By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

It’s a fiendishly complicated business, and very few athletes can sit back and wait to be discovered.

A couple of months ago, we published The “How Many” and “How Much” of Athletic Scholarships (September 18, 2018), a primer on what’s available and how much it can be worth. We then took a closer look at two sports in particular, women’s volleyball (Women’s Volleyball Scholarships by the Numbers, October 10) and women’s soccer (Women’s Soccer Scholarships by the Numbers, October 23). Now that we’ve discussed how many athletic scholarships are out there, how much money is involved, and what an athletic scholarship will and won’t accomplish, it’s time to consider how to go about pursuing one. It’s a fiendishly complicated business, which is why we feel we can boldly recommend that you let us help you with it. College coaches and boosters are under enormous temptation, and athletes and their parents are not always paragons of ethical probity. Policing college sports has never been easy, and regulations have proliferated mightily over the years. The process isn’t always the same across all sports and regulatory bodies, but this article should be a reliable general guide to navigating the adventure.

Start young and grow up fast.

athletic scholarships

Freshman year is not one bit too soon to start marketing a student-athlete, and marketing is exactly what it is. Whether kids should be required or encouraged to treat sports with this degree of seriousness at a tender age is always a topic for lively debate, but we can’t concern ourselves with that here. Things are as they are. Many student-athletes (and their parents) have made sports a top priority since childhood anyway, and the competition for scholarships is every bit as fierce as anything occurring on the field, court, or track.

athletic scholarships

On a related note, and a sad one for the purists among us, athletes should determine as early as possible whether and how much to specialize. The multi-sport athlete, once prized as the epitome of all-around talent and great promise, now takes a backseat to the athlete who zeros in on one thing and hones that craft. We’re not saying categorically that a kid shouldn’t play and enjoy multiple sports, but if you’re serious about a scholarship, especially Division I, the time may come when hard decisions are necessary. Getting recruited in multiple sports is wonderful but rare. The world probably would be a better place with more Jim Browns, Bo Jacksons, Dave DeBusscheres, and Curley Culps, but nowadays they’d probably be told, “There’s no telling how good you’d be if you stuck to just one thing.” Coaches like dedication–to the particular sports they coach.

Dumb jocks? Maybe, but don’t bet on being one of them.

The early-start principle also applies to academics. While we’ve all heard horror stories about academically weak athletes getting scholarships, coaches greatly prefer kids who don’t look like a bad risk. Students who want to compete in NCAA Divisions I and II must register with the NCAA Eligibility Center, which certifies academic performance as well as amateur status. The same holds true for NAIA prospects and that organization’s Eligibility Center. Official visits and national letters of intent are possible only for athletes registered with the sanctioning bodies.

While it isn’t necessary to create an Eligibility Center account until junior year, even the end of junior year, attention to academic requirements should begin when high school does, if not before. You need to know what courses will be necessary in college in order to know what courses will be necessary in high school. And you need to be aware that the NCAA has its own means of computing GPA, and that many athletes have been tripped up thereby. Here’s how it works:

The NCAA looks only at particular core courses, and it offers a GPA worksheet to help student-athletes determine where they stand. We strongly–very strongly–recommend consultation with your school counselor in this vital matter. Padding a transcript with easy courses might help the GPA as conventionally understood but not as the NCAA calculates it, because only the stipulated core courses count. Retaking a course is also not the deliverance many student-athletes hope for, because the NCAA locks in the first twelve core courses after junior year, out of a total of 16, meaning that retakes must occur before then if they are to help. Believe it or not, taking advanced courses, even if you get good grades, can also be a problem if those classes are not on your school’s list of NCAA-approved courses.

The minimum allowable GPA for Division I is 2.3 with a 900 SAT or an ACT “sum score” (English+math+reading+science) of 75. For Division II it’s 2.2/840/70. However many times a student takes the ACT (up to twelve), the best scores in those four subjects will be added up to get the sum score. The NCAA, in its mercy (a most peculiar mercy, admittedly) uses a sliding scale according to which the higher the GPA, the lower the test scores can be, and the higher the test scores, the lower the GPA can be.

The NAIA is a bit more straightforward, requiring an 860 SAT or a composite score of 16 on the ACT in combination with a GPA of at least 2.0 on a four-point scale. Effective April 2019, the requirement will be a 970 SAT or a composite ACT of 18. Home-school students need an 18 ACT or 950 SAT. Athletes with a 3.0 at the end of junior year or a 2.5 midway through senior year may receive an early eligibility decision.

Evaluation works both ways.

