Your athletic skills could give you an edge as you start applying to schools. But there’s a lot to know about and keep track of. You’ll want to start looking for the right programs in your sophomore or junior year of high school. It’s important to understand how sports work at the college level. You should also know the differences between athletic divisions. More than anything, you need to find the best college for your academic needs and overall wellbeing, not just your athletic talent. Always ask yourself: Would I be happy here if I wasn’t playing sports?

Ready to learn more? Let’s get the ball rolling. Pun intended.

Know the divisions

The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) oversees three athletic divisions for its member colleges.

  • Division I (DI) includes the largest colleges and universities. DI schools have bigger athletic programs and offer more scholarships.
  • Division II (DII) is the smallest division and is made up mostly of smaller universities.
  • Division III (DIII) is the largest division and is made up mostly of private colleges. DIII schools may not award athletic scholarships, and the emphasis is “student first, athlete second.”

People commonly assume that DI is the “best,” followed by DII and DIII. This is not always true – there are many competitive teams within each division. A major difference between the divisions is the student time commitment. Participating in DI and DII athletics should be considered a full-time job. These athletes maintain a full schedule all year, including summer. DIII sports require less time for practices, travel, and team meetings, so students have more time for classwork and other outside interests. However, many talented athletes decide to attend DIII schools in order to get more in-game playing time.

Know the timeline

There’s a specific order of events that colleges and athletes must follow.

Freshman & sophomore year

  • Coaches can evaluate you, but they can’t contact you.
  • Coaches can send you limited recruitment material, like brochures and questionnaires.
  • You can make unofficial school visits.
  • You can call and email coaches (but they can’t reach out to you).

Junior year

  • You can still make unofficial school visits.
  • Coaches can start to contact you.

Senior year

  • You can make official and unofficial school visits.
  • Coaches can send you written letters offering athletic aid.
  • You can sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI).

NCAA Eligibility Center

If you’re interested in playing college athletics at any level, start with the NCAA Eligibility Center. Freshmen should start by registering for a Profile Page. This is free and offers a great way to stay connected with all topics NCAA. By the end of 10th grade, if you’re pursuing a path to Division I or II, upgrade to a Certification Account. There is a $100 (domestic) or $160 (international) fee. However, this account helps the NCAA ensure that all students meet requirements in order to practice, compete, and receive athletic scholarships.

You are responsible for monitoring your NCAA eligibility. It’s important to keep track of your coursework throughout high school to make sure you’re on track to meet all NCAA requirements. Check the NCAA website early and often to find out which classes, grades, SAT scores, and other requirements you may need to meet in order to play DI or DII sports. And check out the NCAA Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete for more details about all things related to college athletics.

DIII athletes don’t need to register with the NCAA. But you can visit the NCAA Division III page for general eligibility requirements.

Work with your counselor & coach

As you move through the application process, you’ll want to keep in contact with your high school counselor and your current coach. These folks can help you navigate the process – and support and cheer you on along the way.

High school counselor

Your counselor has likely dealt with the NCAA before and can show you the ropes. They can help you access your high school transcript. This is important, because the NCAA will need to see it at different points during your high school career. Your counselor can help you stay on track with school, choose the right classes, and make sure your coursework is NCAA compliant.


Your current coach is probably one of your best resources. They’re also one of the best authorities on your athletic skills. Talk to your coach about your desire to play in college. Ask for their realistic opinion of your chances of being recruited. But keep in mind that your coach may not have much experience with college recruiting or the NCAA.

Get to know the program

Once you have a list of schools you’re considering, get to know the program and the team. Ask questions and get to know the team culture. Take the opportunity to talk with current athletes who will be your teammates. Make sure to attend a practice and see a game! You’ll get a better perspective on the team and school when you see the team in action.

Communicate with coaches, scouts, and recruiters

Have you been contacted by coaches? Be sure to respond quickly and politely. Keep in mind that being on a coach’s radar and being actively recruited may feel the same, but they’re very different. Coaches are always looking for talent, and a college coaching staff may be actively scouting many students every year. There’s a big difference between personal communication, and form letters and emails that are sent to thousands of high school athletes. If you receive a letter or email directly from a coach or staff member, it’s likely that you’re being actively recruited.

Stay on top of admissions & financial aid requirements

The decision about whether you’re admitted to a school is made by the Admissions Office – not the coach. Even if a coach makes verbal promises about financial aid, the official offer letter and decision from the Admissions Office are what count.

Know the rules

No matter what the coach has promised, you must fill out all admissions and financial aid paperwork. And you have to meet the same deadlines as non-athletes. The NCAA has strict guidelines on how many scholarships are available per school, per sport, and per team. Even if a school has a big athletic scholarship budget, you won’t necessarily get a big scholarship.

DI and DII schools offer athletic scholarships; DIII schools do not. DIII athletes can receive financial aid or merit scholarships, though. And remember that there’s no such thing as a full-ride, four-year scholarship in any division. All scholarships must be renewed annually and are under the coach’s control.

Tips for Getting Noticed

Wondering how to get schools to notice you? Read on.

  • Find out about recruiting events in your area.
  • Fill out the recruiting questionnaire on each college’s athletic website.
  • Email prospective coaches. Be sure to include your schedules. Get more tips in our Athletics Insider PDF.
  • Make a profile video. Coaches may not have the time or budget to travel to see recruits in person, but they would want to see a highlight video. You can hire a pro to record, edit, and market your video, but this can be expensive. If you can’t hire a pro, ask a friend to take a video. Aim for landscape (horizontal) orientation, and be mindful of how you light and frame the shot. Focus on what makes you stand out as an athlete.
  • You, the student, should be the primary contact with the coach. You’ll be playing on the team, not your parents or guardians. But parents/guardians definitely have an important role in the process. They should be sure to ask questions and voice any concerns.
  • Know the rules about when and where you can have contact with coaches and their staff. Understand the difference between an official visit (your travel, lodging and food would be paid for by the college) and an unofficial visit (you’d travel on your own dime). Always check with the NCAA or the college itself to fully understand the rules of this process.

The decision whether, and where, to play college sports is a big one. You’re more than just a good athlete. Think about your academic and long-term life goals, your finances, and overall well-being.

Want more information?

Get more details about being a student athlete, including the timeline for recruitment and admissions, in Granite Edvance’s Athletics Insider PDF.

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