A Guide to College Sports Scholarships (Part 1.)

Harvard Yale Basketball
Harvard Yale Basketball courtesy: harvard.edu

Academics First!

Detroit Lions Helmet photoBy the time a potentially recruited athlete starts high school, they most likely have a pretty good sense of where they stand in their sport in terms of their peers.  Perhaps they already have a national ranking of some sort, or they’ve discovered that college coaches are already scouting them, or they’ve simply been given enough genuine feedback from independent third parties (at camps, clinics, travel team tryouts, etc.) to know that, all things being equal, they have a solid chance of being recruited by a college coach.

The first consideration, therefore, is for the student to realize how important their academics are for recruiting purposes.  No matter what, most coaches involved in the student’s sport will be primarily focused on the sport itself and on the level of the sport required for college standards.  Although they may mention the academics and say that academics are important, the student will most likely not realize HOW important that factor actually is unless it is carefully brought to their attention.

The best known college athletic association is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA. The NCAA was formed in 1906 and is the association that represents the bigger schools and universities. NCAA schools are organized into three divisions, D1, D2, and D3.


  • Division 1 schools are typically the largest universities, and compete in a minimum of 14 sports for both males and females. These schools often have world-class facilities, attract the top athletes in the country, and receive the most media attention.
  • Division 2 schools are smaller than D1 schools, and student athletes usually finance their education with a combination of athletic and educational scholarships.
  • Division 3 schools are the smallest of the NCAA institutions. D3 schools are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships.

The NCAA has its own academic requirements and certification, which apply for Division I and Division II schools. The NCAA baseline academic requirements only apply to D1 and DII schools because those are the only divisions allowed to provide athletic aid to students. Division III schools do not require NCAA certification because they do not provide any athletic aid – but they typically tend to have fairly high academic standards as well, regardless.  These requirements are laid out very clearly for the student on the NCAA website.  An affiliated organization called the NCAA Clearinghouse evaluates students’ academic records for NCAA eligibility.  So, not only does the student need to meet their individual high school’s graduation requirements, but they must also fulfill the NCAA .   Often these will overlap, but the student (and their counselor) can’t be too careful and should examine any potential recruit’s curriculum choices to be certain all of the requirements are being met.

In addition, once the student has narrowed their list of top college choices down to the ones they intend to apply to, they will likely need to meet additional course requirements for those colleges.  So there are actually three layers of requirements the student athlete needs to keep in mind when selecting courses:  their high school’s requirements, the NCAA requirements, and any additional requirements from the colleges they intend to apply to.

(Note: there are two other collegiate athletic associations, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, and the National Junior College Athletic Association, or NJCAA.  This article addresses only the NCAA.)

It has been noted that no coach can convince an admissions department to admit a student into the college that does not meet the academic standards they require.  Student athletes must remember that they are looking to play a college sport, and that the operative word here is COLLEGE.  Therefore the academics are extremely important, not just the athletics.  Every coach and admission department is aware, of course, that for the elite athlete to have reached that level of athletic ability, some time and focus inevitably is pulled away from academics and they do factor this in, but nevertheless, it is college, and the academics are critical.  The different Divisions (and different schools within the Divisions) have differing requirements for their athletes, but overall, the better academics the athlete can maintain and present to the schools (and coaches), the more choices the athlete will have and the more desirable they will be to the coaches & programs.

Coaches are critical!

Another unique aspect to counseling the student athlete is the importance of the high school, private and/or club coach in the actual recruiting aspect of the process. The student’s coach(es) will be instrumental in providing the college coaches with information as to the player’s unique strengths, character, work ethic, and leadership qualities.  It is critical for the counselor to be in close connection with the student’s current coach in order to be on the same page in terms of academic requirements of the potential colleges, sharing of contact information for the college coaching staff, reminders of the NCAA rules in terms of acceptable college coach-student contact, etc.  When the coach is a high school coach, this is easier done than if the primary coach is a private or club coach, but either way, it’s an effort the counselor should make for the sake of the athlete’s application process.  For example, if the athlete is overestimating their chances of playing collegiate athletics, it would be very important for the counselor to know this in advance in order to help guide and direct the student appropriately.  Also, often the college coaches will contact current coaches directly and express an interest in the player.   The information imparted to them can be an important factor for the counselor to be aware of as well, and often the student is unclear or vague as to what has actually been said or promised.

The NCAA has very strict rules regarding when and how the college coaches are allowed to contact the students, have official visits, etc., and it is critical that the student, parents and current coaches are up to speed on these rules in order to protect the student’s chances at receiving scholarship money to play for the school.  Sometimes coaches bend the rules and overreach and if it is discovered to have happened, unfortunately it is the student who pays the price by becoming disqualified from becoming a recruit.  Therefore it is very important that everyone is kept up to date and made aware of each NCAA rule for each year of high school (rules change depending on the year they are in, and rules change within the NCAA on occasion so this must be revisited regularly).




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Finding the Right School, and then the Right Environment/ Coach/Team

You will do your student a great favor if you hammer in the point, early on in their search, that they need to select the school with the primary importance being the academic climate and opportunities.  They should be able to say “I would want to stay at this school even if I blow my knee out on the second day of practice and am unable to play my sport again.”   In this respect, they are looking to create a list of schools to apply to in the same way that every other student is.

However, realistically, there is a kind of “sliding scale” of interest for recruitable athletes, because even though, for example, your student falls in love with Wake Forest, if they are a male lacrosse player and want to play lacrosse, they won’t be doing it there anytime soon because the school doesn’t have a men’s lacrosse team (at this point in time).  So, in reality, the student athlete is best served by doing a dual search: first off, they should do an initial college search based on their particular sport first, and then factor in the academics from there. Simultaneously, the student should create a separate list of schools with academics as the main priority, and cross-check for their sport afterwards.  It is important to encourage students to conduct the “academics first” search as well, because otherwise they may not have an open mind to schools that may capture their hearts and cause them to reconsider making athletics as high a priority.

Once the student has narrowed the field and has a list of schools whose academic offerings are enticing and varied enough to hold up to the “blown knee” test, the sport-schools should be examined closely for three unique factors: the athletic environment (specifically the athletic facilities); the coaching staff; and the type of athletes currently on the team.

Does it matter to your student that the locker room is bare bones, there is no nutritionist or physical therapist available to the players, and they will have to share practice space with the football team?  The environment is important because, particularly for the DI athlete, a huge amount of time will be spent at that facility.  It will become their second home, and if they like the way it feels, they will be much happier.

Who is the coach, and does that coach share your student’s philosophies about the sport, about practice, about sportsmanship, etc? Although coaches do move around (so this factor can’t be controlled 100%), the student should try to establish contact early on with the coach and get to know as much about that coach as possible to ascertain compatibility and respect.  Nothing can ruin an athlete’s experience more than disliking the coach.  The student should also not expect that the coach will just “find” them.  If they are interested in a program, they should reach out to that coach through the school’s website (sometimes there is an email address provided, sometimes there is a Potential Recruit form that can be filled out, and sometimes they will need to engage the assistance of their current coach to reach out).

Similarly, although it’s likely that most if not all of the current team composition may be different by the time your student joins, there is usually a “type” of student who joins that school’s team, and it will behoove them to see if they can see themselves fitting in there.  Additionally, there may already be athletes on the team who the student knows from prior competitions, and this can be a draw (or a turn-off) as well.


Continue reading Part 2  here ! 

Contributor: This article was written by Colleen Heidenreich, J.D. A Former Independent College Counselor


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