Athletes seeking scholarships need to be realistic in evaluating their own abilities and potential. While selling ourselves short is a bad thing, so is overestimating ourselves and letting a beautiful dream rob us of a less glorious but still desirable reality. Maybe you really are good enough to play for Michigan or USC, but you need Northwestern South Dakota Tech at Moot Point on your college list just in case.

Scholarship seekers also need to take into account factors such as a school’s distance from home, its atmosphere and larger institutional culture, whether it’s urban or rural, etc. The culture of the particular athletic program is also a vital matter, as is the personality of the coach. (The person who sits down at your kitchen table with a fork in his hand and Mama’s pecan pie on his plate may become someone very different when he ascends the tower at the practice field with a megaphone in his hand and murder on his mind.) What are the facilities like? How successful has the program been? If you have to choose between having a chance to play right away for a weak team, on the one hand, and sitting on the bench for a champion, on the other hand, which alternative suits you best? What is the graduation rate among athletes? Are they fully integrated into the student body or are they a kingdom unto themselves?

We’re talking about at least four years of a young person’s life, an experience that could shape everything from that point forward. There’s much more involved in choosing a college than “I saw the Fighting Bandicoots on TV when I was six and it was the awesomest thing I’d ever seen!”

Every candidate needs campaign literature.

Seeking an athletic scholarship is a lot like looking for a job: You may be very well qualified in terms of performance and credentials, but you have to do something to establish that, and you’ll need to do all the networking you can. In a way, it’s also like running for office. There a few key items to have on hand before venturing out on the campaign trail:

In addition to transcripts and test reports, an athlete needs to compile a resume that details his or her or record and achievements in school sports and club sports. Coaches are busy people, and an athletic resume should be only one or two pages and formatted simply for quick reading. Personal statements are unnecessary, because coaches already know what you want to do and that you think you’re good. Determine which achievements and awards are most relevant, and emphasize those. Remember, coaches like to be able to feel secure about your academic competence and continued eligibility, so be sure to include your GPA, test scores, and academic honors. To save the coach a step, put your references on your resume. If possible, include a brief statement from your high school coach, attesting to your ability and character. A photo helps the coach put a face with a name. Include your height, weight, and any statistics that convey your prowess: 40-yard-dash, vertical leap, personal best in relevant events, etc. In addition to your own contact information, provide contact details for your coach. Your goal with the resume is to make it a one-stop-shopping experience for college coaches: Everything they want to know about you is there, or there’s a link to it–which brings us to today’s digital have-to items:

Athletes competing for scholarships need to showcase their abilities via video. A highlight clip posted to YouTube, with the link on your resume, can work wonders. Simplicity is once again the key; coaches are not interested in your taste in rap, chainsaw guitar, or the visual arts.

A sports-specific personal website, with the link on the your resume, is also a good idea, provided it isn’t too busy-looking and is easy to navigate. A website allows you to gather videos, still photos, testimonials, and biographical information in one convenient location.

The Coaching Educator recommends professional  assistance in the planning and execution of all of the above.

The sound of one horn tooting…

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, is there a sound? That’s a tough question that we won’t try to answer. But this we do know: If that tree runs a 4.3 forty and posts a 4.0 GPA and a coach doesn’t see it, that tree isn’t going to get an athletic scholarship.

Scholarships go to athletes who get noticed, and getting noticed takes some work in most cases. The scholarship game relies heavily on networking, with contact between high school and college coaches being crucial. Word of mouth is always a valuable currency, and most athletes will need to make sure it includes their words coming out of their mouths. A proactive approach to contacting coaches is essential.

Once you have compiled a list of schools that interest you and have assembled the tools we have just described, it’s time to begin emailing coaches. Wait two to four weeks and telephone any coach who hasn’t responded to the email, leaving a voicemail if necessary, and a further email if there still is no response. Athletes should reply to every coach who responds, and keep the lines of communication open. It’s important for athletes to educate themselves about each program, its personnel, and its recent results in order to be able to converse intelligently with the coach and ask good questions. A definite personal interest in a particular program is important, as opposed to a vague desire to play somewhere, anywhere. Athletes should strive mightily against any sense of entitlement that might tempt them not to stay in touch with every coach who responds to them (or hears about them on his or her own), however humble the program. Northwestern South Dakota Tech at Moot Point might not be Michigan or USC, but it also might end up being all you’ve got–if you haven’t alienated the coach by ignoring his or her emails.

athletic scholarships Rejection is never gratifying, and it’s good to have a backup plan just in case.

