An Inside Look at College Athletic Recruitment

The college athletic recruitment process can be competitive for student-athletes. If you want to play sports in college, here's an inside look at how it works.

Depending on whether or not you have a lot of colleges interested in you for your sport of choice, the college recruitment process can be really exciting or really frustrating. The truth is that it’s different for everyone. Sometimes it boils down to that perfect timing when a coach sees you make a great play—and sometimes you may feel like the unluckiest athlete in the world. If you’re wondering what you may encounter, here’s what you should know about college recruitment as a student-athlete.

Catching up on college recruitment

I’ve been a softball player since I was eight. Just like any kid playing sports, I started off in Little League and rec, but once I reached seventh grade, there was already talk about college. At that age, how was I supposed to know what college I wanted to go to? Little did I know when I was playing in the 12U World Series Tournament, I should’ve been getting scouted for college softball. After hearing about some of my friends verbally committing to big universities when they were only 12, I felt like I was playing catch up until I was 17. Today at Florida State University, I’m active in intermural sports, on the club softball team, and have volunteered as a team manager for the NCAA softball team in the past. I chose the path that worked best for me, and you have to do the same for you.

Related: 22 Essential Social Media Tips for Athletic Recruitment

When the recruitment process starts

Whether you’re a man or a woman and depending on what sport you play, the recruitment process can happen at different times. From my experience with playing travel softball, the recruitment process to big Division I (D-I) schools happened when I was in middle school. I had friends verbally committed by the beginning of eighth grade. The reason colleges do this is because theoretically these players will get scooped up quickly by another college if they don’t act fast. That being said, if you’re a true D-I player with the size, speed, and skill and you don’t blossom until high school, the big D-I’s will still most likely make room for you on their roster—if they need you. D-II colleges don’t recruit until later. Roughly, D-II’s will begin looking for prospects when they start high school, and D-III colleges generally recruit players that are juniors and seniors in high school. The rule of thumb is the higher the division, the sooner they start the recruitment process. But there are still rules for the recruitment process that players and college coaches must follow. There are different rules for each Division I sport, while the same rules apply for all sports in Division II and III athletics.

Sports camps and getting scouted

There’s no secret formula to getting noticed by athletic recruiters. However, looking back on my six years in the recruitment process, I have a good idea. First and foremost, a lot of the recruitment process is who you know. If you’re on a team that sent six girls to the college you want to go to, you’re in a pretty good place to get scouted by that school. However, the sports world can be very closed off, forcing athletes to make their own path. If you don’t have connections, the best way to get on a college’s radar is to go to sports camps.

Camps are a big money maker for college athletic teams and also a great resource to learn more about and grow in your sport. But there’s a difference between being a “camper” and being a “prospect.” Being a camper means you paid a lot of money to be instructed by that college’s coaching staff and players for a few days. If you’re a prospect, then the head or assistant coach personally emailed you encouraging you to sign up for their camp. Generally, this will happen if they’ve been in contact with you before and/or they’ve already seen you play. When I was going through this process, I received dozens of emails per week from colleges “inviting” me to camp—they were actually inviting me to spend hundreds of dollars to help fund their program. I received a total of about five personal invites to camps from head coaches when I was going through the recruitment process. Keep this in mind when getting emails about sports camps. You’ll know which is a personal email inviting you to camp because most likely you had contact with the coach and college prior to the invite.

Related: Get Your Game on at Summer Sports Camps

If you attend a sports camp

Now that you’re at camp, you need to look at the fields/courts that you’re on and the players you’re with. Are you with other players who match your skills, or are the other players significantly less experienced than you? Are you on the “important” fields/courts? Are you getting a lot of attention from the coaching staff? These are important questions to ask yourself. There will be athletes who are on the coach’s radar (prospects), and there will be athletes that are just a part of the crowd (campers). 

First, look around at the group you’re in. If they’re significantly less experienced, you may be overlooked. If they’re at your skill level, you may either be in a group that matches your level, or you could be getting looks. Second, determine whether you’re on the “good” fields/courts. At any camp I’ve ever been to, there are certain groups where the whole coaching staff stands and watches. There are also crummier fields where none of the coaching staff are. Finally, ask yourself: are you getting a lot of instruction from the coaching staff? If you’re on good fields/courts, you’ll probably receive more instruction from the coaching staff. However, the coaching staff usually tries to make rounds and give instruction to all campers because they are genuinely excited that you’re showing interest in their program. But camps are still a great place to get recognized, and it’s totally possible to go to a camp and not be on the college’s radar and leave the camp on their list.

Related: 4 Things Student-Athletes Should Do This Summer

When to talk to coaches

Any time you see a college coach watching your game, you can email them—they just can’t email you back unless you’re at a certain age, according to formal recruitment rules. Tell them your name, tell them something they would remember about you from the game they watched, and thank them for coming out to watch. It’s always a good idea to get your name in their head. You can also ask your coach to talk to the college coach if they’re from a school you’re interested in. There are rules about you and the college coach communicating, but there are no rules about your current coach talking to the college recruiter on your behalf. Additionally, any time you go to a camp, go to the coach after camp is over and thank them. Also send them a follow-up email to thank them again in the next few days to keep yourself in front of them.

Finding the right college athletics program for you

If you want to play the sport you love in college, there is a college out there for you. It may not be one of the colleges you watch on TV, but there are a lot of schools out there. With that being said, you must weigh what’s most important to you. For me, the most important thing was going to my dream school and receiving a good education. Attending Florida State meant I had to come to terms with not attending college on a softball scholarship. I chose this because I got the best of both worlds—I’m able to continue my softball career with the club team while being at the school I always wanted to go to. In the end, you’ll need to determine your athletic priorities and your college priorities and go from there.

Related: 5 Questions to Answer Before Become A College Athlete

It may feel like every other student-athlete is getting attention but you. It may feel like all your teammates are committed but you. But there is a college out there for you if you want to play your sport in college. College athletics are a huge commitment no matter the division, and it’s a big sacrifice to make. You have to make the best choice for you and your future. If NCAA athletics aren’t in the cards, there are other levels and other ways you can get involved with a college’s sports team. Alternatively, if playing on the varsity team is your dream, just because you didn’t get a scholarship doesn’t mean you can’t be a student-athlete. If you really want it, go for it. A lot of the recruitment process is who you know, timing, and drive. After that, you have to trust that everything will work out exactly how it’s supposed to.

For more information and advice about playing sports in college, check out our College Athletics section.

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