How to Get Recruited as a College Athlete – NCAA or NAIA
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. This blog will tell you:
- How to register with the NCAA Eligibility Center
- How to get recruited by an NCAA Division I or II school
- What happens on an official athletic recruiting visit
- How to commit to the Division I or II school of your choice
- How to get recruited by an NCAA Division III or NAIA school
- How to commit to the Division III/NAIA school of your choice
- How to use athletics to gain admission at an elite school
- What are my odds of becoming a pro athlete?
Register with the NCAA Eligibility Center
It is critical not to ignore the “student” half of student-athlete. Anyone who wants to get recruited into an NCAA Division I or Division II school has to begin by registering for a “Certification Account” with the NCAA Eligibility Center, an organization that looks solely at academic eligibility. It is important to note that registering does NOT help you with the recruiting process; the singular purpose of this organization is to determine one’s academic eligibility.
When do I need to register with the NCAA Eligibility Center?
There are two possibilities—a) you are a junior who is pretty sure you will be recruited to a DI or DII program or b) a coach is recruiting you and asks you to register. You can register as early as freshman year of high school and you should wait no longer than the conclusion of junior year in order to allow sufficient time for processing.
How much does it cost to register?
For citizens of the United States and Canada it costs $90; students from other countries pay $150.
What will I need in hand before registering?
- an email address
- a record of your educational history
- a record of your history of sports participation
How long will it take to register?
To create a “Certification Account” expect to spend 30-45 minutes.
Step-by-step guide to registering with NCAA Eligibility Center
- Go to eligibilitycenter.org
- If you are aiming for Division I or II, select “Create and Account”.
- You will quickly receive an email with a verification code—then complete all of the basic contact info/demographic info.
- Pay the fee.
- Enter your school information
- You’ll be taken to a sports page where you will answer questions about the sport/sports you plan to play in college.
- Send your official SAT/ACT results and official transcripts.
- At the end of 11th grade, ask your counselor to send your transcript to the NCAA Eligibility Center.
- After April 1st, you can request your “final amateurism certification”.
- Have your counselor send your final transcript upon officially graduating from high school.
Get Recruited to a Division I or Division II school
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. Regardless of your situation you need to understand some basic rules. Of course, the NCAA’s recruiting rules are about as simple as the U.S. tax code.
Some of the basics rules of Division I/II recruiting include:
- In most (but not all) sports, coaches cannot contact you until after your sophomore year of high school. In other sports, the contact window does not begin until the fall of junior year. To make things extra confusing, just about every DI sport operates on a different recruiting calendar. Find the precise calendar for your particular sport of interest here.
- Within that calendar there are “contact periods” when a coach can make an in-person, off-campus visit to a recruit, “evaluation periods” when off-campus evaluations are allowed but no direct contact can be made, “quiet periods” when only in-person/on-campus contact can be made, and a “dead period” when no recruiting contacts or evaluations of any kind can take place.
- A “contact” is defined as any time a coach does more than just say hello during a face-to-face meeting.
Five things you can do to get on a coach’s radar
1) Have a long chat with your high school coach about what level of competition they think should aim for. Your coach may have many contacts at colleges where previous athletes they have worked with have been recruited. This is an excellent starting point.
2) Based on your coach’s input as well as your own research, begin contacting coaches early in high school. As the athlete, you are allowed to initiate contact via an email, letter, or phone call at any time—even in middle school if you wish.
3) Get your profile and athletic highlights on sites like BeRecruited, MaxPreps, hudl, or the National Collegiate Scouting Association. Some include free services and others have sliding scale fees depending on the extent of services you desire. You can even just post your highlights on YouTube and include the URL in any correspondence with coaches to ensure that they actually see it.
4) If possible, play on an elite travel team in your sport(s) of choice. NCAA coaches often scout at regional or national tournaments where high-caliber athletes are all competing against one another.
5) Attend camps or showcases put on by collegiate coaches. This is a great way to display your athletic gifts in the flesh and leave a lasting impression.
Ideally, these five action steps will result in you receiving an invitation for an “official visit” to campus in your junior or senior year.
What happens on an NCAA recruiting official visit?
An “official” visit is one that is financed by the school. These are typically only offered to top recruits. Each recruited athlete can only go on a total of five visits and cannot “officially” visit the same school more than once. There is no limit to how many schools Division II and III recruits can visit.
