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5 Mistakes Athletes Make on Their College Applications

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With over 5,000 colleges in the United States, helping a high schooler build a college list that matches their academic profile and personal preferences is hard enough without considering athletics. Parents of student-athletes who possess aspirations of competing in college are facing another tricky variable to contend with.


While the nation’s top recruits in major sports such as football and basketball might not need to draw the attention of college and university coaches, those who are on the outside of the top 1% can take extra steps to bolster their profiles and increase the interest of coaches in awarding an athletic scholarship.


Keep reading to learn the five most common mistakes made by student athletes when applying to college—and how to help your child avoid them.


1. Not Focusing on Building a Well-Rounded Profile


It’s not uncommon for athletically talented students to not be recruited by college coaches. After all, according to the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS), the number of students participating in high school sports in 2017-2018 reached an all-time high of 7,980,886. With so many student athletes for college coaches to keep track of, it can be hard for even highly-talented athletes to be noticed.


Even students who are being recruited might not be aware that a college program is paying attention to them. While top recruits to Division I Schools typically know of their recruiting status by the end of sophomore year, other athletes may not be so fortunate. It’s not unusual for student athletes to learn that they are being recruited until the end of their junior year of high school.


The issue with student athletes learning about their recruitment status so late in their high school career is that it leaves no time for them to develop a well-rounded profile, potentially putting them at risk of falling short of the standards of the recruiting school. Because of this, students planning on pursuing athletics in college need to build a resume of strong grades, impressive test scores, and interesting extracurricular activities.


Additionally, student athletes will want to get meaningful letters of recommendation from influential members of the community, well-respected teachers, and/or high school and club team coaches. A compelling application essay can also make the difference from being on the field for your dream school or sitting on the sidelines.


2. Not Spending Enough Time on Achieving High SAT Scores


No matter how good your student athlete’s game is on the field, he or she is going to need to do well on standardized tests. In fact, the NCAA has academic requirements for its athletes which in part account for the SAT. Division I athletes must meet a sliding scale score that accounts for a student-athlete’s GPA and SAT scores, along with making sure they meet a handful of eligibility requirements (learn more about those requirements here). More specifically, this sliding scale means that if you have a low core-course GPA, you must have a higher test score, and if you have a low test score, you must have a higher core-course GPA. Division II student-athletes must also meet a sliding-scale score but are not asked to meet as rigorous eligibility requirements.


Strong SAT scores are about more than maintaining eligibility and ensuring a student meets a recruiting college’s academic standards—they can also increase the chance of a student-athlete being recruited. Coaches looking to round out a roster might be more willing to take a chance on a high schooler who would help raise the team GPA. In the same vein, a strong SAT score can serve as a tiebreaker for a coach deciding between two students with similar talent.


High standardized test scores also increase a student’s chances of being awarded merit aid for academics. Many colleges award to students whose SAT scores meet certain thresholds. Read our article How Your SAT Scores Can Help You Earn Scholarships to learn more about the benefits of hitting your SATs out of the park.


Although not exactly the SAT, the PSAT also offers students the chance to earn additional aid to college. The National Merit Scholarship Program awards merit-based aid to approximately 15,000 college students a year who scored in the top percentile on the PSAT/NMSQT. Check out our blog How to Qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program to learn more about this prestigious program.

3. Not Linking Athletic Interests to Extracurriculars


Extracurricular activities can make up 30% of a student’s college profile and athletics are an excellent way for students to bolster their application and demonstrate an interest in athletics that goes beyond the field.


There are a handful of easy ways for student-athletes to turn their passion for sport into extracurricular activities that will wow. Volunteering to coach young athletes or referee local games is a great way for students to show their commitment to both their community and their athletic pursuits. Another idea is to help a local association fundraise—these types of teams always need funds for fields, uniforms, etc.


Thinking more outside of the box, a student-athlete with an aptitude for math could volunteer to be the main statistician for the athletics department—injecting an old-fashioned athletics department with the modern analytics that is becoming more prevalent in today’s professional sports is the type of extracurricular activity that really pops off the page.


4. Not Focusing Enough on Financial Aid


According to the NCAA, Division I and Division II colleges provide more than $2.9 billion in athletics scholarships annually to more than 150,000 student-athletes (Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships). That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s only about $20,000 per student, which is a far cry from the $60,000+ list prices found at many of today’s top schools. The fact is, for most student-athletes, an athletic scholarship will not result in a free education.


With this in mind, students should carefully consider the return on investment offered by potential schools. If the main motivation for pursuing an athletic scholarship is to reduce the cost of college, it’s important to look at all the factors that contribute to the overall cost of college. Keep in mind, the school that offers the largest athletic scholarship might not be the school that costs the least or offers the best return on your student’s investment of time and money.


Before your student-athlete commits to a college, investigate its graduation rate—a high graduation rate is a good indicator of whether your college-bound athlete will leave with a degree and if they will graduate on time.


It is also a good idea to research anticipated outcomes for graduates of a college or university. Whether through on-campus employment offices, internships, alumni networks, or reputation, some schools are simply better than others for helping students find employment after graduating. The average salary for a student 10 years after graduation is readily available for most schools and hints to the economic value of attending a particular institution.


5. Not Thinking Beyond Athletics


The reality is that most college athletes will not play sports professionally—for example, approximately 1% of men’s NCAA basketball players will have professional basketball careers. Because of this, student-athletes should not base their college decision solely on athletics.


Fit matters when selecting a college—for student-athletes, this means not just between the white lines but also in the classroom and on campus. Regardless of an institution’s athletic program, it should meet the student’s preferences for an ideal college experience. In other words, the college should align with the size, location, and values a college-bound student desires in an institution, as well as its athletics.


It’s also important for a student to keep their career ambitions in mind when choosing a school. If your student dreams as much about attending business school as they do playing college basketball, they might have to make a tough choice—in the end, which choice offers more value? Keep in mind, a student’s choice in college can have an effect that lasts well beyond their four years on campus, influencing everything from the debt they carry to future earning potential.


If your student-athlete is having a hard time with the application process, CollegeVine is here to help. Our College Application Program is designed to walk students step by step through the application process, help them build a list of prospective schools that match their profile and preference and give them insight into their odds of being accepted using our Chancing Engine. Our application specialists will show students how to hit a home run with their application, and how to be an extracurricular all-star. We can even coach them on how to better understand the real cost of college and what they should expect for a return on their investment.


Want access to expert college guidance — for free? When you create your free CollegeVine account, you will find out your real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve your profile, and get your questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.

Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.