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.
According to the NCAA, there are more than 17,000 international student-athletes enrolled in and competing at NCAA schools, and there are thousands more competing at NAIA and NJCAA schools across the country. If your student-athlete wants to play sports at an American university, there are plenty of opportunities. However, to find the right fit—and potentially a scholarship—you need to understand how the recruiting process works. Then, you’ll need to layer on the additional steps required of international athletes.
Before we launch into the specifics, it’s important to clarify what we mean when we talk about “college athletic recruiting.” In the U.S., both colleges and universities are post-secondary schools where students earn their four-year bachelor’s degrees. The main difference between colleges and universities in the U.S. is that universities also offer master’s and doctorate programs, while colleges only offer bachelor’s degrees. The athletic recruiting process is how college and university coaches find athletes and determine how much scholarship money to give to each one. All recruits must go through the recruiting process if they want to compete at a U.S. college or university.
Below, I’ve outlined some of the unique twists on the recruiting process for international athletes. You can use this overview in addition to our College Recruiting Guide to make sure you’re checking off all the boxes in the recruiting process.
Do your research and familiarize yourself with U.S. sports, schools and scholarship facts
The first step in the recruiting process always involves research—for both U.S. and international students. Here are a few key areas to start.
- Learn what the different division levels mean. You’ve probably seen information about the NCAA, NAIA and NJCAA. These are the governing bodies that set the academic requirements and recruiting rules for each of their member schools. And, within the NCAA, there are three different division levels—Division 1, Division 2 and Division 3. Generally speaking, D1 schools are the most athletically competitive, followed by D2 and D3. NAIA schools are often compared to lower level D2 schools in terms of their athletic competitiveness. Each division level offers its own unique college experience, and it’s worth investigating each one to find the right fit for your athlete.
- Research the academic eligibility requirements to compete in the U.S. The NCAA and NAIA have specific documentation requirements for international student-athletes to be academically eligible to compete in college sports. If you’re interested in NCAA D1 or D2 sports, review their academic requirements. For NAIA schools, you can learn more about the requirements here.
- Understand the types of scholarships available. Depending on your athlete’s sport, division level and athletic talent, they might get offered an athletic scholarship that will cover all of their tuition or part of it. In general, most athletic scholarships only cover a portion of the school’s tuition and fees, but there are plenty of other scholarship opportunities available for high-academic students or other specific criteria.
- Learn about what life is like on different U.S. college campuses. While it may seem insignificant, make sure you look into the weather of different regions, campus diversity, whether schools are in a big city or a small town. These are all important factors to consider when helping your athlete find the right fit.
Research the academic eligibility requirements to compete in the U.S.
The NCAA and NAIA have specific documentation requirements for international student-athletes to be academically eligible to compete in college sports. If you’re interested in NCAA D1 or D2 sports, review their academic requirements. Here are a few quick highlights to get you started:
- You must provide your academic records for years nine and up, in your native language and in English
- The NCAA will also need proof of graduation, including certificates, diplomas or final leaving exams
- Your athlete must take the ACT or SAT standardized test and send your scores to the NCAA
- There are certain country-specific requirements and documentation. Find the requirements for your country.
- NCAA schools issue Form I-20 visas, not the NCAA. You must work with the school recruiting your athlete to secure their visa. If your student-athlete requires an F1 student visa, they must meet the specific requirements for eligibility, financial ability and academic status.
For NAIA schools, you can learn more about the requirements. Here are the main steps you’ll need to take:
- You need to register with the NAIA Eligibility Center at least two months before your athlete begins classes at an NAIA school.
- Your athlete must take the ACT or SAT standardized test and send their test scores to the NAIA using code 9876.
- Have your secondary or high school send your athlete’s records to the NAIA. If you have post-secondary or university records, you must send those as well.
- All of your documents must be translated to English.
- Read the NAIA’s international resources document and direct your questions to ECinternational@naia.org.
Start early and proactively reach out to college coaches
For international student-athletes particularly, it’s crucial to start the recruiting process as soon as your athlete has committed to competing on an American collegiate sports team. Because international athletes have a few extra steps to complete, their recruiting process tends to be a little longer. American coaches will start to fill their roster spots with U.S. athletes as soon as possible, to avoid losing top recruits to competing programs.
To secure your athlete’s spot, you need to get ahead of the competition by contacting coaches early on. There are a few key pieces of advice to keep in mind when sending out your initial emails to college coaches:
- Make each email unique to that program. College coaches get so many emails, that they discard the generic ones immediately. Have your athlete explain exactly why they are interested in that coach’s program to capture their attention.
- Avoid asking about scholarship money when you’re first talking to a college coach. At the beginning of the recruiting process, coaches want to get to know the recruit and get a better idea of who they are as a student-athlete. Once your athlete has developed a relationship with that coach and have been in communication for a significant period of time, they can begin to ask where they are at on the coach’s list of recruits and if the coach has scholarship money available for them.
- Always include a highlight or skills video. For international recruits—and a large portion of American athletes—video footage is the only way coaches can evaluate athletes’ talent level. Most coaches aren’t going to travel across the U.S. to watch a recruit in person, and they certainly won’t be traveling to another country. So, your athlete’s video needs to really showcase their athletic talent and skill set.
These are just a few key points to keep in mind as your family starts to navigate the recruiting process. Yes, it can be long and tedious. But, when you find the right fit for your athlete, it will be worth all the effort you put in to the process.