, must have the same access to provisions, included but not limited to coaching, practice, acceptable facilities, medical care, support services, publicity, equipment, fair scheduling of games and practices, tutoring, travel, and away game per diems.
Athletic recruiting has its own vocabulary, so students should brush up on their knowledge of frequently used terms before going into any meetings about their future as a college athlete.
- Combine A showcase of sorts, student athletes come together at a common venue and perform a series of athletic tests in front of college coaches and recruiters. This invitation-only event is typically only open to the very best players.
- Dead/quiet period College coaches and recruiters aren't allowed to contact or evaluate potential recruits in any way during this period of the recruiting calendar.
- Evaluation period The time of year when coaches and recruiters are allowed to evaluate prospective athletes by attending a game or practice. They're also permitted to evaluate their academic accomplishments.
- Game day visit Allows prospective student athletes to visit schools considering them and observe a college game.
- Gray shirt This term defines athletes who decide to defer their enrollment until the winter or spring term of the academic year. Gray shirts can be used to extend athletic eligibility or to enable an athlete to buy more time to heal from injury.
- Official visit When a student and his/her family is invited to a prospective college for an official visit, this means the school pays for all the fees associated with their trip.
- Red shirt Unlike grey shirts, red shirt athletes are already enrolled at the school but they do not compete for a full academic year. Students are typically redshirted to extend their athletic eligibility if they aren't ready to play full-time as a freshman.
- Skills tape These 15-20 minute recordings typically showcase staged gameplay to demonstrate a prospective student athlete's skill level.
- Unofficial visit Unlike official visits, students and their families are expected to pay any expenses associated with an official visit to a school.
- Verbal commitment/agreement Although not legally binding, a student athlete who provides a verbal commitment to attend a particular school is typically expected to enroll and play collegiate-level sports.
What it Means to be a Student Athlete
Think about all those Saturdays spent watching college football or the countless hours invested in watching older peers fulfilling their dreams of playing sports at that level. When discussing the fantastic pass they made or the way they powered across the court, it's easy to forget that these athletes are also full-time students who must constantly find ways to balance all their responsibilities on and off campus. Before diving into the world of college athletics, high school students should consider a few of the aspects involved with being an athlete at this level.
1 School and sports come first
Balancing academics and athletics must be the first priority of a student athlete, and often that means missing out on other opportunities. Whether passing on an internship or involvement in another extracurricular, or going to bed before friends so they can get up early to practice, student athletes must constantly prioritize their two main commitments.
2 Now is the time to enjoy your sport to the fullest
Out of the 400,000 student athletes in 2008, only 16,000 went professional, or one out of every 25. To be a successful collegiate athlete, it's best for students to enjoy what's in front of them each and every day instead of dreaming about something that may or may not happen.
3 Practice hours count
The NCAA mandates that student athletes may spend no more than 20 hours per week practicing, and it's important to live by these requirements – both as a student athlete who needs balance and to ensure no rules are broken.
4 A healthy balance is important
Although 80 percent of college students surveyed in 2008 said they frequently or sometimes experienced daily stress, student athletes often report even higher levels of stress. When trying to balance practice, studying, sleep, travel, and extracurricular activities, mental health is critically important for these students.
5 College athletes may have less independence than their peers
With responsibilities to professors, coaches, tutors, family, and friends, student athletes may find it difficult to feel like they're calling the shots a lot of the time. Although college is hailed as one of the first times a student gets to practice independence, those who choose to play sports may have to wait a few more years before they experience the full spectrum of individuality.
6 Academic assistance is provided
One of the major benefits of being a student athlete is the provision of a tutor. Recognizing these students have busy schedules and often must travel for games, tutors are in place to ensure students understand core concepts and are able to keep up with class even if they aren't able to attend.
7 Schedules can be hectic at times
Although student athletes typically have set practice and class times, that doesn't mean their schedules aren't always in flux – especially when it's the season for their chosen sport. This may mean traveling every weekend for a month, or it could mean additional practice sessions for an upcoming big game. Students who elect to be athletes in college must be able to go with the flow and avoid rigidity to succeed.
8 Skills are honed, not learned
Despite all the hard work and balancing acts, student athletes benefit tremendously from their time on the team. From qualified coaching professionals to specialized assistants in each sport, collegiate athletes get individualized, one-to-one training to make them the best players they can be.
