Sports are very important in many high school students' lives, and athletes often dream of joining a university-level team when the time comes. Unfortunately, however, college recruiters can't possibly see all of the athletic talent in the country, which means that not every student-athlete can be recruited for a college-level team.
Even if you don't get recruited, however, there are still plenty of opportunities to play sports in college — but the hunt for a college with athletics should start in the beginning of the college search. Division I and II colleges and universities usually offer scholarships, while Division III provides the opportunity to play but is typically less competitive and may not offer scholarships. There is also the option of attending a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) institution. These schools are typically less competitive than NCAA schools, but do often provide scholarships.
"Many students want to 'play DI' sports, but fewer than two percent of high school athletes will end up playing at that level," says Kristina Martin, undergraduate admissions counselor at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., who ran track in college. "Being an athlete at most DI schools is like having a part-time job, so students have to juggle very demanding practice and game schedules with their schoolwork."
If you are serious about competing in your sport in college, reach out to the coach at the schools you are considering, Martin advises. "Many athletic webpages will have a recruiting form, which a student can fill out and submit directly to the head of that program."
Martin recommends that students contact coaches at institutions they are interested in attending at the end of their junior year of high school.
Set Goals From the Start of the College Search
When it comes to playing sports in college, you have to determine your goals from the beginning of your college search. If you simply want to continue playing sports, there are many opportunities for you. In that case, one of the best things you can do is find out whether or not coaches have walk-on policies at schools you are considering. If your primary goal is to get an athletic scholarship and you have professional aspirations, then the most competitive Division I schools should be on your list, but so should less competitive schools in case you don't get recruited.
“The more restrictions you place on your goals for intercollegiate athletics, the harder they are to achieve; the more flexible and open you are for your goals, the easier it will be," says Jeffrey Durso-Finley, co-director of college counseling at the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J., and author of Understanding Athletic Recruiting.
Nearly every team at St. Martin's University in Lacey, Wash., for example, offers walk-on opportunities for non-recruited student athletes. This means that even if you were not recruited to play sports, you can still try out for the team as a student and possibly have the opportunity to play just like a student-athlete who was recruited.
Every student-athlete should check with colleges they want to apply to and ask whether there are walk-on opportunities.
“The hard part with that is that you're up against, obviously, people who have been recruited, but we have had people here who have actually walked on and then really proven themselves, worked really hard, put their heart and soul into it and then were, too, offered a scholarship," says Pamela Holsinger-Fuchs, dean of enrollment at Saint Martin's University.
If you still want to try for a Division I or Division II scholarships, you might consider attending a community college that has a sports program.
“That allows them to get the play time that they need," says Holsinger-Fuchs. “There are a lot of the coaches that do scouting at those junior colleges for talent. They kind of watch them develop and then work with them to offer them a scholarship spot."
But keep in mind that attending a community college does not guarantee that you will be recruited — it is just another option to consider.
Be A Student First, Then An Athlete
You should remember that you're going to college to pursue academics so you can prepare for a future career. Playing sports may be a large part of that, but keeping the future in mind beyond sports is crucial in the college search.
“We put the emphasis on 'student-athlete' because we believe you're going to college first to be a student to get your degree, to move ahead into whatever your career field is going to be. Secondly, you're an athlete. And that's great, but for most people, you're not going to be a professional," says Holsinger-Fuchs.
Durso-Finley, who has advised hundreds of student-athletes, agrees. “Apply to a college as a student, not as an athlete," he advises. “No essays on sports. No recommendations from coaches. The admission office looks to extend an invitation to come to a campus for academic and personal reasons. If a coach supports you, that will appear outside your application. If you walk on, that will happen after you apply and matriculate. Be a student first and an athlete second."
Final Words of Wisdom for Student-Athletes
In some cases, parents are actively involved in seeking a college where you can play sports, but it is important to be true to yourself regarding your goals in terms of college and athletics.
“Don't let your parents drive the process," says Durso-Finley. “They won't practice a minute, lift a weight, run a sprint or take a class for you while you balance your sport. The college has to be the right fit for you athletically and academically."
Also, don't sit on the sidelines waiting to be recruited. You have to be the one driving the search for the right college for you.
“If you wish to play sports in college, you should be self-recruiting from the outset — don't wait for coaches to come to you," advises Durso-Finley. "Everyone can find a place to play their sport. The coaches might determine 'where' that might be or whether or not you could play for them, but there's a spot for everyone if you are flexible and willing to do the work."