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Understanding the College Athletic Recruiting Process

Fit is the most important concept in this whole process of researching colleges—size, location, academic programs, quality of life, etc. For Thayer students who wish to play a sport at the varsity level in college, there is an added wrinkle or two in the college search. A tiny percentage of high school athletes ever play on any college team at any level. For basketball and football it is around 5% according to the NCAA, and it isn’t much higher in other sports. From the highest level of Division I to the lowest levels of Division III there is a huge range of athletic talent, but there is a great deal of overlap (the highest level of Division II talent may be stronger than the lower levels of Division I, and so on).

Figuring out the fit

Can I play?

Figuring out where a high school athlete will fit in this college array can be puzzling, but here are some bits of advice. Being the last player on a ladder or the third string running back will probably mean a lot of time on the bench for at least one or two years. For some that’s fine; the team experience is worth it all. But for others, not competing is a problem when the excitement and fun of competition isn’t there, and when the coach every year is trying to recruit someone better than you.

Do I want to play?

College teams practice many more hours a week than high school teams. Twenty hours a week is common, and some college athletes in elite programs report forty or more hours a week. That’s more like a job than a sport, leaving little time to do other things like a social life or attending classes. Most Thayer students are accustomed to engaging in a number of extracurricular activities; most college athletes don’t have time for activities outside their sport. Some college coaches will dictate to students what courses they can or can’t take; some will dictate whether a student can go abroad for a semester. These are issues that affect a student’s quality of life in college, and a student is well advised to anticipate, before he or she chooses a college, how these issues will play out.

How do I know if I am being recruited?

These days, even at the NCAA division III level, “walk-ons” (students who try out for a team but were not actively recruited prior to freshman year) are rare. Most college team rosters are made up of athletes who were recruited at some point in high school. For most recruits their first contact with a college coach is in the junior year, junior/senior summer, or first semester senior year. Some athletes may be contacted as early as sophomore year. College coaches know that their success depends partly on their skill as coaches, but also on their ability to recruit talented athletes in their sport. Consequently coaches have to evaluate the athletic talent of students as young as sixteen. At the more academically competitive colleges and universities the coaches also have to evaluate the academic credentials of their would-be recruits.

Coaches find out about prospective athletes in a variety of ways: summer camps and showcases, all-scholastic nominees that are announced in local papers, contact with high school, AAU, junior team coaches, regional and national rankings (in tennis and golf), and word of mouth. Some athletes take the initiative and contact college coaches directly through email or through on-line recruiting forms usually found on a college websites.

Typical recruiting cycle


Once a college coach has developed a list of prospective athletes, he or she will send out a form letter describing the program and inviting a response. Depending on the size of the program a coach may send out 250 or more of these form letters. Some of these letters will immediately find their way to the trash basket! Other students will respond and that starts the dialogue. Getting one of these letters, by itself, doesn’t mean a lot, but discarding it likely results in that student being eliminated from the pool of potentials.

If a student responds, the dialogue often takes the following form: a request for more information (height, weight; game/match experience; honors; position played, GPA’s, SAT’s, etc.). Contact may be in the form of letters, emails, calls, texts, and face to face meetings. The NCAA restricts when coaches (at Division I and II) can contact high school students directly, but there are really no such restrictions placed on Division III coaches.

Visits to colleges

As the process unfolds over time a coach may call, asking the student if he or she would like to visit the college for a couple of days, meet the team, and generally get the feel of the place. Typically these visits happen in the fall of the senior year. An official visit is one in which the college pays the student’s travel expenses, and the NCAA places limits on how many official visits a student can make. Usually prior to such a visit a coach has taken a student’s high school transcript and standardized testing results to the college admissions office to make sure that that student is admissible.

