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. Michael Dufek is a former NCAA D1 athlete. Michael 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.
If there was one thing I knew for sure as a high school athlete, it was my love for the University of Michigan. Calling it a dream school felt like an understatement. I wanted nothing more than to make that place my home for the next four years.
But, like every student-athlete trying to make it at the D1 level, I faced some road blocks. For starters, I lived in Arizona—not exactly next door. Also, I played multiple sports. So while many student-athletes were attending showcases and events with their club teams, I was participating in a completely different competition.
It didn’t faze me, though. Sure, I knew I had to work twice as hard to get noticed, but I had a shot—specifically, I could walk-on to the team. Here’s what my recruiting journey looked like, including the five steps I took to successfully become a D1 walk-on.
Proactively contact the coaching staff
To recap: being a walk-on means you’re on the college team, but you don’t receive any athletic scholarship aid (46 percent of D1 college athletes are walk-ons). The biggest misconception about walk-ons is that they don’t get recruited by the college coach. Most people think they just attend a tryout and earn a spot. While that is the case for some athletes, it actually isn’t the norm. Preferred walk-ons, which is what I became, are still recruited by the coach and go through the recruiting process during their high school career.
That said, it was crucial for me to remain proactive throughout my entire recruiting journey. I sent the coaching staff a personalized email and my recruiting profile. I continued to send progress updates. I made sure to email them before camp where they would see me in person, and follow up immediately afterward. Basically, I took all the same steps as other athletes to increase my chances of getting the coach’s attention. And eventually, my hard work paid off.
Read more: How to start contacting coaches
Attend the camp
Going to the college’s camp was a guaranteed way to play in front of the coaches. I wasn’t competing in the tournaments and events where they were scouting, so I wanted to do everything I could to get evaluated in person. And as I already mentioned, it helped that I made contact with the coaches before and after the camp. I followed up with them and continued to express my interest and passion in their program. Plus, being on campus gave me that “aha” moment—the feeling that I just knew this is where I wanted to be.
There’s no doubt that the cost of camps can add up. But if you’re strategic and attend ones where you’ve received genuine interest from the coach and you’re a good fit athletically and academically for the school, they can be an invaluable way to establish connections.
I knew grades were going to be critical–especially at a school like U of M. In fact, I’m sure my grades and test scores played big role in my being recruited as a walk-on. Here’s the thing: If you’re not going to get a ton of playing time, you need to be helping the team academically. Every D1 team is measured by an Academic Progress Rate (APR), which tracks the academic progress of the student-athletes on the team, and coaches want walk-ons who can positively impact their APR. Having a strong academic history was an important piece of my recruiting resume.
Do the research
There are many different kinds of walk-on experiences. Some walk-ons are treated differently than scholarship athletes and only play in practice. Others are treated exactly the same and may even eventually earn a scholarship spot. I found the best way to fully understand what my experience would be was to do the research and ask the right questions. For example, I asked if walk-ons helped the coach win in the past, and if I could eventually get a scholarship opportunity. Keep in mind that athletic scholarships are year-to-year contracts, so just because you walk-on initially doesn’t mean there isn’t a scholarship opportunity for you in the future. Additionally, I would recommend talking to other walk-on athletes to understand their experience firsthand. Doing all of this research prepped me for my first year there and helped me understand what I needed to do to earn a scholarship spot. And it was worth it: I received an athletic scholarship my junior and senior years.
Read more: How to find the right school for you
Take an unofficial visit
After a lot of research, communication with the coaches, and being evaluated in person, it was time to take the next step in my recruiting journey: visiting the school. In February of my senior year, I met with the recruiting staff on campus. The coaches were very candid and explained that while they didn’t have a scholarship opportunity available, I could have a roster spot as a walk-on. This visit was a big milestone in my recruiting. Not only did touring the campus help me make my college decision, but it’s also when my offer became a reality. After the visit, I continued to stay in touch with the coaches and they followed my season. Then, in late spring, I committed to walking-on at their school.
Read more: Your guide to unofficial visits
Every recruiting journey is different, and becoming a college walk-on might not be the right fit for everyone. Typically, college walk-ons are set on attending a particular college. Whether they compete or not, they know they want to go to school there. For others, it’s about playing at the highest division level they can. Whatever the reason, walking on to a college program is hard work, but it also can be one of the most rewarding experiences you have. At least it was for me.