Camps and combines can be important to the future of a student-athlete, but it’s essential not to pin your hopes to them. The participants most likely to benefit are those who have already been noticed by coaches who in turn attend the camp to observe them. A relative unknown can conceivably break through and get noticed, but most such attendees get lost in the crowd. Athletes and parents who are fortunate enough to have a conversation with a coach at a camp are strongly advised to follow up diligently. Coaches, as we’ve said, are busy people, and you have to make an effort to remain in their consciousness. They also respect persistence and determination.

 athletic scholarshipsNever let ’em say you’re not determined.

888 not-so-simple rules for dating your son or daughter:

The rules regarding contact between coaches and prospects are somewhat complex, and a sizable amount of the information about this on the internet was rendered obsolete by changes in the regulations in the spring of 2018. There are also some differences between sports–softball and lacrosse being somewhat more regulated than the others–and between Divisions, so athletes and their families and high school coaches should do some research into rules specific to their Divisions and sports. It’s essential to understand that high school athletes can contact coaches as much as they want to, but coaches are limited not only in initiating contact but in responding to it.

athletic scholarships It’s easy to see why softball is now one of the most carefully regulated sports…

During sophomore year, telephone calls must originate with the student. Per the 2018 rules changes, the coach is not even allowed to return calls until June 15 or September 1 of the junior year, depending on the sport. According to Next College Student Athlete, “The NCAA hopes these rule changes will cut back on the number of recruits getting verbal offers as eighth graders, freshmen, and sophomores in high school. Athletes will now have more time to research colleges and focus on developing athletically and academically. Then, as juniors and seniors in high school, they will be better equipped to decide which college or university is right for them.”

The limits on contact before junior year make it imperative for recruits to organize in advance, compiling their college lists and resumes and other promotional materials before the mad rush begins. Once junior year arrives, it’s time to get very busy contacting coaches, attending camps, and making official visits. Unofficial visits, those paid for by the athlete, can occur at any time, but coaches are no longer allowed to be involved before junior year.

According to the NCAA:

Any visit to a college campus by a college-bound student-athlete or his or her parents paid for by the college is an official visit…During an official visit the college can pay for transportation to and from the college for the student-athlete, lodging and three meals per day for the student-athlete and his or her parents or guardians, as well as reasonable entertainment expenses including three tickets to a home sports event. The only expenses a college-bound student-athlete may receive from a college during an unofficial visit are three tickets to a home sports event.

Athletes and their parents should be aware that each sport has its own recruiting calendar that limits the type of activity that can occur at a particular time of year. During a “contact period,” coaches are permitted face-to-face contact with student-athletes and parents. They may attend competitions, visit schools, and write or telephone athletes and parents. This is the period of those legendary home visits that pass into the folklore of coaching and recruiting. During an “evaluation period,” coaches may do all of the above except engage in face-to-face contact away from the college campus. Prospects may visit colleges. During a “quiet period,” coaches are allowed none of the above except writing, telephoning, and receiving campus visits by prospects. During a “dead period,” writing and telephoning are permitted, but the coach is under a gag order (a rather attractive mental image in some cases) even when an athlete visits the college.

If scholarship offers begin coming in, make sure you look carefully at the financial ramifications and stay on top of other sources of aid. Remember, most athletic scholarships do not constitute a full free ride, and you might have to combine them with other forms of financial aid. Here’s where a strong academic record can really help you. A glamorous program is nice, but a supposedly lesser one might actually make more financial sense in your case. Crunch the numbers with care.

If the matchmaking process goes well and the two parties are ready to embrace each other but the time has not yet come for an official national letter of intent, the athlete can make a verbal commitment to a particular school. This is non-binding and may be made at any time, but a premature verbal commitment can be extremely harmful. Once that commitment is made, other schools are likely to reduce their interest or lose interest altogether. Failure to abide by it casts doubts on the athlete’s character and dependability. Be careful here.

A national letter of intent–which is not required–is a far more serious matter that carries the force of a contract. It commits the athlete to one academic year at that particular school, and it commits the school to provide financial aid as long as the athlete meets eligibility requirements. It also terminates the recruiting process, because other schools are forbidden to recruit athletes who have signed letters of intent elsewhere. Students who change their minds must request a release from the contract, and they forfeit a year of eligibility if they enroll elsewhere. They must also complete a full academic year at their new destination before competing. Gone, far gone, are the days when coaches could literally drive through a rival campus and gather up athletes off the street with the promise of a sweeter deal.

NCAA Division III schools, while not permitted to offer athletic scholarships, do recruit athletes, and as we have already noted, athletic prowess can be a key element in an extracurricular resume that leads to an offer of financial aid. Recruiting regulations, not surprisingly, are on the relaxed side:

Brochures, questionnaires, and unlimited telephone calls to and from coaches are permitted throughout high school, as are unofficial visits. Off-campus contact is allowed after sophomore year. Official visits, one per college, are permissible after January 1 of junior year. There are no recruiting calendars, dead periods, quiet periods, etc.

The NAIA system is charmingly simple in comparison with that of the NCAA. We’ll let the NAIA tell it:

NAIA athletic recruiting rules are very different from other associations. If you’re a high school student, NAIA rules don’t restrict when or how often you and college coaches can communicate. There’s no college sports recruiting calendar or limit on the number of communications or what form they take…phone, email, text, or in person. NAIA schools want you and the coach to find the right fit.

The NAIA itself does not treat letters of intent as binding, but some of its conferences and schools do, so athletes should do their research and tread carefully.

The single most important thing you can learn from this chapter is that for most athletes being recruited means being proactive and doing a lot of research. Only elite athletes in major sports can sit back and wait to be discovered.

Entire books have been written about college athletic recruiting, and entire websites are dedicated to it. This article is not intended as a substitute for research, or for the services of knowledgeable professionals like The Coaching Educator. The recruiting process is complicated, and it’s easy to miss opportunities or run afoul of regulations. We can help you stay on task and on message throughout the process. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.


athletic scholarships

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter, he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer. When not involved with The Coaching Educator, he stays busy plying his trade as founder and president of Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS).

References and Recommended Reading About College Admissions and Athletic Scholarships

“Athletics Recruiting/Communication Quick Reference Guide,” NCAA, May 2016,

Culp, Paul. “Basketball Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 4 April 2019, http://tce.local/2019/04/04/basketball-scholarships-by-the-numbers/

Culp, Paul. “The ‘How Many’ and ‘How Much’ of Athletic Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, 18 September, 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/18/the-how- many-and-how-much-of-athletic-scholarships/

Culp, Paul. “Lacrosse Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 6 December 2018, http://tce.local/2018/12/06/lacrosse-scholarships-by-the-numbers/  

Culp, Paul. “Ten Unusual Athletic Scholarships, The Coaching Educator, 8 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/04/08/ten-unusual-athletic-scholarships/

Culp, Paul. “Why Scholarship Athletes Quit,” The Coaching Educator, 25 February 2019, http://tce.local/2019/02/25/why-scholarship-athletes-quit/

Culp, Paul. “Women’s Soccer Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 23 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/23/womens-soccer- scholarships-by-the-numbers/

Culp, Paul. “Women’s Volleyball Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 23 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/10/womens- volleyball-scholarships-by-the-numbers/

“Division I Worksheet,” NCAA Eligibility Center, center/DI_and_DII_Worksheet.pdf. Accessed 21 November 2018.

Elliott, Bud. “‘Dead period?’ ‘Quiet period?’ Explaining the NCAA’s football recruiting calendar,” SB Nation, 1 August 2018, -recruiting/2014/12/17/7401635/ncaa-football-recruiting-periods-dead-quiet-evaluation

Frank, David. “How to Get Recruited and Get an Athletic Scholarship,” Athnet, https: // Accessed 21 November 2018.

Frank, David. “Registering for the NCAA Eligibility Center: Don’t Jump the Gun,” Athnet, eligibility-center.htm. Accessed 21 November 2018.

“Grade-Point Average,” NCAA, point-average. Accessed 21 November 2018.

“How to Write an Athletic Resume for College Coaches,” Athnet, 13 December 2011.

“If You Were Home Schooled,PlayNAIA, the NAIA Eligibility Center, https://www. Accessed 21 November 2018.

Lake, Rebecca. “5 Tips for Scoring Athletic Scholarships,” Discover, 26 July 2018,

“Legislative Briefs: Recruitment,” NAIA, 4 October 2016, ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=27900&ATCLID=211206091

“NCAA Division 3 Recruiting Information,” Recruit Look, recruiting-calendar/ncaa-division-iii/. Accessed 24 November 2018.

“NCAA GPA Requirements,” NCSA, /ncaa-eligibility-center/gpa-requirements. Accessed 21 November 2018.

“NCAA Sliding Scale,” NCSA, sliding-scale. Accessed 21 November 2018.

New NCAA Recruiting Rules Change the Timing for Certain Recruiting Activities,” NCSA, 9 May 2018, rules-change-timing-recruiting-activities/

“Recruiting,” NCAA, Accessed 23 November 2018.

“What’s different about recruiting?” NAIA Showcase, showcase/recruiting. Accessed 23 November 2018.

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