Dreams of playing “college ball” — or swimming, or golf or any number of sports — fill many a young athlete’s head. But I regularly hear questions and confusion about how to make this dream come true. Potential student-athletes want to know, “How do I get recruited? Am I good enough to play Division I? How do I get an athletic scholarship? What’s a good fit academically and athletically?”
My goal is to answer all of these questions and help student-athletes get into a college where they can be successful.
The playbook: Tips for applying to college as a student-athlete
There are many different opportunities to play sports in college. To find the right balance between school and college sports, consider the following information and tips about applying to college via the athletics route.
The bond between athletics and college goes back to 1852 with intercollegiate rowing between Yale and Harvard. As the popularity of college basketball and football increased, the need for an athletic oversight body arose. Under guidance from Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century, the National Collegiate Athletic Association was established. Its mission today is “to be an integral part of higher education and to focus on the development of our student-athletes.”
The modern NCAA is made up of more than 1,280 institutions, conferences, organizations and individuals that organize the athletic programs of many colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. There are three divisions, or levels, of play. Only a small percentage of athletes play Division I, but many are a good fit for Division II or III.
* Division I: The most expensive, competitive and time-consuming; toughest eligibility requirements; 337 active university members; may offer athletic scholarships.
* Division II: Intermediate level; tends to be smaller public schools and many local private schools that draw locally and play closer to home; 290 active university members; may offer athletic scholarships.
* Division III: Largest division, with members ranging in size from 500 to 10,000 students; 435 active university members; regional seasons, each school sets eligibility; may not offer athletic scholarships.
Game plan: Educate, market and strategize. E-M-S!
To find the right mix of athletics and academics, keep this simple cheer in mind: E-M-S! E-M-S!
* E is for educate. Along with athletic skills, education — in the form of good grades and solid test scores — is key. Coaches want to recruit someone who will not fail out of school and they will offer more incentives (i.e., money) to attract these student-athletes.
Specifically, a potential student-athlete should:
1. Work with teachers, coaches and counselors to manage his courseload and athletic schedule without jeopardizing grades. Maybe even consider a “prep year” (an additional year of senior high to mature and gain skills).
2. Download current copy of the NCAA Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete. http://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/CBSA.pdf. This is your lifeline. Learn it. Live it.
3. Sign up with the NCAA Eligibility Center at the beginning of the junior year, http://web1.ncaa.org/ECWR2/NCAA_EMS/NCAA.jsp. You are not eligible for D-I or D-II without this certification. Remember, grades in your ninth- through 12th-grade courses count toward eligibility.
* M is for market. Be proactive and market yourself, but always be mindful of recruiting rules and regulations.
1. Initiate contact with between 30 and 50 colleges of interest.
2. Put together and email/send an athletic résumé. It should have three sections: personal, academic and athletic information, as well as a picture. (There are lots of good sources on the web for this.)
3. Make a highlights video. Upload it to YouTube or create a DVD to send to coaches. Make sure it looks professional and showcases your skills … no “family video” feel to it.
4. Notify coaches of your game schedule and when they can observe you.
5. Participate in camps, clubs and showcase tournaments. Get exposure. However, this can get expensive, so prioritize and focus on the smaller camps with the most exposure to scouts/coaches to maximize chance for success.
* S is for strategize. Learn about the schools and their athletic programs to see where you would fit in. Be savvy about where, when and how to apply. Consider hiring a recruiting service. Some are better than others, although they are not endorsed by the NCAA.
1. Make unofficial visits. Set up meetings with admissions officers, observe a practice or game, and meet coaches (after July 1 of 11th grade). Remember official visits are allowed only during senior year, and there is a limit to how many. See the NCAA Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete for more information.
2. When it comes time to apply, start even earlier and apply to more schools than the usual eight to 12. Aim for approximately 20 since you don’t know who else is being considered for the team you are interested in.
3. Make sure the school is a place you want to go even if you end up not playing. Injury, changes in coaching staff and the general time constraints of college can lead to a decision to take a break from your sport.
4. Be open to the community college route. More students are being recruited via this route. Don’t forget there’s no guarantee that you will be able to transfer. You need to make it happen.
5. Research scholarship options in your sport. There are different kinds. “Head count” scholarships in basketball and football have a maximum number of scholarships that can be given in any year. On the other hand, “equivalency” scholarships in sports like volleyball, soccer and baseball have a set amount of money that can be divided among players.
As always, consult reputable sources. I recommend “The Academic Athlete” by Dickson and Laughrea, the UC Davis Student-Athlete Guidance Services website (http://athletics.ucdavis.edu/academicservices/Old/SAGS/Where.htm) and “The Sports Scholarships Insider’s Guide,” by Dion Wheeler.
The end game
Before I sign off, let me shed a little more light on the subject. How likely is it to get a scholarship? And for how much?
The reality is that athletic scholarships must be renewed annually — they are not guaranteed year-to-year. Only about 0.6 to 0.8 percent of all high school students receive a full D-I athletic scholarship, according to “The Academic Athlete.” Most schools offer scholarships that cover 25 to 75 percent of the cost of college (ncaa.org). Considering that the average cost of tuition, room and board for college for one year is about $32,000 (National Center for Education Statistics), an athletic scholarship can make college more affordable but not necessarily free.
Let’s also look at the chances of competing beyond high school. The NCAA website shows the probability of this for various sports. Only 6.4 percent of high school football players go on to play in the NCAA and 0.08 percent play professionally. For women’s basketball, for instance, the percentage of high school students who play in the NCAA is 3.7 percent and 0.03 percent play professionally. The comparable numbers for men’s soccer are 5.6 and 0.03 percent.
Does this mean that it is not worth it to try to play intercollegiate sports? No! It is about finding what is right for you.
With all of this sobering news, it is hard to see the goal posts sometimes. But the good news is that if you really want to play intercollegiate sports there is a place out there for you. Whether a D-III school, a community college or the The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (see box), just be sure to find a good fit. And, don’t forget, employers look favorably on student-athletes who have successfully balanced the demands of college and sports. So, focus on E-M-S and go for it!
— Jennifer Borenstein is an independent college adviser in Davis and owner of The Right College For You. Her column is published on the last Tuesday of the month. She lives in Davis with her husband and two daughters. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.therightcollegeforyou.org.
Other college athletic options
* The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics
The NAIA includes 400 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada; more relaxed rules; athletic scholarships; 60,000 student-athletes.
* United States Collegiate Athletic Association: The USCAA includes 100 small schools with specific sport opportunities in baseball, basketball, cross country, track and soccer.
* The National Christian College Association: The NCCAA includes about 100 schools.
* The National Junior College Athletic Association: The NJCAA includes two-year colleges where students earn associate degrees; there are 5,000 schools with opportunity to improve and then transfer to a four-year school.