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. Garland Cooper, was a three-time NFCA All-American (two-time first team) and Big Ten Player of the Year at Northwestern University. In 2012, Garland was inducted into the NU Hall of Fame having helped the Wildcats to a pair of Women’s College World Series appearances. She was also a first-round pick of the New England Riptide in the 2007 National Pro Fast Pitch College Draft. Garland 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.
Thousands of high school athletes every year dream of competing at the Division I level. But why exactly do so many athletes become so fascinated with playing for a DI school when there are so many other options available? To get a better idea of why athletes want to go DI—and how their actual experience compared to their expectations—I talked to several former DI athletes from several different sports and conferences.
Check out the top reasons student-athletes want to compete at the Division I level and how that compared to their college experience.
“I wanted to compete against the best”
Of all the former DI athletes I talked to, this was the most common reason they wanted to compete at the DI level. And it’s true that at the DI level, you’ll be competing against some of the most talented college athletes in your sport. Aaron Sorenson, a DIII baseball/basketball two-sport athlete who transferred to University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee to play DI baseball, explains, “I wanted to play at the DI level to prove to myself I was good enough. I felt like I was overlooked in high school. I was happy to be playing at the DIII level but I wanted the challenge of competing at the highest level.”
The reality: Yes, Division I is the highest level of competition; however, because you are competing against the top collegiate athletes, you may find that you don’t see any playing time until your junior or senior year, or maybe not at all. Mike Adler, a former DI football at Morehead State University, explains, “While I didn’t get to play as much as I would have liked, the competition was certainly the right fit.”
“I wanted to take advantage of the perks of being at a big school”
There are plenty of perks to enjoy at a large school—huge football games with excited crowds, plenty of clubs and extracurricular activities, a sprawling campus, a diverse population of students and more.
The reality: Big schools have a lot to offer, but being a DI athlete, you will have to pick and choose what you have time to experience. Rick McDole, former DI football player at Northwestern University, says, “The demand of playing at the DI level limited my ability to engage with the rest of the collegiate experience. Between competitions, practice and travel, it was like having a full-time job.” Former DI baseball player Michael Dufek adds, “From practices to classes, required study sessions, games, travel, and meals, everything was laid out for me, and it didn’t leave as much free time as I thought it would.”
“I wanted the prestige that came with being a DI athlete”
For many athletes, the high-profile world of DI sports is the driving force behind wanting to compete at the DI level. Eric Vierneisel, a former DI men’s basketball player at the University of California-Berkeley, explains, “You put in a lot of time, energy and effort to your training and DI is the biggest payoff. I went up against future NBA All-Stars and first round draft picks. I also got to play in both the NCAA and NIT tournaments during my time in college.”
The reality: While there is plenty of prestige to go around in DI athletics, the spotlight varies from school to school, sport to sport and program to program. Mallory Winters, former DI softball player at Butler University, says, “I didn’t expect that we wouldn’t always win. I think we only had one or two seasons where we were over .500, and we even lost games to very competitive DII and DIII schools. I would never change my experience, but as a competitor, I think it’d be amazing to compete for a perennial powerhouse at a different level, consistently winning and vying for championships.”
“I was attracted to the DI lifestyle”
Travelling across the country, staying in hotels, competing in huge tournaments and being a known as a DI athlete are all pretty big incentives to chase the dream. DI athletes tend to get state-of-the-art equipment, first pick of classes and much more, as well as the opportunity to compete on a national stage.
The reality: DI athletes can have a perk-laden, but very hectic lifestyle. Kristin Heidloff, a former DI basketball player at Georgetown University, says, “I don’t think anything can actually prepare you for the life of being a Division I athlete. It truly is a full-time job and more when you factor in school, practice, training room, study hall, meetings, film sessions, etc.” She adds, “It is not the glamour that you see watching FBS playoff football and NCAA March Madness basketball. It’s hard, grinding, full-time work. However, the satisfaction of competing at the highest level and the moments of success make all the time, sweat and occasional tears worth it.
“Get ready to work.”
Overall, every former DI athlete I spoke with had a consistent message for aspiring DI athletes—get ready to work harder than you ever have before! Former DI volleyball player at Butler University Claire Randich explains, “It’s a 12-month commitment and when you’re not ‘producing,’ your ‘boss’ (coach) is going to let you know about it. There are a lot of perks and pros to it, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility. You’re held to a different standard.”
READ MORE: No regrets: Picking the right college
So, as you’re looking at schools, be honest with yourself. Are you willing to have a full-time job and then some? How important is playing time and winning? What do you hope to get out of your collegiate experience? The more research you do up front and the more informed you are about the different options available to you, the easier it will be to find your best college match.