7 Things You Should Know If You Want to Be a College Athlete

Being an athlete in high school pretty much feels like constant senioritis, because you’re so stoked to get to college and play already. Whether your passion is on the field, rink, ring or court, there are a few things to know about college athletics before you’re ready to score. Here are seven absolutely necessary steps you need to take to land a spot on the dream team at your future alma mater.

1. Learn about the different divisions and leagues

When you start college, you’ll most likely be playing as part of the National Collegiate Athletics Association, as it’s the largest, most well-known non-profit organization that regulates athletes, and from football to golf, it pretty much rules the college sports world. The NCAA is present at 1,121 colleges and universities, and contains three different divisions you can play for.

Division I is considered the big leagues and grooms you into a professional athlete. It is present on the most campuses, and puts students directly in the sports spotlight. Division II focuses on balance between athletics and academics, so it’s great for any student who’s passionate about their sport but still soaking up the college experience. Division III, though still high-intensity, has the lowest stakes and hones in on the “student” part of student-athlete. Division III is perfect if you want to play sports while you pursue a career related to your major.

Sophia Walker, a senior at Bowdoin College brings up some major considerations when thinking about the division you should pitch yourself for. “Divisions I, II and III are all very different, and club sports are also an option,” she says. “Are you willing to train year-round [like in] Division I and II? Or do you want a break out of season [like in] Division III? Do you want to pursue other things alongside your athletics, like research over the summer? Some programs will let you go abroad, for example, and others won't. These are all things to consider.”

If none of these options sound fitting for you, consider club or intramural sports. Club sports are student-run, but can be just as competitive and rigorous. Intramurals are set up so that students at the same college can compete against one another. Intramurals are the least time-consuming and least competitive, but still offer a lot of fun bonding opportunities.

2. Understand the recruitment process

So, you've decided you want to be a college athlete. What's next? Well, recruitment for any of the three divisions can be difficult, because while it may be your goal to end up in a specific division, there is no guarantee you’ll get your first choice. Instead, you must choose from who contacts you and what these contacts offer. According to the NCAA Eligibility Center, “if a college coach calls you more than once, contacts you off campus, pays your expenses to visit the campus, or in Divisions I and II, issues you a National Letter of Intent or a written offer of financial aid, you are considered to be recruited.”

Faith Mimnaugh, the head coach of women’s basketball at California Polytechnic State University, a Division I school, explains the recruitment process for those wanting to be college athletes. “The recruitment process varies with each division, and there’s a lot of variation between student-athletes,” she says. “[A] student should start by narrowing down a list of schools [she'd] like to attend or play for. Not every sport is available at every college, so it requires a lot of research on the student’s part. Then it generally begins when you make contact with a coach to let [him or her] know you’d like to play for them, unless you’re so well-known that coaches are contacting you and sending you letters and scholarship offers.”

Mimnaugh suggests that the most efficient way to contact a coach is via email. When you do this, make sure to include your high school, expected graduation date, coach's contact information, your positions, athletic resume, sport statistics and any awards you’ve received. The NCAA prohibits coaches from contacting students before their junior year, so once your junior year begins start putting yourself out there. Once you’ve made contact with a coach, keep them up-to-date on your athletic achievements, and even invite them to one of your tournaments or showcases.

If you want to impress a coach even more, include a video compilation of your very best stuff. This way, a prospective coach can get a first-hand experience of just how truly amazing you are. Seven or eight minutes of footage is all it takes to sell yourself.

“By taking recruitment in your own hands, you have more of a chance to end up at the school and in the division you want,” Mimnaugh says. “Then, the rest of recruitment is on the coach. Phone calls, letters, unofficial or official campus visits and a visit from the coach are regular and should be expected.”

Though you ultimately must wait to be recruited for a school and will have to choose from those offers, there is still a lot of proactive work you can be doing to end up where you want.

3. Make sure you meet requirements

Did you know the NCAA has very strict requirements for new college athletes? Not only do you need to have incredible athletic ability, but you also need to be academically equipped for all college is going to throw at you. The best way to ensure success while you’re still in high school is by keeping your grades high and working on your study habits.

More specifically, you’ll need to meet your prospective college’s admission requirements – it depends on the school, but usually maintaining a 3.0 GPA and scoring at least a 1500 on your SAT is acceptable. Then, apply for the NCAA Eligibility Center certification after your junior year. When you take your SAT or ACT, use code 9999 in the recipient section to have your scores sent straight to the Eligibility Center.  If you’re looking for more information, the NCAA has a handy guide.

College athletes need to be in shape physically and academically, because you will be balancing a full course load and full extracurricular schedule in college, which even many normal full-time students can’t handle. Take care of yourself and try hard, and you’ll be an all-star collegiette in no time.

