Last Updated: Dec 2, 2020
You live for sports. You’re an all-season athlete. Your teammates are your best friends. You’re also probably psyched (and a little nervous) about that mythical college recruitment process. Whether you’re a high school freshman or a senior, this is your college recruitment need-to-know introduction. Making it to high school isn’t just a rite of passage for students and athletes alike—it’s also the start of a four-year athletic recruitment process. Believe it or not, the best of the best in their respective sports are already being scouted as early as freshman year. Thanks to the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), recruitment is a finely tuned animal, but it can still make your head spin with all its intricacies. So grab your cleats, mouth guard, and uniform and let’s dive in.
NCAA vs. NAIA
The two main associations that govern collegiate athletics determine the process you’ll be going through. Yet, it all starts with figuring out what you’re looking for in a school and athletic program. Take some time and ask yourself these questions: Do I want a public or private college or university? A big or small school? Do I need an athletic scholarship? Once you start thinking about those questions, your path and the schools that best fit your personality will become much clearer. A basic difference between the NCAA and the NAIA is that the NCAA is the larger organization of the two, with over 1,000 affiliated colleges and universities; conversely, the NAIA has close to 300 participating member colleges and universities. NCAA schools also tend to be larger, and it includes the Ivy League, whereas NAIA schools fall on the smaller side. And just because the NCAA is better known doesn’t mean you won’t get the same athletic or academic experience at an NAIA school. In fact, NAIA schools are known to be the equivalent of a NCAA Division II school.
The athletic divisions
NCAA Division I is home to those larger public schools that normally have huge arenas and fields that you've probably seen on television before—those schools with more than 15,000 students like Penn State or the University of Tennessee. This division is highly competitive, and recruitment isn’t taken lightly by any means. Even though Division I is nationally recognized, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get that starting position you’re used to playing in high school. On the upside, however, Division I schools are so large that they tend to have a lot of money tucked away for their athletes. Division II schools are split right down the middle in the public/private arena, which is great because it allows for an array of choices. These schools, according to NCAA.org, have an average of about 4,500 students. It’s a nice mix of Division I and Division III athletics, and as far as money is concerned, more often than not, an athlete can walk away with at least a partial scholarship.
Last but not least is NCAA’s Division III, the lesser known and perhaps more overlooked of the three. One of the big differences you’ll find playing a varsity sport in this division is affiliated schools do not offer athletic scholarships. When asked why students should choose a Division III school over a Division I or Division II school, head basketball coach at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, Mike DeGeorge says, “For us as a top 50 national liberal arts college, we provide an academic experience that is unique. For the right student who wants high-end academics and an athletic experience that is highly competitive, but not a job, we can be a better fit than many scholarship schools.” It is important to note that the NCAA divisions are merely broken down by the number of athletic teams a school has. It is not a ranking system of how “good” a school is when it comes to athletics and academics.
Don’t let your grades slip
One myth that needs debunking: if you focus on and do well in your sports, grades and academics don’t matter—professors will treat you differently and let you “slide by” in your school work. False. According to Susie Whelan, former all-star player at the College of Holy Cross and current head field hockey coach at NCAA Division III school Worcester State University, academics are “very important, even though people don’t think they are because ‘sports get you in.’” Without strong grades and classroom performance, you can kiss furthering your athletic future goodbye. When asked if academics were important to the recruiters, Bridget Lemire, former high school athlete and current freshman softball player at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, responded with a resounding “Definitely.” “Before I was even allowed to go on an unofficial visit I had to have my grades faxed to UMass,” she says. At the end of the day, you might even be a recruiter’s top choice, but if you don’t get into the school through the regular application process—whether it’s because your application is incomplete or your grades weren’t good enough—you will not be playing on that school’s team any time soon. “We need great students who are talented players that possess toughness and a commitment to excellence,” says Coach DeGeorge.
What to do each year of school
The NCAA has specific rules for all its sports, making it difficult to list every intricacy between each division. While you can use the following information as a general guide, you should check out NCAA’s website for the particulars of what needs to be done for your sport.
- Freshman year: During freshman year of high school, your primary focus should be your academics, followed closely by working hard athletically. Take this time to peruse the NCAA site and learn about your sport and the different divisions. While you’re doing your research, start making a list of schools that stand out to you.
- Sophomore year: When sophomore year hits, start checking your mailbox for recruitment materials! The process really begins when you find out which schools and coaches are interested in you. In most cases, you can start contacting coaches in any of the divisions. They aren’t allowed to initiate contact with you at this point, so it’s all on you. You need to let coaches know you’re interested in them. Sophomore year also marks the start of standardized testing. Take the PSATs to get an idea of how the real SAT will go and show you where you need to improve before colleges see your scores. “At the end of your sophomore year before school lets out, request a copy of your transcript and school profile. Send a copy of your transcript, any test scores you have, and your profile to each school you are interested in,” says Coach Whelan.
- Junior year: When you finally reach junior year, it’s time to get serious. Believe it or not, college is right around the corner! Sign up for the SAT or ACT and get a head start, so if you don’t do so well the first time around, you can take them again. Talk to your school counselor about where you stand in your academics; they are one of the best resources you have available to you, since the NCAA rules are so strict about communicating with coaches
- Senior year: And then there’s senior year. This is when everything starts happening. Coaches can now contact you more frequently and can ask you to come to the school on official visits. This is also a time when a coach can have you come for an evaluation of your skills, which often includes practicing with the team.
As actual athletics are concerned, coaches “really want to see recruits live to evaluate,” says DeGeorge. “It is very difficult to get a feel for the speed and size of the game on film.” Seeing an athlete live can range from going to an actual game or going to a summer clinic or camp, both of which were a huge help for Lemire. “I went to all the summer camps and clinics that the UMass coach had; that really allowed me to be noticed by her.” If a coach is having a clinic and you're invited, go!
How to get noticed
There are many factors involved in getting noticed by a coach, including more than just your athletic ability and academic performance. “Make sure you represent yourself in the best possible way, especially off the field,” says Lemire. “Most coaches will look at how you treat your parents, how you talk to other people, and how you talk to your teammates. It may seem small, but it’s a very important thing.” At the end of the day, a coach wants the overall player. DeGeorge adds, “We work hard to evaluate in the spring and summer at AAU and exposure events, and then find out about academics and character to find the right fit.” It’s all about the melding of all aspects of an athlete. Whelan offers another great piece of advice: “Always be polite and don’t let your parents do all the talking! Parents should never be the ones calling the coach.” As you enter college, you are now an adult, so the recruitment process is something you really have to take ownership for.
Don’t get caught up in the semantics of NCAA or NAIA, or making your way onto the “best” team. You’ll find yourself stuck in the process and losing sight of what you’re really after—a school that fits you. Just remember your goals, visit schools, do your research until you find your #1 draft pick college or university, and everything else will fall into place.
For more advice to help you through your journey as a student-athlete, check out the content in our College Athletics section.