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 athletes, 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.
Whether you’re new to the recruiting process or trying to land a scholarship offer, you may be wondering how many college coaches you’re supposed to contact. Is it best to focus all your efforts on one school, or throw your hat in the ring at several?
As a former college athlete and coach, I can confirm what you may already be thinking: The best approach is to maximize your options during every part of the process. Even though it’s tedious and requires a lot of work, initiating contact with several coaches will not only help you understand the types of programs that are a good fit for you, but it will also give you a better shot at securing a roster spot. Here are guidelines you can follow to improve your odds while making the most of your time:
Create a target list of 20-30 schools
You’ve probably got a dream school in mind already. That’s great! Throw it on your list … and then start looking up at least 19 other schools. Yes, that many. At NCSA, we have found 20 to 30 schools to be the sweet spot. This number offers enough variety, while still being manageable.
Once you have your list of 20 to 30 schools, you want to start initiating contact with college coaches at each of these schools. Then, based on the responses and interest you receive back, you can evaluate your list and bucket each program into one of three categories: safety schools, target schools and reach schools.
- Safety schools: This is your safety net that you could easily fall back on if your top choices just don’t work out. Your grades and test scores are above average and based on the athletic talent, you know for sure you could compete there. Put five schools on this list.
- Target schools: These are your best college matches and the ones you will focus on the most. They check all the boxes—you have a shot at competing there, you can most likely be accepted, and they meet your personal preferences. Put 10 schools on this list.
- Reach schools: Whether they’re competitive or academically selective, these schools are just out of range. D1 and Ivy League schools would fall under this category. Don’t include more than five schools on this list.
Don’t forget to personalize your communication
Many student-athletes choose the mass email blast when they’re contacting multiple coaches for the first time. They create a template and then send the same email to every school. It sounds easier, but this shortcut will most likely backfire. There’s a high probability you’ll make a mistake, such as inserting the wrong school or coach name into your template. Not to mention that coaches receive hundreds of emails a week and they know what a generic email looks like compared to a personalized email. It’s really important to make sure your message stands out, and the best way to do that is by researching the program first. Learn more about the coach, team, and campus. Then, tell the coach in your email why you’ve picked their program and school, and how you would make an impact. Showing them you have serious interest right from the start can help you get on their list.
Read more: How to email college coaches (with examples)
Know when to scratch a school off the list
From the beginning of your recruiting to Signing Day, you will inevitably swap out some of the schools on your list. Maybe you find you’re no longer interested in a college after seeing the campus, or maybe the coach just isn’t showing any interest. Either way, scratching a school off your list isn’t a bad thing. It’s all a part of managing the process. If anything, it means you’re one step closer to finding the right program for you. So, typically I tell student-athletes to attempt contact three times with a coach: an introductory email, a phone call, and a follow-up email. If you don’t hear back from them after that, you should focus your attention on other programs, and even consider crossing them off your list. If you’re an underclassman, you can keep them on your list and continue to send progress emails when you have noteworthy updates to share, such as a new highlight video. But your very top choices should be programs where you have the best chance at being evaluated in person.
Making a list of schools, researching them thoroughly, and then initiating contact with every coach is a lot to add to your plate—on top of homework and training. But keep in mind that you won’t be in contact with every coach simultaneously. For example, you could be starting your recruiting process with one school, while nearing the end with another. It’s just best to include a variety of colleges to maximize your options, and maybe even have scholarship money to leverage. So don’t be afraid to do a little digging and consider more colleges outside your dream school. You never know where you may end up.