How To Get an Athletic Scholarship

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Many high school athletes dream of the opportunity to play their sport competitively in college. And while several of these students fantasize exclusively of athletic glory, other students hope to fund their education with a coveted athletic scholarship. If you’re a student-athlete looking to take your talents to college, keep reading to learn more about how athletic scholarships are administered and how to secure one of your own.  

 

Who Gets Athletic Scholarships?

 

Nearly eight million students compete in high school athletics, but according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), only about 2% of them (roughly 160,000 students) receive any funding to play sports in college. Although this number might seem small, the amount of money awarded certainly is not—in fact, NCAA D1 and D2 schools award over $3.5 billion in athletic scholarships annually (D3 colleges don’t offer athletic scholarships).

 

The type of scholarship a student-athlete receives depends on a variety of factors, including the sport they play, their athletic talent, and the level of athletes they will compete against in college. Below is a look at who is awarding scholarships and the student-athletes receiving them.    

 

Athletic Association 

Schools  

Athletes

Scholarships 

NCAA D1

348

139,063

74,243

NCAA D2

292

85,385

36,343

NCAA D3

418

144,062

0

NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics)

260

56,354

25,778

NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association)

464

53,248

41,195

Other

276

39,737

N/A

 

Are Athletic Scholarships Always a Full Ride?

 

Many college hopefuls dream of being a high-profile athlete at a big-name school with a full-ride scholarship, but in reality the majority of college athletes receive partial college scholarships. Full scholarships are generally reserved for athletes with exceptional talent participating in revenue-generating sports; consequently, just 1% of college athletes receive full scholarships. According to U.S. News, the average athletic scholarship for a Division I student-athlete is approximately $18,000. While $18,000 is no small amount, it is a far cry from the $35,087 average cost of tuition and fees at highly ranked private schools. 

 

To understand how to get an athletic scholarship, it’s important to understand how they’re awarded, which is largely based on what sport you play and whether it’s a “head count” sport or an “equivalency” sport. 

 

Head Count Sports 

 

Athletes who receive a scholarship in a head count sport at a Division I college always get full rides, as schools are limited in the number of scholarships they can award and cannot divide scholarships to incorporate more athletes. Scholarships in head count sports are generally a one-year contract between the school and the student-athlete and are renewed annually. Head count sports are:

 

  • Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) 
  • Men’s Basketball
  • Women’s Basketball
  • Women’s Tennis
  • Women’s Gymnastics
  • Women’s Volleyball

 

Women have more head count sports than men, but men and women receive the same number of full-ride scholarships as football takes up the bulk of men’s scholarships. 

 

Equivalency Sports 

 

The overwhelming majority of college athletes compete in equivalency sports. There are no restrictions on how many student-athletes can receive scholarships in equivalency sports; rather, coaches are allotted a certain amount of scholarship dollars and can award them as they see fit. For example, a coach can court a top recruit by offering them a full scholarship or use those dollars to offer a handful of mid-tier recruits partial scholarships. Division I equivalency sports include: 

 

  • Men’s Baseball
  • Men’s Gymnastics
  • Men’s Tennis
  • Men’s Volleyball 
  • Women’s Field Hockey 
  • Women’s Softball
  • Men’s/Women’s Cross-country
  • Men’s/Women’s Golf
  • Men’s/Women’s Ice Hockey 
  • Men’s/Women’s Lacrosse
  • Men’s/Women’s Soccer
  • Men’s/Women’s Swimming
  • Men’s/Women’s Track and Field

 

All D2 and NAIA sports are equivalency sports. 

 

What is a Verbal Scholarship Offer?

 

Coaches will often make a verbal scholarship offer to a student-athlete. Verbal scholarship offers are a non-binding agreement between a coach and an athlete—scholarship offers only become binding when a student-athlete signs their national letter of intent. A letter of intent is a contractual agreement and breaking it has consequences, such as losing the eligibility to play for a period of time. 

 

Verbal scholarship offers have numerous benefits for both athletes and coaches. For example, athletes are able to shift their focus to school and away from the recruiting process, while coaches are able to form a clearer image of what their team will look like in the future, understanding the number of scholarships or scholarship dollars still available to them.

 

While verbal scholarships are not binding, student-athletes are encouraged to take commiting to them very seriously. Breaking a verbal commitment can damage a student-athlete’s reputation and negatively influence other programs’ interest in them.  