After the visit

If all goes well with the visit (and this is not the time for a high school student to indulge in college social life), a coach may give the student some sort of positive feedback ranging from the offer of athletic scholarship (at some Division I and II colleges) to more like “we would love to have you on our team, please apply early decision (or early action) by the following deadline. . .” Remember, the admissions office does the admitting, not the athletic office. Typically a coach may submit several names to the admissions office, but they aren’t all likely to be admitted. Some conferences such as NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference) have conference wide rules that a coach will not initiate contact with a recruit after an application has been filed and before the admission decision is mailed.

Tips on interacting with college coaches

Here are some important elements to keep in mind. Some coaches may not be completely forthcoming with an honest appraisal. Part of that may simply be that they hedge their bets not knowing where their prospects are likely to attend. For example, many of the hockey prospects for Middlebury College are also prospects for Williams, Bowdoin and Trinity. Prospects for Yale may also be prospects for Cornell, Harvard, etc. Coaches in a conference may well talk to each other about their prospect pool, so it is not a good idea for the athlete to lead on coaches. But if an athlete is genuinely undecided, then he or she should say so. If a coach, who has been frequently in contact with an athlete, suddenly stops, that’s a good sign that he or she has found someone else who is a better fit for the team. In general coaches want to communicate directly with the high school athlete. They will answer questions for parents, but parents should take a back seat in coach interaction. An overbearing parent may well turn off a coach’s interest.

Who advises the student in this process?

As a high school junior or senior evaluates his abilities or her goals as far as college athletics are concerned, the most helpful advice will be that which is totally honest. Honest self-evaluation comes from heart to heart talks with high school, AAU or junior coaches. They know the students, the colleges, and what may be the best fit athletically. Be cautious about hiring services that propose to act as intermediaries. Agents are forbidden by the NCAA, and hiring one results in the loss of amateur standing. Although the Thayer college counselors have advised many students who go on to play college athletics, we are not in a position to evaluate specific athletic skills, nor are we generally aware of colleges’ specific needs.

What should I do before grade 11?

Younger students (grades 6-10) who engage in interscholastic or junior sports are generally competing with other students their same age. As a result an athlete, who may dominate competition as a younger player because of height and weight, may lose that edge four years later when the competition catches up in growth. Boys typically do not reach their adult height and weight until their early twenties, the time when they will be competing in college. The best advice for a younger athlete is to develop age appropriate skills in a sport, but the significant risk is injury to growing bones and joints if a young athlete concentrates too much on a single activity. Year round specialization can result in faster development in skill, but carefully planned cross training is essential. Some younger athletes would benefit more from trying a number of sports, especially if the routine of one sport becomes boring or burdensome. High school is likely to be the last time when an athlete can play more than one sport since most college athletes simply don’t have the time to play more than one.

The amount of time a young athlete commits to a sport outside of school should be regulated by other commitments in the athlete’s life: mainly keeping up with academic work. Playing on a high school team is a big time commitment, making a second commitment to an outside team very difficult. Off seasons and especially summers are probably the best time to increase athletic commitment. There are many well organized summer camps and showcases in most sports, and by the junior/senior summer these are often a primary recruiting event for college coaches.

By the end of the junior year student/athletes should have their transcripts sent to the NCAA Eligibility Center if they want to be considered for NCAA Division I or II teams.

In general, coaches and college counselors at Thayer are available to confer with students and parents and welcome the contact.

Here are some helpful online resources:

http://web1.ncaa.org/ECWR2/NCAA_EMS/NCAA.jsp This link takes you to the NCAA Eligibility Center, the organization that reviews student/athlete’s eligibility to play on Division I & II teams.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAJurmQ372U&feature=related There are a lot of videos on YouTube that explain the college recruiting process. This is one of the better ones (it’s the first in a series).

http://www.thayer.org/page.cfm?p=1119 This is a listing, by sport, of where Thayer athletes have played in college.

http://www.thayer.org/page.cfm?p=980 This link takes you to the Thayer Academy College Counseling Handbook. Pay particular attention to Chapter 6 “Special Categories.”



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