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.
For many student-athletes, setting foot on campus is the moment everything clicks. They take in the culture, meet with college-athletes in person, walk through the dorms, and then they just know—this is where I want to go to school.
That’s why official and unofficial visits play such an important part in the recruiting process. It helps families picture the next four years, and gives them a sense of clarity—good or bad—on whether they want to pursue that college. Plus, it’s an opportunity to get some one-on-one time with the coach and team and tour the athletic facilities.
Read more: How official and unofficial visits work
That being said, the coach is also evaluating your athlete—and even you—by essentially bringing your family onto their turf. Recruiting is a two-way street, and they want to make sure that your athlete is a fit for them just as much as the school is for your child.
And now, with the NCAA rules that went into effect this year, D1 college coaches can invite student-athletes on official visits starting Sept. 1 of their junior year. Previously, recruits had to wait until their senior year to go on official visits.
So as you prepare for visits this fall, here’s what college coaches look for—and how your family can make a great impression.
Does your child have real interest in the program?
It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s worth pointing out that coaches can spot pretty quickly when the student-athlete has no interest in the school, especially smaller schools or D3 programs. In most of these scenarios, the parents thought it was a great opportunity, helped set up the visit and pressured the athlete to attend. So, begrudgingly their child obliges, but doesn’t put any effort forward once there.
Make a great impression: Before you visit any school, make sure your whole family is on the same page, and help your child do their research on the program. The best way to show coaches they have genuine interest is by asking good questions. For example, what are the most common majors on the team, and what is the team’s average GPA? What do the offseason and holiday commitments look like? What does a typical week of practice look like?
You want to fully understand what your child’s experience would be like if they attended that school, and the coach will respond positively to these questions as they show your athlete did their research and has real interest in the program.
Read more: Questions to ask college coaches
How are you behaving?
Don’t forget: coaches are actually observing you, too. They know this is a family decision, which means not only are they bringing your athlete onto the team, but you’re also a part of the deal. So, they like to see how you blend into their culture as well. Plus, they want to see how independent recruits are around their parents. For example, if you’re answering every question for your athlete, it signals to coaches your child may need some hand-holding once they’re on their own.
Make a great impression: Let your child lead. When you think of an official or unofficial visit, think of it this way—the coach is walking side-by-side with the athlete, talking to them about the program and the school, and the parents are just behind them, supporting and adding to the experience. You never want to answer the questions for your child and be the only one asking them. Instead, think of this as an opportunity for your athlete to show the college coach that when they leave the comfort of home and go off to school for the first time, they are mature enough and independent enough to handle the transition.
Read more: Questions college coaches ask
What does your child’s body language say?
There are far too many stories about coaches really looking forward to a prospect visiting and then being completely turned off by the athlete’s attitude and body language. Whether they’re on their phone the entire time, looking down or not answering questions, they’re signaling to coaches that they’re uncomfortable or don’t want to be there.
Make a great impression: College coaches realize that high schoolers may be shy around authority figures. They don’t expect every recruit to be super outgoing, but they do want to get to know your child on this visit, and they can’t really do that when your athlete is displaying negative body language. This is a chance for your student-athlete to show the coach they are independent and have leadership qualities. So, to help your athlete prepare for this visit, remind them to answer questions directly and confidently, shake the coach’s hand, and keep their phones in their pocket at all times.
Does your child bond with the team?
Whether it’s a team dinner or an overnight visit, if the coach has serious interest in your athlete, they will make sure they meet with the team. After all, most of your child’s time will be spent with these players. They’ll travel with them, train with them, take classes with them, and even live with them. So it’s really important for the college coach to analyze a recruit’s personality and see how they vibe with other players.
Make a great impression: Relax! Remind your child that a visit isn’t an interview—it’s an opportunity to picture what life would be like on campus and being a college-athlete. If it isn’t meant to be, it isn’t meant to be. That’s why you go on them—to discover your best fit and find the right program for your family. Bonding with the team and talking with the coach can seem overwhelming, but if you’re prepared, have done your research, and know what factors matter to you when selecting a college, you’ll surely have that “aha” moment.