After devoting 3+ hours a day, 6+ days a week, year round to water polo, I pursued both Division II and III schools as a potential recruit. When I ended up attending a Division I school instead, I ended up walking onto the D-1 crew team my freshman year with no rowing experience. The road to becoming a student athlete in college has twists and turns you may not expect!
Chances are, the prospect of playing future games and championships at the NCAA level sounds thrilling. As a student-athlete, you will undoubtedly, eventually, develop a complicated relationship with the massive entity that is the NCAA. Weighing the difficulties of dealing with bureaucracy with the chance at winning a national title or getting a meaningful athletic scholarship, you’ll come to terms with the NCAA hurdles you have to jump through. Whether you have been in communication with basketball coaches since 8th grade as a Division I priority recruit or you’re hoping to pursue your tennis dreams at a Division III school will determine how you approach this process.
Like all juniors and seniors, most student athletes are applying to a wide range of schools. If you are looking at becoming a student athlete at even one or two Division I or II schools, you’ll need to skip down and read those requirements. If your school choices only include Division III schools, stick around - this section’s just for you. Don’t forget, even some of the smaller schools (including all in the Ivy League), are actually Division I despite their size!
If you are only looking at Division III schools, you can simply create a profile page here which will set you up with an NCAA ID and provide helpful reminders as you get closer to graduation about contacting coaches and sending scores. As a Division III athlete, you have more freedom with the NCAA, and won’t need to meet all of the requirements of eligibility for bigger schools. This means there are no specific core-course requirements or test scores required by the NCAA for you to compete in your first season.
This isn’t an easy out though! Your potential future coach may have personal cutoffs or preferences even if not regulated by the NCAA. Communicate with those coaches early and often to determine not only if you’re a good fit for the team, but if the team is a good fit for you. Your goals for your college experience are important too!
If you have your sights set on Division I schools, you will need to get started with the process a bit earlier. In ninth and tenth grade, make sure you check with your school counselor to ensure you take the core course requirements in order to be an eligible athlete. They can work with you to make sure you satisfy the requirements, which essentially ensure that you’ve taken a full course load including sixteen English, Math, Science, and Social Science courses, earning at least a 2.3 GPA in each.
Beginning sophomore year, you can register as an NCAA student-athlete using the “Certification Account” option here. In order to create this Certification Account, you’ll need your email, basic birthdate/address/gender information, an education history of any high schools you’ve attended, and a total athletics participation history including expenses and awards. The certification account also requires a $80 registration fee to set up for domestic students, and $135 for international students. As with SAT and ACT fees, there is a fee waiver option for those that qualify due to financial need.
In addition to sending your SAT or ACT scores to the various colleges you’re applying to, you’ll also need to send your scores directly to the NCAA Eligibility Center. From your online Collegeboard (for the SAT) or ACT account, simply add the NCAA as an additional score recipient using their code “9999.” This is required only for Division I and II applicants.
There are sliding scales which determine the very minimum SAT or ACT score cutoffs you must meet according to NCAA rules. This, of course, doesn’t mean you should aim for the minimum! Most schools, and most coaches, have significantly higher expectations than the NCAA minimums depending on the year and university policies. Nonetheless, the sliding scale works in such a way that the lower your core course GPA, the higher you’ll need to score on the SAT or ACT and vice versa. If you look at these sliding scales, you’ll notice that the ACT scores look odd. This is because they use an “ACT sum” score instead of the typical comprehensive average score you are used to. Let’s look at some examples...
Izzy wants to swim at D-1 University of Michigan. She takes the SAT and scores 500 on Reading/Grammar and 510 on Math. Her composite score for the NCAA is 1010. This score means she only needs a 2.000 minimum GPA for her core coursework.*
*in order to compete her freshman year legally - this doesn’t mean these scores will get Izzy admitted!
Alice, on the other hand, wants to go to D-II Cal Poly Pomona to play soccer. She takes the ACT, and scores 20 on science, 21 on math, 19 on reading, and 18 on grammar. He sum score for the NCAA is 78. This score means she needs a 2.200 minimum GPA in her core coursework in order to play freshman year.
As a senior, you’ll need to revisit your NCAA account to make sure you request an “Amateurism Certificate” by mid-Spring (in 2018, the deadline was April 1, 2018). This is an important step that makes sure you won’t be redshirted your first season, so don’t let that senioritis kick in too early!