 

Can I Still Get an Athletic Scholarship During COVID-19?

 

COVID-19 has affected seemingly every part of student life over the past year, and college athletics and scholarships are no exception. Students can still get athletic scholarships, but winning awards has become increasingly challenging. 

 

One factor impacting scholarships is the budget shortfalls and tenuous financial positions colleges find themselves in due to COVID-19. Sports that don’t generate revenue and have small head counts—like golf, rowing, and tennis—are easy cuts for colleges in financial peril. 


High school athletes coming off shortened, or cancelled, seasons are also disadvantaged in the recruiting process, as they were not given a forum to show off their skills. Another factor working against high school athletes is that in the wake of the pandemic, the NCAA extended a year of eligibility to current college athletes, which will likely lead to coaches having less vacancies to fill than in a “normal” year. 

 

Can You Lose Your Athletic Scholarship?

 

Athletic scholarships are generally one-year contracts and colleges can choose to not renew them for any number of reasons—some within a student-athlete’s control and others not. Common reasons for a student-athlete losing their athlete scholarship include:

 

  • Poor grades 
  • Poor athletic performance 
  • Off- or on-field trouble 
  • Injury 
  • New coach 

 

The insecure nature of athletic scholarships is why many college-bound students focus on earning academic awards in addition to athletic scholarships or in lieu of them altogether. Unlike athletic scholarships, academic awards are more stable, so long as you maintain good grades. 

 

Tips for Securing an Athletic Scholarship

 

So how do you secure an athletic scholarship? Try these five tips to separate yourself from the competition for an athletic award. 

 

Start Early 

 

The college recruiting process is a long journey that requires a lot of work. Starting early can give you a leg up on the competition and cut down on stress later in your high school career. For example, a high school athlete can start creating a college list, ensuring they remain academically eligible, and assembling clips for a highlight film as early as their freshman year. 

 

Connect with Coaches 

 

College coaches aren’t allowed to reach out to you prior to a certain point, but there are no restrictions governing how and when you can contact a coach—and there are a bunch of benefits to connecting with them, such as learning more about their program and what they’re looking for in athletes. Even if you aren’t a great fit for the coach you’re connecting with, they might know of a coach you’re perfect for.    

 

Remember, unless you’re a five-star recruit, the odds of a coach discovering you are relatively slim, so it’s up to you to get yourself in front of them.  

 

Create a Highlight Video 

 

With roughly eight million high school athletes playing competitively each year, it’s impossible for coaches to see everyone. A highlight film allows coaches to see your best performances, even if they never made it to a game. Keep your sizzle reel under five minutes long and avoid attention-stealing extras like special effects and over-the-top music. Make sure to include a slide in your film listing your contact information along with important information like the position you play, your height and weight, and any notable achievements.   

 

Show Leadership 

 

Athletic talent is just one of the many attributes colleges and coaches look for when recruiting; another is leadership. Prospective students can show leadership in high school sports, from setting a high standard by always working hard and showing up on time, to supporting other players and carrying themselves with confidence. If you’re not sure where to start, talk with your coach to find out how you best support your team. 

 

Get Good Grades

 

Colleges are recruiting student-athletes—so don’t neglect the student part. Good grades are not only essential to meeting eligibility requirements, but can also separate you from other scholarship candidates. If a coach has to choose between two potential scholarship athletes who are similar on the field, the coach is likely going to go with the player with the better record in the classroom. Good grades show coaches that you’re mature, can manage your time well, and are prepared to balance athletics and academics at a collegiate level. 

 

What Other Kinds of Scholarships are Available?

 

Athletic scholarships are just one of the many awards available to high schoolers. Student-athletes with a strong performance both in the classroom and on the field might qualify for academic scholarships as well. While there are traditional merit-based scholarships for academic achievement, other scholarships are based on other factors or interests, such as: 

 

 

While CollegeVine can’t offer you an athletic scholarship, we do offer $500 scholarships that are easy and free to enter. All you have to do is join our free admissions platform and earn karma, the free CollegeVine “currency”. You can earn karma by reviewing essays through our Peer Review tool and answering questions in our Community Forums. After earning that karma, you bid it to enter the scholarship drawing (if you don’t win, that karma will be returned, where you can “spend” it on essay reviews and expert advice). Awards will be paid out directly to students to help them cover any educational costs!

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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.

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