USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Jaimie Duffek was one of the top 50 high school softball players in Illinois who went onto play outfield for Drake University. Jaimie is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
Student-athletes with hopes of competing at the college level often get caught up in the fantasy of how great it would be to play for a big-name Division I school. They are drawn in by the prestige that comes with the name, but what they don’t always consider is whether or not they would even like that school. Getting in isn’t the same thing as fitting in. If your student-athlete chooses a college for the athletics program alone, they’re failing to consider the many other factors that play a part in a rewarding college experience.
In a previous article, we outlined 20 questions you should ask your student-athlete to find their best college match. Now that you have their answers, how does that information factor into which schools to target?
It goes without saying that academics should be the chief concern when it comes to choosing a college. You’ll find many colleges and universities will specialize in certain fields of study. If your student-athlete is interested in becoming a teacher, for example, you might narrow your choices down to schools with well-regarded education programs.
It’s not necessary for your student-athlete to nail down a specific major and stick with it—in fact, most college students change their major at least three times before they graduate—but having a faint idea of a career path can be helpful in picking schools and building a list. Once your student-athlete has a sense of what they are most interested in, begin searching for schools with high-ranking programs for that subject.
Keep in mind that, at many schools, certain majors require students to fulfill internship requirements. Depending on what division level they’re playing in, that may be easier or harder to achieve. According to NCAA research, college athletes work almost the equivalent of two full-time jobs, with the demands on student-athletes at DI schools being the most intense.
READ MORE: Nine time management tips from a DI athlete
Whether your student-athlete has decided on a major or not, they might have a notion of if they would prefer discussion-type learning environments or are OK with large lecture hall classes. Typically, the larger the school, the more likely it is you’ll have lecture-type classes.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you should consider what kind of schools are academically attainable for your student-athlete. They may love the idea of attending a prestigious private college, but if they’re not even close to the grades or standardized test scores of the average admitted student, the chances are low that they will thrive in that academically rigorous environment.
Feeling comfortable in your home away from home is key to a student-athlete’s happiness in college. Imagine being on a great sports team but disliking the weather, the people, and the distance from your friends and family. Your enjoyment of the team will be affected by your overall disdain for your surroundings and could even hinder your academic and athletic performance.
One of the bigger considerations when choosing a school is figuring out how important it is to your student-athlete that they are close to home. If they want to be able to return easily and often, it wouldn’t make much sense to consider a school in California if you’re from Michigan. In-state schools also have the advantage of lower tuition costs.
If your student-athlete grew up in a small, suburban environment, perhaps they would like to experience the opposite. In that case, a larger school in an urban setting might be the best choice. Keep in mind, however, that culture shock is real and the transition can prove too overwhelming for some students.
The size of a school is usually a good indication of the campus culture. Large schools with 10,000 or more students are usually more diverse, but it can be harder to make personal connections with peers. If your student-athlete would like to walk around the campus and see a bunch of familiar faces, a smaller school might be more their style.
For comparison, here are some statistics about DI, DII and DII schools:
- Median undergraduate enrollment: 9,131
- 67 percent located in a city
- Median undergraduate enrollment: 2,511
- 40 percent located in a city
- Median undergraduate enrollment: 1,820
- 38 percent located in a city
- Highest percentage of students live on campus
Insider Tip: Although not detailed here, NAIA and JUCO schools are also good options for student-athletes looking to compete at the college level.
Other Important Considerations
For the purpose of this article, we focused on the academic and cultural aspects of selecting a college. There are, of course, other considerations when choosing the right school. In addition to the culture of the school itself, each athletic program has its own culture. For example, if your student-athlete wants a less stressful, but still competitive experience, Division I schools probably aren’t the best choice.
READ MORE: What NCAA division is right for you
Lastly, the cost of attending college varies widely from school to school. Understanding what you can afford will help you narrow down your target schools. Scholarships, both athletic and academic, are available, but the average athletic scholarship offer is less than you’d think, and the requirements for academic scholarships can be strict.