Visits are up to 48 hours long and can include three meals per day, three tickets to a home sporting event, transportation, and lodging for the duration of your visit. Parents are eligible to come with students on these visits but are encouraged to let their athlete guide the visit and take ownership of the process. A typical visit will involve:
- A campus tour
- Meeting with the coach, training staff, and current players
- The opportunity to sit in on a class
- A meeting with an academic advisor
- Taking in a game from the stands
The coach will want to get to you know you better as an individual and will likely also ask what other colleges are recruiting you and when you would be willing to commit if an offer is made. You should come armed with questions to ask the coach as well. Ask questions to which you really desire to know the answer such as, “What is the travel and practice schedule like in a typical week?” and, “What would you see my role being on the team?”
How do I commit to a Division I or II school as a college athlete?
We’ve covered the courtship process—now we move on the moment that an athlete and college are wed. Thanks to a series of NCAA rules changes in 2019, the earliest coaches in most sports can make a verbal scholarship offer in August or September of a student’s junior year. At that point, a student can elect to reciprocate with a verbal commitment on their end. The more formal commitment comes when a student is ready to sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI) on National Signing Day. National Signing Day is actually a window of time (of days or weeks) and it varies by sport. For sports like basketball and football there is typically an “early period” in the fall or winter and a “regular period” in the late winter or spring. All other sports have an initial signing date in mid-November.
You should be aware that signing a NLI removes your “free agent” status—no other school is allowed to actively recruit you after that point. So you want to be 100% sure that a school that you sign an NLI with is your number one choice. Signing an NLI guarantees you that will receive financial aid for year in exchange for your athletic participation.
Understand the commitment of playing DI or DII sports
While the NCAA officially restricts the amount of in-season practice time to 20 hours per week, most DI athletes actually report spending 30-40 hours week practicing and training. This is on top of games and often hectic travel schedules. Essentially, you are working a full-time job on top of conquering a full credit-load. This can work for students who are a) extremely passionate about and committed to their sport b) receiving a hefty scholarship or c) have aims to “go pro” after college. If you don’t fit any of those three categories DI or DII athletics may not be a choice you want to make.
For anyone seeking more a balance between academics and sports, looking toward a DIII or NAIA may be the perfect choice for you.
How to get recruited to an NCAA DIII or NAIA school
On the athlete’s end, those aiming for this level of competition will engage in the pretty much the same process as chronicled above for DI and DII hopefuls. Athletes who desire to compete at the DIII or NAIA levels should be proactive, posting highlights, contacting coaches, and working with their own coach and guidance counselor to find “good fit” schools from an academic and athletic perspective. The major difference in the DIII and NAIA recruiting processes is the extent to which coaches are free to contact you back.
Division III recruiting rules include:
- After 11th grade a coach can have unlimited contact with an athlete.
- Prior to 11th grade, a coach can send you printed materials and make contact by phone.
- Athletes are allowed one official visit to given school beginning senior year.
- Athletes can make as many unofficial visit as they like.
NAIA recruiting rules include:
- Athletes must register through the NAIA Eligibility Center, a similar process to that of an NCAA athlete.
- Recruiting rules are similarly lenient to those of NCAA DIII. Coaches can contact athletes any time.
- As with DIII, there are no “dead periods” or “quiet periods,” the recruitment process is less formal and more of an ongoing conversation than a rule-governed contract negotiation.
How to commit to the DIII or NAIA school of your choice
For those committing to a DIII school, you may be asked to sign a “Celebratory Signing Form.” This is a voluntary document but does allow students to participate in a formal signing ceremony at their high school to mark the achievement. NAIA athletes can follow a college-specific process of verbally committing or doing so in writing. This agreement is solely between the athlete and the college—the NAIA does not enforce the contract in any way.
Will I get a scholarship for playing DIII or NAIA sports?
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, NAIA athletes do receive scholarships, albeit not typically for the same substantial amounts as those awarded to NCAA DI athletes. On the other hand, NCAA Division III institutions are not allowed to dole out athletic scholarships. However, 75% of DIII athletes do receive some type of financial aid, even if it cannot be officially label an athletic scholarship. Instead, money is offered in the form of need-based aid, merit-based aid, or grants in a related area like “leadership.”
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 check out our YouTube tutorial on the subject—Playing your way into an elite college.
What are my odds of becoming a professional athlete?
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.
Looking at the numbers for men’s basketball paint a clear picture of the incredible odds that face high school athletes dreaming of playing pro hoops. Only 3.4% of high school basketball players go on to play in the NCAA. Among NCAA players, just 1.1% will go on to earn a living on the hardwood. In total, only 0.03% of high school basketball players make it all the way to the NBA.
- With over 480,000 NCAA 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.
- Take care of the academic end first. You need to be cleared by the NCAA Eligibility Center.
- While NCAA coaches are bound by a byzantine set of regulations, athletes can get on a coach’s radar through a variety of means.
- Hone in on the type of experience you desire in college as NCAA Division I or II vs. NCAA Division III or NAIA involve very different levels of commitment.
- 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.
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).