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. Joe is a former college-athlete, coach, and NAIA National Champion. He 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.
Being considered a walk-on is far more common in college sports than most families and athletes realize. According to the latest NCAA information 46 percent of DI athletes are walk-ons and 39 percent of DII athletes are walk-ons. DIII athlete’s are not eligible to receive athletic scholarships so walk-in status is not calculated.
What is a Walk-On?
Being a college walk-on simply means you are on the college team and receive no form of athletic financial aid (athletic scholarship). Most people assume a walk-on is someone who wasn’t recruited and they got on the team by making it into the school on their own and making it through a grueling try-out process. There are walk-on athletes who have this experience, but there are also highly-recruited walk-ons who may have even turned down scholarship offers from other schools. Here are some more of the most common questions about being a college walk-on.
Do Walk-Ons Get Scholarships?
There are no hard numbers on athletes who went from being a walk-on to receiving an athletic scholarship. That said, it is far more common that a walk-on athlete eventually gets some amount of an athletic scholarship if they are on the team for multiple years. But, don’t expect your scholarships to be a full-ride. Most are partial scholarships so if you are expecting to take a walk-on offer in order to eventually get a full-scholarship, you should research how common full-ride scholarships are in your sport first.
What’s the Difference Between a Preferred Walk-On vs Walk-On?
There are many different classifications of walk-ons and it is important to know the distinctions because each means something different when it comes to understanding how much the school is interested in an athlete:
- Preferred Walk-On – This is the highest status as a walk-on. You are guaranteed a spot on the team and are going to receive all the support of normal scholarship athletes.
- Walk-On (Recruited) – If you aren’t receiving preferred status, that simply means your position on the team isn’t guaranteed. You may be required to try-out once on campus or maybe the coach is expecting you to red-shirt your first year. This is still a great option for athletes, especially those looking to play at the highest division level they can.
- Walk-On (Unrecruited) – This is the typical walk-on story where an athlete makes it into the school on their own and finds a way on the team through an open try-out. The truth is, this is much less common than families think as most athletes have at least talked to a coach before enrolling and confirmed they can try-out.
What’s It Like to Be a College Walk-On?
Given the wide range of walk-on statuses and the fact each program uses walk-ons differently, there is no single way to best describe it. Of course, there are few common experiences that might give you an idea of what it is like:
- Playing time is harder to come by – there is no denying the fact that a coach is going to have a bias toward playing the athletes that are given scholarship money. You will have to earn your time by first proving it in practice and through your limited game time.
- You might not receive the full support of the athletic department – depending on what type of walk-on you are, you might not have access to the same academic and training support of scholarship athletes. If you are a preferred or recruited walk-on you likely won’t experience this, but unrecruited walk-ons might not have access to things like preferred enrollment, etc.
- Some athletes feel they are treated unfairly – No conversation about walk-ons can avoid the fact some athletes think they are treated as second-class members of the team. This can mean things like, they aren’t given fair consideration for a scholarship, other athletes don’t treat them like a normal member of the team, but mostly it has to do with issues around playing and practice time. While this is far less common, it can happen and it is usually experienced by the unrecruited walk-ons.
- When you do break though, success will be sweeter – taking the risk to take a position on a college team without a scholarship and working your way up by earning it, will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. Walking-on is very challenging, but when it works out, there is nothing better.
Should I Become a Walk-On?
In my experience, the question really comes down to what kind of person you are? If you are an athlete who is used to being a starter and accustom to winning or getting a lot of playing time, the transition to being a walk-on can be very difficult. However, if you are an athlete who has had to grind for everything you have, are an excellent teammate, and are extra competitive (without harming your role as a team leader), you will probably have the character and work ethic needed to make it as a college walk-on.