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 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.
Let’s not sugarcoat it: recruiting at times can be overwhelming. There are quite a few steps to take making it hard to know what to do next when you’re not quite sure where you stand now. So, to make it easier, finding your athlete’s place in the process below will help you determine what their next move should be.
They haven’t started yet
Great! This is the perfect time to tackle the most critical question: Does your student-athlete want to play college sports? Before they begin the recruiting process, they want to make sure it’s the right fit. Gather as much information as possible to help them answer this question, and really encourage them to think about the kind of college experience they want to have. Do they want to go to a prestigious academic university? Would they prefer a large campus? Is being close to home important?
Your child might not know the answer to all these questions just yet—and that’s okay. Really, they want to start identifying which factors matter most. And the best way to do that is research. Look up colleges they’re interested in, learn about the different divisions, visit a local university, or reach out to a college-athlete from their high school who can help them understand what being a college-athlete entails.
At the end of all your family’s research, you should have a better idea of whether they want to play college sports. Even more, your child can start creating a list of target and safety schools.
Read More: What NCAA Division Is Right For You
They have received recruiting questionnaires
The recruiting process is like a funnel. At the top, college coaches build a list of hundreds of prospective athletes. Then, through the evaluation process, they identify the recruits they will offer and sign. But in order to build their initial list, they need important details like contact information, links to online profiles and NCAA ID numbers. Recruiting questionnaires are the best (and easiest) way for them to do this. So, if your child receives a recruiting questionnaire, be sure to fill it out.
Then, you’ll want to include their high school or club coach, especially if they’re an underclassman. College coaches will often reach out to a high school or club coach first to learn more about a recruit. Division I and Division II college coaches aren’t allowed to reach out to underclassmen recruits directly, so they will almost always ask the high school or club coach to help facilitate contact (if your child were to initiate contact and call a college coach, the coach can speak with them.)
This is also a good time to start putting a highlight film together. One of the most important parts of the recruiting process, your athlete’s highlight film helps college coaches determine if they want to evaluate them in person. Juniors and seniors should always include a link to their highlight film in their emails to college coaches. Freshmen and sophomores may have more time to create theirs, but it really depends on which division they want to play. Division I and some Division II college coaches recruit early and evaluate freshmen and sophomores.
They’re getting coach interest
Maybe a college coach reached out to your child’s high school coach and said they were interested, or maybe the college coach was allowed to reach out to your athlete directly—either way, this is a great sign.
Receiving personalized coach interest means your athlete is on a short list of recruits and the college coach is most likely hoping they can evaluate them in person. The best move here is to let them know when they can see your child play, so make sure your child sends their game schedule and any big tournaments or showcases they’re participating in.
Don’t forget to take note of which divisions are showing interest, too. A good way to gauge which programs would be a good fit for your athlete is to evaluate which division is reaching out most. Plus, it can help your family refine your list of target and safety schools.
INSIDER TIP: Your child should always respond to a college coach. Turnover is surprisingly more common than you think and they want to leave a good impression with every coach. You never know who they’re networking with.
They’ve been evaluated in person
At this point, your child is in the homestretch of their recruiting. They want to start narrowing down their list of top schools and start receiving offers. One of the the best ways to do that is by visiting the campus, whether it’s an unofficial visit or official visit.
As a recap—you can go on an unofficial visit at any time, but you need to cover all related expenses (travel, food, accommodations, etc.). Official visits, on the other hand, occur during a student-athlete’s senior year and the trip is completely paid for by the school. The college coach who evaluated your athlete may invite them to attend a visit, and both kinds can lead to a scholarship offer.
They received an offer
Congratulations, a college coach offering your child a scholarship and roster spot means your family’s hard work paid off. But their journey may not be over just quite yet—for Division I and Division II programs, they still need to sign the National Letter of Intent (NLI). A verbal commitment is a non-binding agreement that tells other college coaches your child is no longer looking at college programs because they’ve made their decision. The NLI is a binding contract that your child signs their senior year, which guarantees a scholarship for the school year.
So, if your child receives a verbal offer and they accept, they’re essentially telling college coaches that they’ve completed the recruiting journey. Therefore, they should never accept a verbal offer with the impression that they can continue being recruited. Your athlete can try and leverage an offer in attempt to increase a scholarship at another school. However, most coaches want a response on a verbal commitment within a week or two.
Then, once the NLI is signed, your child officially becomes a college-athlete!