Advice for Athletes

Involvement in an athletic program at the college level requires a great deal of time and commitment regardless of the division. It is a huge decision that students must make early on in their high school career in order to prepare for recruitment and to research their opportunities. Many students (and their families) see an opportunity to obtain a free or nearly free college education through athletic scholarships at Division I and II schools. Be mindful that when playing a sport at this level it is like having a full time job on top of your job as a student. It is often said that for a DI student athlete the scholarship is more like a paycheck. It requires very hard work and strong time management skills. First year students should be prepared to sit the bench as older and more skilled teammates take the floor or field. This can be hard for students who have come from high school where they had likely been a star player. Nevertheless, you must always be ready to play and give 110% which means keeping up with training and practices. Sleep patterns can also be a challenge. Some sports require very early morning practices where the alarm goes off at 5 am or earlier. Rowers are notorious for being early risers! Also, meets, games, and tournaments and other athletic contests often require long bus rides or even flights. Sometimes this means missing classes and often precludes serious involvement in other campus activities. Also, summer practices and training can make it difficult for college athletes to hold summer jobs or participate in international study. Despite these sacrifices and the hard work, most athletes when asked to reflect on their college days, overwhelmingly say that they would do it all again in a heartbeat. Their teammates became their family, they learned how to manage their time, the skills they learned in working collaboratively towards a common goal helped them in their careers. Many students graduate with a higher GPA because of the mandatory study halls and academic support offered to athletes at many colleges. Last, but certainly not least, the thrill of playing and being cheered on by family and friends is a feeling that is hard to beat.

To play DI or DII athletics, students must register with the NCAA Eligibility Center: Students must register and be cleared by the Eligibility Center before they can receive an athletic scholarship. Registration fees are waived for students who have received a waiver for the ACT or SAT. Because they do not award scholarships, students applying to play at a DIII school need not register.

The NCAA has specific eligibility requirements for student athletes that include a number of specific core courses, a minimum grade point average, and standardized testing minimums. Complete information about requirements for the NCAA can be found on the website listed above.

What is the difference between DI, DII, DIII? What does life look like for a student in each division? 

The NCAA categorizes college athletics into 3 divisions which are commonly denoted as DI, DII, and DIII. Within each division are conferences; member schools compete with other schools within their division and conference. The following are some of the more well-known conferences. Note that there are exceptions within a division and/or conference so checking is advised. For example, although Hobart is a DIII college, the men’s lacrosse team is Division I. 

A sampling of conferences is as follows:

D I Big Ten, SEC (Southeastern Conference), ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference)`, 

                       Big East, Big 12.

D II      East Coast Conference, Northeast-10 Conference, Pennsylvania State 

                       Athletic Conference

D III     Liberty League, Little East Conference, NESCAC (New England Small College

                       Athletic Conference), NEWMAC (New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic


DI is the largest of the divisions and normally has the largest student bodies. These are the schools that garner the most attention as the games are often televised and have huge fan bases. They also have the largest budgets for scholarships that enable them to recruit the best athletes in their sport. In addition, these schools can offer the athletes scholarships that cover personal expenses above and beyond room, board and tuition.There are over 350 schools in this division. Division I athletes are effectively carrying a fulltime job on top of their academics. Most  DI schools are large public universities. The Ivy League is also DI although their scholarships are need-based. (See below)

DII  In this division of over 300 institutions there is a better balance between academic and athletics. This allows the student-athlete to have a college experience that involves other activities as well as more time to concentrate on studies. The financial remuneration, however, is not as great. While DII athletes can receive scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance, often they receive only partial awards related to their athletics, although this can be augmented by need-based financial aid.

DIII has more member schools than DI and DII with just over 445. At DIII schools, academics are more important than athletics and recruited athletes receive no scholarship money. They can, however, apply for and receive need-based financial aid. Most scholar-athletes, in fact, receive at least as much financial aid as those in DI and DII schools. Smaller colleges can offer student-athletes more personal attention, smaller classes, and more opportunities to meet students who are not on their team or involved in sports while still playing at a competitive level.

What does DI look like at an ivy league school?

Although the Ivies do not award athletic scholarships, they have generous financial aid based on need that can sometimes surpass the amount offered strictly on athletics. Also, athletic scholarships at other DI schools require a binding agreement that says your scholarship is only offered as long as you are on the team and perform at a certain level. There is no binding agreement to play at the Ivies since your scholarship is based on need. In addition, a student is not required to play for all four years – although most do because they love their sport.There are other differences between the Ivies and other DI schools. Ivies do not participate in the National Letter of Intent Program and “signing.” Coaches can sometimes speak with the student and family at the end of summer before senior year about their strong interest in the student, and the student may then receive a “likely” letter from the admissions office in October. Likely letters are sent to a number of students in October, including non-athletes. These letters mean that an acceptance is likely if the students maintain the same level of academic achievement throughout the year. And, although athletic excellence is certainly a large factor for recruited athletes, they have to meet very strenuous academic standards that far exceed those required by the NCAA. Ivies use a metric called the AI (Academic Index). Each Ivy League college has its own admission standards and there are different metrics for different sports. There are also restrictions on the number of hours students are allowed to practice and compete to allow sufficient time to complete academic work. Clearly, at an Ivy, academics come first despite the high level of play. This balance between academics and athletics is respected by both professors and coaches who tend to be more understanding about being late to practice or missing a class for an out-of-town game.

