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.
“We can’t start the recruiting process yet because my son hasn’t chosen his major.”
I hear this from families almost every day—no, we can’t start the recruiting process because my athlete doesn’t know what they want to study in college! Parents worry that if they start recruiting without the academics ironed out, they are prioritizing sports over school.
But families can absolutely start the recruiting process before their athlete has chosen a major without jeopardizing athletics or academics.
The biggest misunderstanding that fuels this frame of mind is that recruiting starts with picking a school, going on campus visits and signing with that school. However, there are so many more boxes to check before your student-athlete starts really narrowing down their list of schools to only one or two. And each of these initial steps can take place well before your athlete chooses their intended major. I’ve outlined all the foundational steps below that go into the recruiting process, each of which can—and often do—take place before an athlete has chosen their course of study.
Talk to your athlete about their commitment to competing in college sports
The recruiting process starts with a conversation between parents and the student-athlete. Parents need to know if their athlete is actually committed to competing in college sports. Being a collegiate athlete is not something to go into lightly: Students need to be dedicated to the recruiting process, passionate about their sport, and determined to continually improve their athletics and academics to make it to the next level.
NCSA recruiting manager Chris Wallace likes to use the following scenario to help families understand if their athlete really wants to compete in college. “Let’s say I’m a college coach and I send something in the mail to your athlete saying that I think they’d be a good fit for my program. Would they be happy, sad, hesitant? That’s one good determining factor in understanding if they are committed.”
Start researching schools and figure out what your athlete wants in a college
The next step is to research, research, research! Ideally, your athlete should have a target list of about 20-30 schools that they are interested in attending. If your athlete hasn’t picked a major yet when they are going through this process, it’s extremely important that they include a wide range of schools on their initial list. That way, your athlete should have at least a few schools in the mix that will offer their intended major when they decide what that will be. Here’s how we recommend athletes organize their target list:
- 5 safety schools: These are schools that your athlete definitely qualifies for athletically, academically and financially. They will be able to get into the schools and are great to fall back on if their top schools don’t work out.
- 10-15 target schools: The schools here should be the ones your athlete is most excited about and they are on track to have the academics and athletics necessary. Some athletes make the mistake of only having one type of school in this list—such as large Division I institutions. However, to make sure that one of their top schools will offer your athlete’s major, they need to consider DI, DII, DIII and NAIA schools.
- 5 reach schools: This group of schools are those that your athlete might not qualify for yet, but with some hard work and determination, they could get there. Some athletes strive for a high-academic institution but don’t have the right grades yet. Others pursue extremely athletically competitive DI programs.
Wallace emphasizes again the importance of including many different kinds of schools in the target list. “We tell families to cast a wide net when they’re searching for schools, and then when their athlete finds their major, they can cut down their list of schools.”
Once your athlete has their list of schools, they can start contacting coaches
If you’ve gone through both of the previous steps and your athlete still hasn’t chosen a major, they should still start sending out messages to college coaches. Hear us out on this one: By starting the communication process, your athlete will be able to figure out which schools they qualify for athletically. So, when they do choose their major, they will already be in contact with coaches at various schools. They can politely decline to pursue the recruitment process with schools that don’t offer their course of study, while continuing with those that do.
Wallace explains, “The best way to maximize your opportunities is to start the recruiting process and have all the options on the table. Then, you have some things lined up when you figure out your major.”
In many ways, the recruiting process is a lot like searching for a job. You start by committing to the job search process. Then, you research some companies or industries you’d like to break into. You send out resumes and cover letters. A portion of those organizations will reach back out to set up an initial interview. After the interview process, a few more companies might fall off the radar. Perhaps at this point, you realize that you really would like to pursue a role that emphasizes one particular skill over the other. So, you decline a second interview request with a couple companies on your list, giving preference to the organizations that prioritize that skill.
This is pretty similar to how the recruiting process will go if your athlete hasn’t picked out their major. Will they spend some time pursing a school that ends up not offering their major? Possibly, yes. But if they cast a wide net initially, they will have many more opportunities in front of them than if they hadn’t started at all.
It’s also possible that your athlete might start college with an undeclared major.
About 20-25% of incoming freshmen are undecided, and during their first year, they focus on fulfilling their general education requirements. As they take classes in various subject matter, they discover what they are interested in and then select their major. There’s no right or wrong way to approach choosing a major, and some students just take a more time than others. However, don’t let the lack of a declared major be the reason that your student-athlete misses out on the opportunity to compete in college sports.