9 Travel is expected but rewarding
Although it may sometimes be difficult to pack up and head out for a game after a long week of papers and exams, collegiate athletes have a unique opportunity to travel the country representing their college, playing the sport they love, meeting influential people, bonding with their team and bettering themselves.
Sources: Exact Sports, Seattle Times, US News & World Report
College Athlete Graduation Rates
Although athletics are a monumentally important part of a student athlete's college career, the NCAA recognizes that the ultimate goal is for every student to graduate with a degree. Because of this, the organization has worked extensively over the past two decades to ensure student athletes excel both on the field or court and in the classroom.
- Since 2011, the annual graduation success rate for Division 1 student athletes has risen by 12 percent.
- In 2014, 86 percent of all Division 1 student athletes graduated within six years of matriculation.
- During that same time, graduation success rates for white and African-American male students increased by three percent.
- The graduation success rate for female Division I student athletes was 93 percent in 2014.
Intramural & Club Sports
Although college team sports are typically most often in the spotlight, there are many other opportunities for students who want to stay active, bond with fellow students and enjoy a sport they've played for years without being on an official college team. Whether a student wants to dust off their cleats for a few games of soccer or restring their racket for a doubles match of tennis, these and many other intramural and club sports can be found on nearly every university campus in America. Intramural Sports
These games are typically organized by student groups and the college to provide students the opportunity to play against other teams or individuals at their school. They may be random sign-ups, or students can form their own teams based on common interests, living in the same dorm, being members of the same Panhellenic group, or sharing the same major. Because intramurals are informal in nature, it's not uncommon to see numerous sports that would never be part of an official collegiate roster such as kickball, video games, or even quidditch. Club Sports
Existing between intramurals and official college teams, club sports involve playing against teams from other colleges although all games are organized by students. In addition to matches against local colleges, the top club teams may elect to travel and participate in both regional and national conferences and championships. This level of play requires a much higher commitment than intramurals but not as much as an official college team.
Students looking to learn more about existing intramural and club sports, or even how to start their own teams, can find information and resources below.
- IM Leagues This free application helps both organizers and participants manage their sports, register new players, and keep track of upcoming games and scores. Since play at this level is most frequently managed by students and student groups, using a tool like IM Leagues helps cut down on planning and maximizes time on the court or the field.
- SportsEngine A subsidiary of NBC, SportsEngine provides a free step-by-step guide for students who want to create a successful intramural program at their school.
Expert Advice for Aspiring College Athletes
Christopher Stack is the Founder and CEO of Guiding Future Stars, a student- athlete development company that transforms high school players into excellent students, great athletes, and extraordinary people. He is also the author of “College Recruiting Playbook” and a former Division I soccer player for Mount St. Mary's University. He holds a degree in sports management and an MBA in marketing.
Q How do students know which division they should be aspiring to?
Q In addition to opportunities to play college-level sports, how can student athletes work with recruiters and schools to ensure they're able to also balance academics?
Q What is your number one piece of advice for aspiring college athletes?
Q Transfer: Information for a college athlete wanted to transfer schools.
Athletic Recruiting Resources
- 11 Student Athletes on What They Learned Playing College Sports Huffington Post provides some unique perspectives from student athletes who played at the college level.
- Athletic Scholarships This free resource has a range of helpful eBooks on important topics, including a coach's database, how to communicate with college coaches, and how to create a recruiting resume.
- College Sports Scholarships A great resource for learning more about how to get recruited on an academic scholarship at colleges and universities.
- Doorway to College Foundation This organization provides numerous eBooks to help students and their families navigate the complicated world of becoming a college-level student athlete.
- National Fastpitch Coaches Association Lots of different types of sports maintain a list of resources specific to students who are actively working to gain the attention of college coaches. NFCA is an excellent example of what students should be looking for in their sport.
- Recruiting Calendars Wondering about when you can be contacted by coaches? The NCAA has a current calendar for each sport.
- Recruiting Realities In addition to providing one-to-one assistance to families of prospective student athletes, Recruiting Realities also has a range of seminars and web series to help educate them on the process.
- Student Athlete Resource Center When students begin contacting coaches at prospective schools, they may be wondering what to look for. Sacramento State provides an excellent page for prospective student athletes looking to learn more about the school and its athletic program.
- Support from high schools Lots of high schools are ready and willing to provide assistance to aspiring collegiate athletes. Rockland Public School in Massachusetts is a great example of the type of information a student's school can provide.
- What to Consider Before Playing a Sport in College StudentAdvisor provides insightful information for students going back and forth on whether to take their athletic passions to the college level.