How can I be recruited to play a sport at the college level?

The process begins with the student. Create a list of colleges you are interested in and then ask yourself these questions: Do I have the academic credentials to be admitted? What is my level of play? What athletic division does my athletic talent place me in? Your high school coach and your club coach are important people to work closely with. Often they will have relationships with college coaches and a familiarity with the athletic programs at those colleges. They can help match you to the athletic programs that best fit your profile and will likely know what positions will be opening up that the coaches will be looking to fill.

You will need to create a resume that will include a full picture of your athletic achievements during high school with detailed statistics. Most students will also include a video of game highlights; you can include the link for this on your resume. Note that although you can hire a professional videographer to do this, it is just as satisfactory to have a family member make the video as long as the quality is sufficient to accurately highlight you. The resume must also include your academic information including your GPA and test scores. Your transcript should be attached. This resume should then be sent to the coaches at the schools you are interested in or those that have expressed interest in you. Be sure that you are familiar with the athletic programs at these schools so that you will be prepared to ask and answer relevant questions when the coach contacts you. This will also show your interest in the school. It is vitally important that you check your email every day so as not to miss an email from the coach. Likewise, if you have given your cell phone number, check that daily for text messages. Missing a contact from a coach is not advised. If you do not hear back from a coach, reach out again to him/her within a few weeks, try to call the coach. Remember that the coaches are very busy and may not see every email but may pick up the phone. Do not ignore coaches reaching out to you from schools not at the top of your list as they may become attractive options further down the line.

Although summer camps and showcases are widely believed to be necessary ways to gain exposure, they are also expensive. Most coaches who attend these events are there to see specific students whom they have already identified or been in contact with. Also, due to the cost of these programs, coaches know that many of their recruits and other top players in their sport will not be there. They rely on high school and club coach referrals to bring these players to their attention. When all is said and done, each sport is like a small club. The college coaches and recruiters tend to be aware of the outstanding high school players who are coming up. Again, this is why it is so important to work closely with your coaches.

Is the recruiting process different for different sports?

Spring sports such as tennis and lacrosse tend to recruit earlier as they will not have a senior year spring season for coaches to see. On the other hand, recruitment for most sports is beginning earlier and earlier. It is no longer unusual for coaches to begin identifying athletes as early as ninth grade and then closely following their progress – sometimes even making unofficial offers contingent upon continued play at the expected level and assuming that all academic benchmarks are met. 

It is important to know that recruitment practices differ from college to college depending on the coach and the sport. Even colleges within the same conference can work on different schedules for contacting possible recruits, and each college has different needs in terms of what positions they need to fill. This is another reason to always stay in close contact with your high school and club coaches for they are usually the people who keep abreast of the needs of college teams and have relationships with the college coaches. 

Who makes the admissions decisions?

The answer to this question is the admissions office. However, depending on the college, the coaches often weigh in very heavily on this decision. The more academically selective the college, the more important your academic record will be. Although being a top pick by the coach is a very positive sign, it does not always yield an accept. DI (with the exception of the Ivies) and DII schools often yield to the recommendation of the coach as long as the student meets the NCAA guidelines. The Ivies and DIII schools may give a boost for the recommendation of the coach, but the academic metrics must also be met. If a coach really wants a student, that coach will keep in close contact and let the student know what he/she has to do to meet the qualifications, and these academic metrics vary from school to school.

What if I want to play a sport in college but know that I won’t be recruited?

There are many opportunities to become involved in athletics in college. If you have played a sport throughout high school and would love to play on a team in college but have not been recruited, you can always try to “walk on” when you get there. Many students have successfully become team members simply by showing up to the first practice or try out. Sometimes coaches will even suggest that to a student who they know is good but did not make the cut during recruitment. And nearly all colleges have club teams, intramural teams, and informal pick-up games. There are opportunities for everyone. You might even try to learn a new sport that few high school students have been exposed to like water polo or fencing so that you are coming in as a beginner along with everyone else.

How important are college visits/tours?

If you are being recruited,the coaching staff will let you know when to come for an official visit or visits according to NCAA guidelines. These visits will give you an opportunity to practice with the team, spend the night in a dorm, and generally become familiar with the athletic program and the coach(es) and players. You will be able to decide if this is a good fit for you in terms of athletics and if you feel comfortable with the people you would be spending the majority of your time with for the next four years. You should also keep in mind, however, that the school should be a good academic fit. Be sure to speak with non-athletes while on campus to ask questions about the workload, academic support, etc. 

Campus visits for non-recruited athletes provide an excellent opportunity to meet with people in addition to those in the admissions office. When planning your visit, email the coach of the sport you may be interested in playing whether as a walk-on or in a club program. If they know ahead of time that you are coming, coaches are almost always willing to spend a few minutes with prospective students, and this will give you another point of connection with the college and an additional way to show interest. 

Resource guide created by Cindy Pendergast