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College choice and application process for athletes

For all college-bound students, the process of choosing and applying to colleges has many steps. Student-athletes who plan on playing college sports are often faced with several additional ones. These students may need to:

  • Get clear about what level of play to aspire to. If you are working with a student who wants to get a scholarship to play a Division I sport, talk with the coach to see if the plans are realistic.
  • Attend summer sports camp at a college of interest. The college coach will see the athlete play and the student can check out the feel of the campus.
  • Register with the NCAA Eligibility Center. Athletes who aspire to NCAA Division I or II colleges need to register; others don’t. See NCAA Eligibility Basics
  • Send letters of interest to colleges that are a good fit. This should be done during the student’s sophomore and junior years.
  • Keep good records of contact with college coaches. The details of every meeting should be written down to avoid confusion later.
  • Prepare an athletic resume. It should have sections on basic student information, sports statistics beginning in the ninth grade and academic record.
  • Submit video showcasing athletic skills in a competitive situation. Accompany it with a statistics summary.
  • Use a special application marked with a code supplied by the college's athletic department. This tells the college’s admission office that the athletic department is interested in the student.

Topics to cover when discussing the college application process

Students may not be clear whether contact from a college coach means they are being recruited. Suggest they ask the coach:

  • Are you recruiting me?
  • Do I fit the accepted student profile at your college?
  • Is it likely that I will be admitted?

Stress to students that athletic participation is only part of the college choice decision. Ask students how they would feel about this college if they couldn't play (perhaps because of injury) or decided not to play.

Make sure they also know that athletic eligibility does not guarantee admission. The admission committee — not the college coach — decides whether students are admissible.

Urge students to look at the colleges' online team rosters for information such as how many players a team has for each position and the athletic stats of the players.

Advise students to look at the graduation rate of athletes at the college. A lower graduation rate may indicate that the college accepts student-athletes whose academic abilities aren't up to par or that the life of the athlete on that campus is not conducive to academic success.

Tell students to note what percentage of the student population is made up of athletes, and to consider whether they want to attend a college where athletes are a large presence or a small minority.

Remind students that if they play sports in college, they will be spending a lot of time with the coach. They should feel a rapport with the coaches at the colleges they are applying to.

Warn students about scouting and recruiting services that offer to "package" students for maximum appeal to colleges. The NCAA does not sanction or endorse any of these firms. 

When to apply 

Student-athletes also may face special considerations in application timing. For example, there are strict rules and timelines regarding contact from NCAA Division I and II coaches. Therefore, students playing some sports must reach out to college coaches in time for the coach to watch them play, while still following the eligibility rules.

College coaches eager to secure their athletes may urge students to apply early decision. Students who are considering applying early should know the rules and obligations of early decision programs.

Some student-athletes delay college entrance by a year. A 13th year or postgraduate program in high school can allow them to mature mentally, bring grades and test scores up to speed, and gain weight and strength. Division rules are complex about how grades for this year count toward eligibility. Any student considering this option should seek expert advice.

Students may transfer from a two- or four-year college to an NCAA college. Students must meet eligibility requirements to participate in sports or receive financial aid at that college. Download the NCAA transfer guide (.pdf/644K) from the Publications section of the NCAA website.