Each fall, more than 480,000 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) student-athletes ready themselves for competition in 24 sports at 1,281 college and universities. Roughly 176,000 individuals participate in Division I athletics, 119,000 in Division II, and almost 188,000 in Division III. Over 2.7 billion dollars in athletic scholarships are distributed every year to roughly half of the Division I/Division II players (150,000 students). An additional 60,000 post-secondary students participate in athletics through the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). The average scholarship for an NAIA athlete in $7,000.

That’s a whole lot of statistics that add up to one major takeaway—with more than half a million slots available nationwide, those with legitimate ability in a given sport have a realistic chance to don a college uniform and, quite possibly, also enjoy a greatly reduced tuition. The big question for young men and women who wish to continue their sports career beyond high school is how to navigate the recruitment process and end up at institution that will meet their athletic and academic needs.

What is your ultimate goal?

Out of the more than 500,000 student-athletes, only a small number will harbor realistic hopes of one day making a living playing professional sports or competing in the Olympic Games. It’s important to be aim high with your athletic goals but to simultaneously keep in mind the statistical odds that you face of actually “going pro.” Across all sports, just 6% of high school athletes will go on to play an NCAA sport. Out of the already-elite pool of NCAA athletes, just 2% will be drafted into major professional sports leagues. From that minuscule percentage that is drafted, only a sliver will go on to lengthy, highly-lucrative careers.

Of course, not everything in life is about the bottom line. Playing sports collegiately may be a true calling and life-defining experience in its own right. Think hard about whether you identify more as an athlete or as a student. Life as a student-athlete in a Division I environment is often a 30-40 hour per week commitment, essentially as time-consuming as full-time employment while taking a full load of college coursework. On the other end of the spectrum, Division III affords students the chance to engage in highly-competitive sports, while still focusing heavily on their studies.

Using athletics to gain admission at an elite school

Many Ivy League schools and many elite colleges with Division III athletics purport not to grant admissions favor or any edge in scholarship consideration to student-athletes. However, in our experience, an edge on the gridiron, diamond, hardwood, field, track, etc. is an edge in the admissions process at many prestigious schools. In fact, studies suggest that status as a coveted athlete is worth roughly 200 SAT points. For more on this topic revisit our blog Playing your way into an elite college.

How to get noticed

If you are a standout, all-conference player at a powerhouse high school, coaches and scouts will, in all likelihood, find you. Those at smaller high schools, especially ones whose competition is primarily a network of other tiny schools, will have to work a bit harder to gain notice. Here are the basic steps that all athletes should follow in an effort to get on coaches’ radar:

  1. Register with the NCAA and/or NAIA.
  2. Create an account on a free recruiting website like BeRecruited or Next College Student Athlete or investigate reputable for-pay options like SportsRecruits.com or Captain U (which also offers basic services free of charge).
  3. Put together a stellar highlight reel and post on sites like YouTube, Hudl, or on your profile page on one of the above recruiting sites.
  4. Attend camps or showcase events offered by colleges.
  5. Play on an elite travel team in addition to your high school squad is another way to gain exposure and demonstrate your skills against superior competition across a larger geographical region.
  6. Email or call coaches of teams at your schools of interest. Introduce yourself and provide links to online profiles with highlight videos. However, it is important to note that marketing your all-star skills must all be done within the parameters of the NCAA/NAIA guidelines.

NCAA recruiting rules

The NCAA’s recruiting rules are about as simple as the U.S. tax code. Some of the basics of Division I recruiting include:

  • Coaches cannot contact you until September 1st of your junior year
  • You can contact coaches prior to that date but they cannot return your contact
  • Beginning 9/1 of your junior year, coaches can send you personalized letters
  • You can make five expense-paid trips of no longer than 48 hours to up to five colleges beginning on the first day of classes, senior year.

Division II and III recruiting rules are a bit more lenient. For example, coaches can make phone contact at any point with a teen. Check out the full set of regulations here.

Key Takeaways

  • With over 500,000 NCAA/NAIA athletes competing every year, those who star locally at the high school level have a very real chance to pursue their sport at the collegiate level
  • Ponder your ultimate goal in athletics. With the odds of going pro being extremely slim, make sure that your college choice aligns with your future goals.
  • Athletics can also be a gateway into a prestigious school where admission would otherwise be unlikely.
  • Understand how to market yourself to coaches at prospective institutions.
  • Learn the NCAA/NAIA recruiting rules and adhere to them.
Dave Bergman

Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).