Talking to your current high school or club coach is the best jumping off point for communicating with college coaches. My water polo coach was infamous for casually dialing up his close ivy league coach friends and passing the phone off to you. It was a great tactic to simultaneously cause minor heart palpitations and get you comfortable communicating with coaches. After that, sending a cold email to a dozen coaches feels so much easier. When crafting your intro email, be sure to highlight that you’ve researched the team by congratulating them on a recent win or mentioning specific players you look up to. If you are playing a game within a reasonable radius of the college in the upcoming season, invite the coach to come watch you play. If you’ve recently won an award or hit a new goal time on your 100m, don’t be afraid to brag a little!
Most likely, the coach will respond with a generic email explaining expectations of you as a potential student athlete. If you don’t hear back after your first email or two, see if your high school coach can put in a call as well, so don’t be discouraged. Oftentimes, these college coaches are dealing with hundreds of potential recruits, and missing an email doesn’t mean they aren’t interested.
Communicating with coaches will give you a better idea of their expectations for test scores, GPA, and athletic achievement. It can be great to sort this out before beginning SAT / ACT prep so that you have a clear goal in mind. Your coach may merely give you the average scores of the last incoming class, or they may tell you that you just need to meet the NCAA minimum requirements. Typically, for Division I and II schools, the recommended test scores are slightly below the universities overall average. The primary exception is Ivy League schools, which will insist that you strive for the university’s typical score ranges.
Division III schools will also usually state that because coaches have less leverage to recruit, you will need to be accepted on your merits without any influence of athletics. It’s a good idea to keep your coach updated with your most recent test scores as you receive them. Remember, simply sending your score to the NCAA does not mean that your coach has access to them. Likewise, sending your score in a casual email to the coach doesn’t mean it is an official record accessible by the university. Sending your official score report or just a brief email describing your score is a good way to keep in touch, and to show the coach you’re serious about their program.
Don’t be afraid to send your scores from both your first and second test sessions. Showing improvement proves a level of dedication that all coaches love to see. I’ve worked with students whose coaches specifically reached out to praise them on their test prep progress, noting that it shows the kind of focus and drive that will serve them well as a future student athlete.
Luckily, this is not an either-or dilemma! As a student athlete, you are used to balancing a hectic schedule and working in test prep between morning lifting, afternoon practice and weekend travel. Planning ahead is absolutely key to keeping on top of everything, especially when test prep as an athlete tends to be more spread out than for the average student. Most student athletes see the most improvement if they 1) start early, 2) opt for one-on-one tutoring, and 3) plan ahead to Skype as needed when away or to avoid tiring additional driving.
Starting test prep at the end of your sophomore year can be a great way to optimize the time you’ll have before college applications roll around senior year. You’ll want to both start early and at the most convenient time. These days, most sports end up feeling quite year-round between club commitments and high school season. There is, though, usually a bit of a lull between seasons. Planning to take your SAT or ACT during a lull in the athletic calendar will bring you a lot of peace of mind when the test date is just around the corner.
Classes and one-on-one tutoring are both beneficial test prep options. However, many prospective college athletes have a hard time blocking off enough time to make it to all of the classes, and will likely benefit more from setting up sessions with a personal tutor. This way, taking a Saturday off for a tournament, or switching from a Tuesday afternoon to a Wednesday every other week can be accommodated. With the wonders of technology you can also take advantage of the option to work in online tutoring. Sometimes, it can be nice to just come straight home to your own room after a long session in the pool or gym instead of driving to a tutoring office or library.
Once you make it to college, you’ll start to train like more like a machine and less like a casual athlete. These means optimizing nutrition, training, and recovery. Test prep requires the same balance of learning the concepts with your tutor, practicing through your homework, and recovering by prioritizing sleep before the big day. I know how hard it can be to come home after a 7:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. school day, 3:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. high school practice, and 7:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. club practice. Find those small moments to study and test prep where you can: have study parties in the team room before practice starts, make the most of study halls and free periods, and do some reading on the bus in between. These skills will become second nature, and as you sit on the 5 a.m. van to rowing training in college and see that your teammates are all reviewing flashcards or listening to audiobooks for class, you’ll feel right at home.