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.
You’ve heard of recruits verbally committing as young as 7th grade, but you also know that seniors find last-minute opportunities, too. It seems like the recruiting process is in a constant flow—and that’s because it kind of is.
Here, we’ll break down the reasons by graduate year: why should your student-athlete start the recruiting process, and why should they wait?
Freshman year: Why start the recruiting process?
Because your student-athlete can—and wants to—compete at a Division I school. It’s no secret that top programs recruit early. They look for freshman who have varsity or elite club film, were ranked as a top-tier recruit at a tournament or showcase, or received prestigious awards, such as All-State. If your athlete falls into one of these categories, they have the potential to compete at this level and most likely received general recruiting materials already. They can begin filling out questionnaires, looping in their high school or club coach, and emailing college coaches.
Insider tip: Team sports tend to recruit earlier than individual sports. Softball Division I programs and heavy hitting conferences, like PAC 12 and SEC, especially move quicker in their recruiting timelines.
Freshman year: Why wait?
Because they’re not ready. Most 14-year olds have a lot of growing and development to do before they can compete at the college level. While coaches are definitely looking for potential when they evaluate prospects, late bloomers will have more success in their recruiting journey if they wait a year before reaching out to college coaches. This is also true for freshman who are currently playing on a junior varsity or freshman-level team. When your student-athlete begins contacting college coaches, at a minimum, they should have varsity highlight film to show.
Plus, it might be too early for your athlete to start their recruiting simply because they haven’t thought about what kind of college experience they want. Don’t worry, this is totally normal.
It’s okay to approach the first year of high school as a year to focus on skill development and learn more about college sports programs. For example, maybe your student decides they want to stay close to home, or you realize that college is more affordable at an NAIA school.
These kinds of factors should be taken into consideration before your son or daughter jump starts their recruiting. Rest assured, there are several opportunities out there—from Division II and Division III to NAIA and junior college—that offer competitive programs and athletic and financial aid.
Sophomore year: Why start the recruiting process?
Because your child did their research and has a pretty good idea of where they want to go to college. So, they’re ready to take the next step and talk to coaches to learn more. For many sports, Division I programs have solidified their recruiting classes by this point. However, it’s possible to find a few with roster openings due to a student-athlete de-committing. Your athlete can also focus on Division II, which recruits heavily during sophomore year (and can personally reach out to prospects on June 15 after their sophomore year), or start building relationships with Division III and NAIA coaches. Your family can even plan unofficial visits as a way to meet coaches and see campuses in person.
Sophomore year: Why wait?
Because waiting a little bit longer will bring more opportunities. Ask yourself: If something were to change, would my athlete get interest from different schools? For example, maybe they’re struggling in the classroom and a boost in their GPA would help them qualify for colleges on their target list. Or maybe they suffered an injury and more recovery time will lead to a much stronger highlight film. The goal is to find a school that is a good academic and athletic fit for your athlete. It’s okay taking a little more time to ensure that happens.
We also come across sophomores who aren’t ready to pursue college sports yet. They’ve just started to look more closely at colleges and are unsure of whether they want to take on a commitment like this. So, they need a little more time and a few discussions with their high school or club coach, or a current college-athlete, to understand what they’d be signing up for.
Read more on the difference between high school and college sports: Five Major Differences Between High School and College Sports
Junior year: Why start the recruiting process?
Because Division I college coaches can reach out to your athlete personally. On Sept. 1 of your athlete’s junior year, the NCAA allows coaches to send personalized emails, texts and social media messages. If they haven’t filled a roster spot already, they’re in contact with recruits to make sure they do soon. Also, Division II coaches are wrapping up their rosters, while Division III and NAIA coaches are turning their attention to the junior class.
Plus, this is the year most student-athletes are ready to attend showcases and camps, where they’ll play in front of college coaches and get ranked nationally. Even more importantly, your family has fine-tuned your athlete’s list of top college choices. So, this is a popular time for athletes to attend unofficial visits and make verbal commitments.
Insider tip: When your child receives a verbal commitment, the coach typically gives you a deadline to accept. Accepting means your recruiting process has ended. That’s why you want to make sure your athlete is pursuing schools that are a good fit. Read more here.
Junior year: Why wait?
Because their ACT or SAT score is holding them back. They say junior year is the hardest year in high school, and we blame standardized tests. Luckily, data shows that more than half of students who retake the ACT earn a higher score. Remember that even if your student is offered a roster spot, they still need to be accepted into the college. Their grades and test scores should stand on their own. If a few points can be the difference between their dream school and back-up school, communicate with the coach that your athlete is retaking the test, or wait to reach out until they have the test score that would qualify them for that school.
Senior year: Why start the recruiting process?
Because college is around the corner! Senior year isn’t too late to start the recruiting process, but your family needs to be proactive. Division III and NAIA coaches still have scholarship opportunities available and that is a great place to start looking. Your athlete should follow their favorite programs on Twitter, too, to look out for any recruits who de-commit from a program as well. While it’s typical for an athlete to send coaches an introductory email that includes highlight film, your athlete should call college coaches directly. Senior year will fly by before you know it!
Senior year: Why wait?
Because your athlete isn’t sure if college sports is for them. As students visit campuses and start applying for college, they may realize that they want a more traditional college experience and time to focus on academics. Or maybe your athlete was accepted into their dream school, but they can’t compete there. There’s always the possibility of walking on to a team (it’s tough, but can be done). We always tell families that your student-athlete should love the school—whether they’re competing as a college-athlete or not.
When it comes to senior year, every month counts in your child’s recruiting. So, if they want to play college sports, they can’t wait very long. Rosters are mostly full by this point and putting off their recruiting means fewer opportunities available.
Read more about senior year recruiting: Attention Seniors: You Can Still Get Recruited