Apply to U.S. Colleges as an International Student-Athlete

Respond to coaches’ phone calls and emails to convey interest as a prospective U.S. student-athlete.

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Avoid making simple mistakes that could hurt your chances of becoming an international student-athlete at a U.S. university.
Avoid making simple mistakes that could hurt your chances of becoming a student-athlete at a U.S. university.

The U.S. system for collegiate sports lacks an international counterpart. Where else can you receive a world-class education tailored around a 20-plus hours per week training schedule?

However, the competition for spots is extremely tough across the board and many prospective international student-athletes never make it all the way, often because of trivial mistakes. The following are three important steps student-athletes should take when applying to U.S. schools.

[Apply to college as an international student.]

1. Impress your future coach: While regular students simply seek academic admission, your primary contact will be with the coaches of your sport. Most international athletes need scholarships to finance tuition and living expenses, and athletic scholarships are often decided by the coaching staff alone.

Keep in mind that coaches receive interest from dozens – sometimes hundreds – of young aspiring Olympians each season. To get one of those precious scholarships you have to be extremely eager, driven and on top of things.

When making initial contact you should send a brief letter of introduction that clearly highlights your athletic achievements and future potential. You should express a desire to work extremely hard, to challenge and be challenged and to pursue an academic degree in the meantime.

You should answer every email in a timely manner, always pick up the phone when the coach calls and send required documents the day before you're asked for them. Think about it from the coach's perspective: If you can't even remember to pick up the phone or email a signed form, how are you going to make it through college in a foreign country?

2. Mind your academics: The fact that "student" comes before "athlete" is not just because it sounds better that way. It indicates that you are primarily a student and secondarily an athlete. Your balance of academic abilities and work ethic is crucial.

If you can't produce the SAT or TOEFL scores required, schools won't grant you admission, regardless of whether you have a whole box of Olympic medals stuffed under your bed.

Second, if your grades slip, you lose your eligibility to compete for your team. Poor academic performance can also be enough for your coach to lower your athletic scholarship, if you have one, or even kick you off the team.

[Learn ways to improve scores on the TOEFL.]

3. Take available majors into consideration: Given the demands that you perform in the classroom, you should carefully take into account the offered majors at the colleges you are considering. This may sound like a self-evident thing to do, but to many young internationals chasing athletic excellence, academics often place very low on the list of priorities.

Being a student-athlete is extremely demanding and getting stuck in classes that exceed your academic capabilities or interests – or both – can very easily throw you off and eat into your precious nightly recovery time.

[Avoid the mistakes new international students make.]

4. Understand the geography: So you want to go to college in Florida or California? You are far from alone.

Make sure not to limit yourself to colleges in one given region or state. Many remotely located colleges have produced world-class student-athletes. Failing to realize this may severely impact your ability to land a sizeable athletic scholarship.

Anders Melin, from Sweden, is a former collegiate swimmer for Limestone College and the University of Missouri, where he earned an undergraduate degree in finance. He is now pursuing a master's degree in journalism at New York University.