As high school juniors begin to prepare for college admissions, prospective student athletes face their own unique pathway. They have to negotiate the complex world of recruiting regulations, rendered even more confusing by the fact that the NCAA is currently revisiting and revising many of those rules.
The NCAA, a voluntary organization of over thousand members, is the largest of the organizations that govern US collegiate athletics. Within its three divisions, members set the requirements that prospective student athletes (PSAs) must meet in order to practice, compete and receive financial aid in their first year at college. The initial requirements involve minimum standardized results as well as core academic courses, and are enforced by the NCAA's Eligibility Center.
The NCAA also sets rules for recruitment of prospective athletes. With the exception of a few sports, coaches can make direct contact with recruits in writing after September 1 of a PSA's junior year. Most junior PSAs should reach out to coaches, however, especially to those who have not had the chance to see them in action.
In getting ready for recruitment, juniors should:
- Prepare material to send to coaches, such as DVDs of their play and training, dedicated social media sites to which to direct coaches, resumes that cover athletic achievements, extra-curricular activities and academic progress, and transcripts with which coaches can judge their admissibility.
- Create a college list by researching not only athletic programs but also colleges' academic offerings and requirements. Academic requirements will differ between colleges, even within the same sport: in the Ivy League athletic conference, for example, a recruit has to meet an Academic Index (a standard deviation from the academic performance of the college's student body as a whole). A student with subpar academics cannot be admitted; but nor should students want to attend a college where they are at risk of flunking out for lack of academic preparation!
- Be in touch with school counselors about course loads to ensure their academic eligibility remains on track.
- Prepare to take the SAT 1 or the ACT, and even SAT 2 subject tests, if possible. These results help a coach gauge admissibility to his or her college.
- Begin to search out scholarships, online on sites such as Fastweb and in the school's guidance center, and learn about the nuts and bolts of athletic financial aid and eligibility: is your dream college in a division where athletic scholarships are available; how does the college disburse its grants-in-aid; and how does it adjust such aid after the initial award lapses or an athlete is injured?
- Make unofficial college visits to meet with coaches and team members and explore the facilities. Ask questions! How often do athletes miss class because of travel; what is the graduation rate for students in your sport; and do athletes graduate in more or less the same programs as other students, including very intensive ones like engineering?
- Be on good behavior in contact with coaches. Coaches don't simply recruit the best players but want to fill specific spots on their teams. They also want team members who can collaborate with others, lead, work hard, lift team morale, and remain disciplined in their athletic, academic and social spheres. PSAs who are late for meetings, look disheveled, display inappropriate information on Facebook, whine, and annoy those around them, will see their recruitment prospects plummet. Why would any coach risk a rude, immature and annoying child on the team?
- By the end of junior year PSAs should be registered with the NCAA's Eligibility
Center and have their official transcripts and test scores sent there directly.
- Finally, parents too should know their place and understand how their conduct can undermine their students' prospects. Coaches want to recruit students and not their parents, so the opinions of overbearing adults are unlikely to interest them.
Remember that throughout the recruitment process PSAs and coaches have different agendas: coaches want to put together winning teams, and recruits want to win admission to a great college with good financial aid. Do not confuse those two projects with each other, no matter how great the program or how nice the coach. Nor should students and parents confuse a statement of interest with being on the coach's final recruitment list.
Meanwhile, younger students should note that in 2016 the NCAA will institute a more rigorous set of eligibility protocols, including a requirement that ten of the 16 core courses be completed at the beginning of senior year and that a student achieve a minimum GPA of 2.3 in all core courses. NCAA gave college counselors an overview of these changes at the 2013 annual conference of NACAC, the national admission organization. According to an ESPN report on the new rules, some 15 percent of students who enrolled in colleges in 2009-2010 will not have met these requirements (in football it is a staggering 35 percent and in basketball, 43 percent.) Students who hope to enter college by 2016 as eligible student athletes should therefore begin to prepare for higher academic standards that shift the focus, in the words of an NCAA spokesman, from just becoming eligible to being academically prepared.