4. Get obsessed with your prospective college

Once you’ve received an offer, find out literally everything you can and get obsessed with your future team. Visit the campus, meet with the coach, talk to current team members, learn how to balance your practice time with your major. Covering all the bases and soaking up information will make you especially prepared come time for school. Most importantly, you want to love the team and school you’ll be spending the next four years at, so it helps to be super prepared now to avoid disappointment later.

Lauryn Higgins, a former student-athlete who ran track and field at Mars Hill University, a Division II school, has some practical advice for checking out if a college’s team is right for you. “Request an overnight stay!” she says. “Visit the campus, attend a practice and stay the night in a dorm room with a current member of the team you're looking to compete on. Most schools will accommodate this, so just ask. It's a great way to get a feel for the team environment, the schedule, the type of practice and if you even like the school.”

When you get the chance to talk with coaches and other players, these are some of the questions you should be asking: What does your typical daily schedule look like? How rigorous is your travel schedule? Approximately how many hours a night do you study? What assistance is available if you have academic problems? Were changes made to any promises once you committed/enrolled? Get the answers to these, and it will feel you’re already part of the team. Knowing everything about your future college will have you next-level obsessed – in the best way.

Related: 7 Things NOT To Consider When Deciding Where to Apply To College

5. Visualize what you want your college experience to look like

Do you want to double major or add a minor? Do you want spend a semester studying abroad? Are you planning on completing internships related to your degree? Do you want to be involved in Greek life? These are just some of the questions you need to be asking yourself that will help determine the type of athletics you should pursue in college.

Most of us already find it hard to manage our time in college without playing a sport, so as a student-athlete, you need to be prepared to make some social sacrifices for the benefit of your classes and athletic practice. The average college athlete spends 20 hours a week in class and more than 30 hours a week at practice. This sets you up for a lot of stress.

Lauryn has witnessed this stress firsthand. “It was common for two out of the 10 freshman athletes to quit our track and field team by spring semester because they just couldn't handle the workload,” she says. “Also, the excitement of going out and being in college outweighed the excitement of being college athlete. When you're an athlete, you don't have the luxury of eating fast food, drinking at parties or staying up late on weekends. You really have to make sacrifices, and it’s something you need to be aware of before you step into the world of collegiate athletics.”

If you’re more interested in a traditional college experience like being involved in your major, exploring your college town and hanging out with your friends till the sun goes down, realize the hard truth that you can’t have the best of both worlds. Division I and II don’t always flow with the desires of a fun, relaxed college student. It doesn’t mean you must sacrifice athletics entirely – just choose a Division III school or join a club sport to find your own personal balance.

6. Find a scholarship

First, we need to debunk the myth that you’ll be able to get a full-ride scholarship through college. It’s unlikely that your award will cover the full cost of your tuition, but the average athletic scholarship in 2016 still came out to over $5,000 a year. Is it worth it? Definitely, if you love your sport.

Know that a scholarship isn’t guaranteed for all four years, either. It’s usually up to the coach's discretion whether your scholarship will be renewed. If you’re legitimately looking to earn a four-year scholarship, consider a Division III school where you’re more likely to get a merit scholarship for your accomplishments than you would be to earn a full sports scholarship at a Division I or II school.

We recommend checking out the scholarship options available at your college for athletes, and then looking at specific academic scholarships relating to your major. Any amount of financial aid helps, and once you’ve exhausted your scholarship options, don’t forget to fill out your FAFSA.

Related: How To Talk To Your Parents About Paying for College

7. Realize the most important part of college is your education

Don’t let the thrill of sports distract you from the main reason you’re at college: to get an education and earn your college degree. Many college athletes aren’t able to succeed if they are pursuing a time-intensive major, so if your career goal is to become a doctor, being a college athlete may not be in your best interest. It’s likely that if you’re on a Division I sports team, you’ll need to choose a major that requires less class time, leaving more of your day for the field.

Remember that even if you get the chance to go pro, sports careers can end abruptly. Don’t disregard the importance of your degree thinking you won’t need it. It could be a valuable cushion, because your involvement in sports may not continue after college. Your motto should be college first, sports second. That’s why choosing a Division III school where there is less emphasis on sports is a good option if you’re a person that wants balance between the two.

Sophie has a newsflash for those considering the dedicated athlete life: “Varsity athletics can be very challenging to maintain alongside a full course load, so make sure you have an idea of what your life outside of your team will look like before committing to anything.”

We hope you feel a little more prepared to take on the world of college athletics. Trust in your own talent and abilities, and know that you’ll end up on the best college and team for you. Every athlete will have a different experience, and what matters is that you feel fulfilled and not exhausted by your experience. Good luck, collegiette! We’ll be cheering you on from the stands.

Gina is the Associate Editor of Her Campus. She graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2017, where she studied English and Theater. As an undergrad with Her Campus, Gina was a national contributing writer, first ever national viral editor, editorial intern, and editor-in-chief of her chapter at Cal Poly. In her spare time, Gina enjoys cuddling her friends and family, petting other peoples' dogs, and eating donuts. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @ginasescandon.

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