The College Search: Athletic Scholarships

Winning athletic scholarships isn't easy, but there are ways to maximize a high school athlete's chances.

May 12, 2010 8:09:01 AM PDT
Winning scholarships from colleges to play NCAA sports can be an involved process that usually means a lot of extra work by the student athlete and his or her parents, on top of the usual work involving applications and essays.

The main reason is competition. While there are thousands of colleges that offer some level of NCAA opportunities, tens of thousands of student athletes apply for spaces on these teams each spring, and depending on the sport, the percentage of those who make it can be discouragingly low.

According to estimates published by the NCAA in 2010, between 3% and 6% of high school seniors who play on their school's major sports teams can expect to make it onto an NCAA roster as a freshman in college. Men's basketball has the worst odds, probably because there are so many kids who play and so few slots available per team. Only 3.1% of the 155,756 high school varsity players are expected to win spots in the NCAA. Women's basketball players don't have it much easier. 3.5% (or roughly 3400 students) will win slots. The odds are a little better in sports where more bodies are needed. 5.8% of senior football players will be invited onto a college team, as well as 6.3% of baseball players. But obviously, the chance of success is still relatively small. Soccer has exploded in popularity in recent years, and so has the number of kids who want to play in college. As a result, only 5.6% of male soccer players are offered slots in the NCAA.

While a number of these candidates are also offered scholarship money, this will not cover all athletes for all college costs.

Leg Work

In my blog on Student Athletics, I covered strategies students and their parents can employ to maximize the chances of being noticed by a college coach. These all apply here, from registering with the NCAA as a high school junior, to writing a sports resume, producing a 3-5 minute, compelling highlight DVD or video, and appearing at showcase camps and tournaments where college coaches often scout for talent. I encourage reading that blog, and visiting all the related links to flesh out your understanding of these approaches.

Keeping Options Open

But another way to maximize one's chances of winning a scholarship is to broaden the scope of sports a student plays. For example, if your student excels at baseball in the summer, but also skates, you might want to add ice hockey as a second sport in the winter. Why? The odds of making an NCAA team are much higher: 11%. The odds get even better with less mainstream sports. Rowing, tennis, volleyball and even fencing and water polo are among the sports that can lead to scholarships, with far fewer students trying to win them.

A student may also want to consider a wide range of schools, as there are some out there with scholarship money that each year goes unspent. Rod Krasley of, one of a number of companies online that help students with the NCAA recruitment process, tells me that each year, he sees a virtual treasure trove of opportunities go unutilized. "Believe it or not, there are hundreds of athletic scholarships that go un-dispersed each year (especially in women's sports). I have college coaches that are desperate for female athletes looking to participate in collegiate sports and receive scholarships."

The lesson here is that gifted athletes may not want to put all their eggs in one basket, since their favorite, more mainstream sport may present the least likely path to a college scholarship. Other, lesser played sports may also be fun, and doable, as well as a better bet for college acceptance and money.

Games Students Play

Here's a rundown of NCAA sports, listed for men (M) and women (W). It might be worth considering whether there's a new, less mainstream sport here for your student athlete.

FALL: Cross County (M/W), Field Hockey (W), Football (M), Soccer (M/W), Volleyball (W), and Water Polo (M).

WINTER: Basketball (M/W), Bowling (W), Fencing (M/W), Gymnastics (M/W), Ice Hockey (M/W), Rifle (M/W), Skiing (M/W), Swimming & Diving (M/W), Indoor Track & Field (M/W), and Wrestling (M).

SPRING: Baseball (M), Golf (M/W), Lacrosse (M/W), Rowing (W), Softball (W), Tennis (M/W), Outdoor Track & Field (M/W), Volleyball (M), and Water Polo (W).

Again, if winning a scholarship is a bigger priority than, say, attending a specific school, it might be wise to cast a large net over possible college destinations, since there are some (often smaller) colleges that have available money and no one to spend it on. I've personally heard stories of kids with very little experience in certain sports like field hockey or fencing who have gotten nibbles from colleges in desperate need of athletes. It may be possible to identify these colleges by emailing a series of athletic departments. You may also decide to enlist the aid of a professional recruitment assistance agency. An internet search for "NCAA recruiting" will get you started. Many of these firms offer free registration or a free trial period to give you an idea of whether the service is worth it to you. I have no personal experience with any of these firms. It's up to individual families to decide whether this avenue makes sense.

Many colleges require a separate application supplement from any student wishing to apply for participation in its NCAA program. Check out the college websites for specific information. Often, supplements for athletes (as well as art students) are listed on the Common Application website links for given schools. These must be filled out if a college requires them.

Keep Things In Perspective

A final word: in one's zeal to pursue an athletic scholarship for their son or daughter, it's important to keep two things in mind. First, sports are supposed to be fun. As an assistant coach (soccer, mainly), I've occasionally experienced what I would call "overly-involved" parents on the sidelines who are so intense about their kid's performance, it puts a damper on their child's enjoyment (as well as everyone else's). As the years go by, the pressure gets ratcheted-up notch after notch, which can make it tough on a kid whose main idea in playing the game in the first place was to have a good time. You can't will your child into an NCAA slot. The talent has to be there, as well as the natural desire. Given that only a small percentage of kids actually make it to the NCAA, I would gently caution parents against getting too wrapped-up in what the future holds, and allow their children a natural, enjoyable progression through their various sports, and to listen to them if they ever come to you with a gripe about having too much pressure put on them. In most cases, that pressure will be applied without your help (by their coaches, especially in high school, where the level of play and expectations run much higher). Second, keep in mind that participating in sports can add a lot of extra pressure on a student, once in college. Practices are long and hard, and tend to compete with study time, as well as "down" time. Whether a student can be successful under this type of strain is worth considering early on in the process. It might also make a good topic for discussion with any college coaches or admissions personal you meet along the way.

Finally, remember to check the fine print on any athletic scholarships, especially if you're counting on that grant money to makes ends meet. As with the case in Merit or Need-Based Aid, there may be strings attached including academic and athletic performance limits that must be met to maintain the scholarship. Make sure you and your student clearly understand all these constraints before you sign up.

ARTICLES ABOUT COLLEGE, AND THE COLLEGE SEARCH: Merit Aid, Need-Based Aid (Institutional), Federal Need-Based Aid, Can I Ask For More Aid?, 529 Accounts, Myths About The Cost, Upromise, The Best Way To Pay, High School Course/Activities, ACT/SAT, How Many Colleges Should I Put On My List?, Compiling A List, Unsolicited Brochures, Campus Visits, Applying For Admission, Types of Applications, The College Search Preface

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