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. Jason Smith is a former NCAA DIII athlete and college coach at all three division levels. Jason 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.
It’s that time of year when college students procrastinate back-to-school packing. Some spent their summer at internships, while others took on part-time jobs. Either way, they’re soaking up the last few days of summer.
College-athletes, on the other hand, are already on campus—and may have even been there since June, training in the offseason. It’s no secret that being a college athlete is a huge commitment, but summer break is proof.
It made one of our NCSA parents question: With so much practice underway, when do student-athletes get a chance to focus on their majors and gain valuable job experience outside of sports?
The answer is more complicated than you might think. “It really depends on the major, athletic program and school,” says Kristin Heidloff, a former Division I athlete and academic advisor to college athletes at Northwestern University, and NCSA Head Recruiting Coach.
Here are the different factors she says families should consider:
Your athlete’s major
Some majors are harder to balance with sports than others. For example, engineering majors and any major that requires a lab, such as pre-med, typically have two to three times more homework than other students. When practice and training already carves out 30 hours each week, studying time is limited. Many coaches, however, work with student-athletes to ensure they can achieve their goals. Make sure your student-athlete asks the coach ahead of time if any players have graduated with the major they’re interested in. This will give you an idea of how manageable the course load will be.
READ MORE: Nine-time management tips form a DI athlete
Insider tip: Most college athletes receive priority registration so they can register for classes that fit into their practice schedule. Because of this, you’ll often find that each school has its own “athlete major,” where athletes make up 50 percent of the students taking the class. Your student can spot which classes are popular among college-athletes this way—but should still go after the major they want.
Flexible athletic programs
Some programs—usually at smaller schools—provide the option to do two years on and two years off, meaning the first two years of college are focused on sports and the last two years are focused on school. This comes in handy for majors like nursing where the bulk of your freshman and sophomore year is focused on completing general education classes, and the last two years are spent in clinicals. This is one way your athlete can get the best of both worlds.
Division is a big factor
You already know that Division I is highly selective and for these college-athletes, their sport is a full-time job. But there are so many other competitive options out there that provide more opportunity for scholarships and a well-rounded college experience. For example, some students opt to play Division II and Division III so they have time to focus on academics and life outside of school. Junior college is a good option, too, if your athlete wants to complete general education classes and explore majors before transferring to a four-year school.
Learn more about the different divisions: What NCAA Division Is Right For You
The sport they play
College-athletes train in the off season. So, if your student plays a spring sport, they’re required to practice throughout the fall and winter. Winter sports tend to be the most restrictive because athletes compete during both semesters. That’s why some students opt to take a fifth year, allowing them to catch up and complete their coursework. Education majors, for example, will spend their fifth-year fall semester student teaching.
Use the staff to help
College-athletes have so many resources available to them, including an academic advisor, teammates in the same situation and coaches who know the drill. Their advisor makes sure they’re on pace to graduate and that they’re taking classes that fit within their schedule. College coaches also help athletes find great resume builders where they can develop leadership skills, such as an Athlete Advisory Council. Ask the staff about opportunities that will help your athlete succeed after college.
Don’t forget, too, that a lot of employers understand athletes have a different college experience than their typical applicant. And some companies even seek out college-athletes because they expect them to display more leadership, self-confidence and self-respect than those outside of sports.