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. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams. Kyle 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.
“If I apply to the school, the coach will see I’m really interested and offer me an athletic scholarship.”
I’ve seen this logic used by families in the application process countless times. It’s important for families to understand that simply applying to a school doesn’t pave the way to a scholarship offer. The coach needs to be actively recruiting your athlete—think: reviewing their highlight or skills videos, communicating with them and expressing interest—for that coach to extend an offer.
So, when is the right time to apply to a school? Should your athlete risk missing the application deadlines to ensure they have an offer before they apply? As unsatisfying as this answer may be, it really depends. For each athlete, the relationship between when they get an offer, apply to the school and sign with the school will be very different. Here are three common scenarios, how they work and the pitfalls to avoid.
The Case: Get an offer, apply to the school and sign
In an ideal world, athletes want to start the recruiting process early, snagging an offer their junior year, and then applying to the school and signing. It sounds like a hassle-free, easy way to go about the recruiting process. And in most—if not all—cases, coaches will not offer an athlete until they are confident that the athlete meets the application requirements. Which means, if you get an offer, it’s a safe bet that you’ll get into that school. This tactic also ensures that you’re not applying needlessly to schools that aren’t actually recruiting you.
Oftentimes, coaches will have a good relationship with the admissions department, and if they have offered an athlete, the coach can help get the recruit’s application through the process much quicker than the average student. They can also help athletes figure out how much need-based or non-academic money they qualify for before the athlete has actually applied to the school. Both of these situations depend on the coach, sport and school, however, so make sure you ask the coach before you make any assumptions.
What to watch out for: If your athlete starts the recruiting process late, or they’re in the last half of their senior year without any offers, they run the risk of missing the application deadline for the schools they’re interested in. If they never end up getting an offer, then they might have to scramble at the last minute to find a school still accepting applicants.
The Case: Apply to the school, get an offer and then sign
Some coaches require athletes apply to the school before they will extend an offer. If your athlete is interested in DIII or NAIA schools, this might be the case. For DIII schools, the application process is where athletes get the bulk of their scholarship money, so it’s a crucial part of putting together your family’s financial aid package.
Some student-athletes might choose to apply to schools before they receive an offer as they have a set few schools they want to go to, regardless of athletics. If your athlete has a few key schools that they really want to attend, they can certainly go ahead and apply.
What to watch out for: As I mentioned earlier, applying to a school does not guarantee your athlete will get an offer from the coach. An “offer” essentially represents a roster spot on that team. A coach is only going to make a certain number of offers a year. So, applying to a school that hasn’t given your athlete an offer, means there might not be any spots on the team for your athlete. Even if they think that they can “just walk-on,” that may not be the case. At many schools, walk-ons need to be invited by the coach.
If the coach asked your athlete to apply to the school, that’s a good sign of recruiting interest. However, your athlete still needs to put in the work to clinch their spot on the team.
The Case: Get an offer, sign with the school and then apply
Most coaches will not offer an athlete unless they are sure that the athlete will qualify for their school. For athletes who have an offer and sign early, the road to college entrance should be pretty straightforward; the application is more of a formality at that point. At high academic schools—including the Ivy League—coaches will take even greater care to ensure that athletes will be academically eligible.
What to watch out for: While coaches will do their due diligence to check an athlete’s grades and test scores, there have been many athletes who didn’t meet specific criteria (like the NCAA core course requirements) and weren’t qualified to compete. The athletes were left in the lurch, forced to make last-minute decisions.
So, what’s the right answer?
Because this situation varies so much, your student-athlete needs to talk to the coaches at the schools they are interested in and ask how the coach prefers to handle the application process. They might have specific steps they prefer athletes take or they might leave it up to the athlete. No matter how your family decides to move forward, always remember to do your research and plan in advance to avoid any last-minute surprises.
All student-athletes who want to compete in NCAA sports at a Division I or II school will need to register with the NCAA Eligibility Center. If you are considering an NAIA school, the NAIA also requires all student-athletes to have their eligibility determined before they compete.