Being a high school athlete can be a strong selling point on your college application for a number of different reasons. First, it shows your dedication and discipline, and can often exemplify your leadership skills if you take on the role of a captain or manager. If you are a highly successful high school athlete, your athletic performance can also make you a “hooked” applicant, meaning you have specialized skills that differentiate you from the rest of the pool of candidates, or could lead to something even better – getting recognized and recruited by college coaches.

Being recruited by college coaches means that select coaches seek you out in hopes that you will apply to their school, and ultimately be accepted to become a part of their athletic program. The process of recruitment looks different at different levels, depending on the division that the school belongs to, I, II, or III. Across all divisions and leagues, the truth remains that being a successful, sought-after high school athletic recruit gives you an advantage in the admissions process, though the degree varies by school.

To increase your odds of getting noticed by college sports recruiters, you will need to have a basic understanding of the associations that govern college sports.

There are two primary governing bodies of college-level athletics, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). The NCAA is a much larger association, consisting of over 1200 schools and three divisions (Division I, II, and III). It oversees 23 sports and offers athletic scholarships in Divisions I and II. Student-athletes in Division III cannot receive athletic scholarships but are still eligible for academic scholarships and financial aid. The smaller NAIA consists of around 300 schools in two divisions (Division I and II) and oversees 12 sports. Though it also offers athletic scholarships, the NAIA is generally regarded as less competitive and its top Division I has been likened to the NCAA Division II in terms of competitiveness.

If you are a high school athlete who is interested in playing sports in college, you will need to begin by deciding which division you’re most likely to play in.

NCAA Division I sports programs are the top-level choice, and as such, they attract top-level athletes. Consider Division I programs if you are a standout high school player who routinely makes all-star teams and is capable of competing at the national level. Top Division I athletes commonly compete at Olympic trials and national championships. Division I athletes should be prepared to devote a majority of their time to their training and be prepared to sacrifice other social and academic pursuits to do so.

NCAA Division II and NAIA Division I programs tend to attract high-level athletes who are not prepared to make the same sacrifices that their NCAA Division I athletic counterparts make. They are still very competitive, but generally do not attract athletes who are considering “going pro” or making the Olympics. Consider these divisions if you are a standout high school athlete who routinely make all-star teams but is probably not able to compete at the national level, or is not interested in doing so.

NCAA Division III and NAIA Division II are the most relaxed competitive programs and tend to attract student-athletes who value their identity as a student above their identity as an athlete. To play in these divisions, you should generally have been a successful high school athlete but you don’t need to have been a consistent MVP.

Once you have found the division that best fits your athletic profile and goals, you will need to learn about the recruiting rules for that division. Recruiting rules for each division can be found on the NCAA and NAIA websites, and govern things like when you can contact a coach, how often a coach can contact you, and when a coach can spend money on you. It’s very important to know the rules as breaking them can negatively affect your chances of being recruited. Generally speaking, the recruitment process begins in earnest after your junior year, though you should definitely reach out to coaches earlier, particularly if you play a spring sport.    

Your next step as a student-athlete is to use your intended division and athletic and academic profiles to narrow down a list of target schools.

The websites above provide lists of the schools in each division. Make your own list of schools that you’re interested in, within your target division, and narrow it down further based on your academic and athletic profile. For example, if you are not sure whether you will be able to compete at the Division II level, choosing a program that routinely wins the league championship might mean that you cannot make the team or will get very little playing time. Choosing a less competitive Division II or highly competitive Division III program might be better choices.

You should also check the academic requirements of the schools that you’re interested in. Though your accomplishments as a student-athlete can give you an admissions advantage, if you are unqualified academically, college recruiters will generally not bother pursuing you, unless you are an Olympic or national champion.

Next, prepare for the recruitment process. 

First, register as an eligible student-athlete recruit for the NCAA or NAIA, or both.

Then, create an online portfolio for yourself. If you are computer-savvy, you should definitely use this opportunity to highlight your skills by building your own website. On your website, you should include high school grades, test scores, athletic stats and awards, your current season’s game and tournament schedule, highlight clips, press articles, and anything else that you feel might be relevant.

If you do not know how to build your own website, many websites host free student-athlete profiles, in addition to offering paid recruiter services. Several of the most popular sites to do this are:

Captain U

NCSA Athletic Recruiters

Be Recruited

Go Big Recruiting

MVP Sports Recruiting

While most of the sites listed above will host free online athlete profiles, they will also try to sell a number of different recruiting services to you. Because the recruiting process is new and because the ads tend to promise additional exposure and even potential athletic scholarships, it may seem tempting to pay for a recruiting service. But remember, paid recruiting services are not the only path forward.

There are many ways to go about getting recruited. Paid services may be a good option for families who aren’t familiar with the recruiting process and who don’t have the time or inclination to educate themselves about it, but ultimately your college recruiting prospects rely on your athletic skills, not on how much you pay someone to promote them for you.

Generally, if you are willing to put forth the time and energy into learning about the process, and you can be proactive in advocating for yourself, you will not need the help of a paid recruiting service to land on the radar of college coaches. In fact, some college coaches think of these services as irritating since they so heavily promote so many athletes.

In any case, unless you are a top athlete already competing at the national level, you will probably need to be the one to initiate contact with coaches, whether you have a paid recruiting service or not. 

You can begin by sending an email introducing yourself and expressing interest in their athletic program. Include a link to your online portfolio and describe why you think you are a good fit for their program. If you don’t hear back from them in two weeks, it may be worth following up with a phone call. Be prepared to discuss with the coach his or her most recent season, know their stats, and ask informed questions.

It’s important to never ignore phone calls or emails from a coach, even if you are not initially interested in the program. You never know when your goals or situation might change, and you don’t want to burn any bridges.     

Finally, make an effort to meet coaches from your target schools.

There are two primary ways to do this. First, you could attend showcases or summer camps at colleges you’re interested in attending. When attending these events, always email the coach or coaches first to let them know that you will be there. Student athletes are not typically discovered at these events since most recruiters are there already to observe specific athletes. After games or between events, make an effort to meet any coaches whose programs you might be interested in.

Alternatively, you can schedule a meeting with the coach during a visit to their campus. Some coaches will invite you for a visit unprompted, and others will not. Regardless, any time you are a visiting a college and are interested in playing sports there, you should contact the coach ahead of time and request a chance to sit down and discuss their program.

After you meet with a coach, make sure to follow up with an email or phone call, thanking them for taking the time to speak with you. Tell them specifically which elements of their program impress or excite you, and speak to how your strengths will benefit their team.

Getting noticed by college sports recruiters is not a one-size-fit-all endeavor. It’s important to remember that the role this plays in your college admissions process will vary according to your athletic accomplishments, your intended division of play in college, and even your academic profile. Athletic achievement can at most secure you a scholarship and admission to a school that may not have otherwise considered you. But this is far from the most common outcome. More often, your athletic achievement serves as a testament to your dedication and leadership abilities and can become a hook on your college application. Still, knowing your options for college recruiting at all levels is a worthwhile undertaking, and forming positive relationships with college coaches can only help your cause.

If you are interested in learning more about scholarships, check out CollegeVine’s “Helpful Scholarship Resources and Tips”  and CollegeVine’s “What You Need to Know for a Successful Scholarship Season”.   

Or, for more information about need-based aid, check out our Guide to Financial Aid.       

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist