4 Tips Before You Pursue Athletic Scholarships

Before contacting college coaches, do your research and determine your academic and athletic goals.

By + More

One of the biggest myths about college athletics is that unless you swim like Michael Phelps or play basketball like LeBron James, you don't have a chance of getting an athletic scholarship. The truth is you don't have to be in the top 5 percent of your sport to get an athletic scholarship.

On the other hand, you also can't sit back and expect the phone to ring with scholarship offers. Most college athletes earn a spot on the team with some level of funding in their pocket by marketing themselves.

[Read 7 things you need to know about sports scholarships.]

Before you start contacting college coaches, set up your game plan by practicing the following fundamentals:

1. Understand the various leagues and divisions of college sports: Within the National Collegiate Athletic Association, for example, teams are assigned to one of three different divisions, each with their own rules and levels of scholarships. In addition to the NCAA, there are two other college athletic leagues, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the National Junior College Athletic Association, which offer competitive, yet accessible athletic programs.

2. Determine your academic goals before you begin your search: You should look into colleges that fit you academically and socially, as well as athletically. Remember that for most student athletes, it is their academics, not their athletics, that determine a successful college and professional career.

[Read 8 tips for the student athlete.]

3. Decide what kind of athletic experience you want—and assess whether or not your abilities fit your goals: Talk to your coaches—high school, club, and athletic camp—and gather as many informed opinions about where you could compete at the college level. Depending on the level of experience and connections your coaches have, they may be valuable resources for you in your athletic scholarship search.

4. Understand the recruiting process: For most student athletes, the official recruiting season for the majority of sports begins on July 1 in the summer after junior year and it ends with the official admissions letter from the college. During this time, there are several possible stages in the process, including initial identification; follow-up print contact; phone contact; official or unofficial visits; home visits; letter of intent/scholarship offer; and official support from the coach.

Once you have the fundamentals down, you can begin to self-recruit. Self-recruiting is all about making yourself known to coaches and can be accomplished by sending introduction letters; filling out questionnaires sent to you by the coach; sending coaches videos showcasing your abilities; and attending specific developmental or showcase athletic camps run by colleges.

In addition, there are several new web-based services that specialize in pairing prospective college athletes with college sports programs (including www.ncsasports.org and www.berecruited.com). These specialized web services are increasingly being used by coaches who don't have large recruiting budgets.

However you market yourself, remember to put yourself in the coaches' shoes. Every year college athletic programs receive hundreds, if not thousands, of letters and other correspondence from students. The best thing you can do to make yourself stand out is demonstrate your knowledge of their college and their team. Show them you've done your homework and you're serious about wanting to be a part of their specific program.

You've worked long and hard to become a good athlete. With the same kind of dedication, preparation, and some strategic self-promotion, you can earn a spot on the team and join the thousands of students every year who receive athletic scholarships or other kinds of financial aid.

Mary Wynne is the assistant vice president of Dollars for Scholars®, a community-based scholarship program of Scholarship America. She was the recipient of several academic scholarships at the University of Minnesota.