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See College Choice Overview for the rules and environment of college athletic scholarships.  

Part 1 - College Scholarship Overview
Part 2 - Freshman - Sophomore Years
Part 3 - Junior - Senior Years
Part 4 -  Beyond Division I

College Choices for high school track athletes:
The Junior and Senior Year - Reaching Your Goal

by Donna Dye

Getting into the right college with as much financial help as possible comes with planning, research, and self-promotion. A winning game plan combines hard work and athletic talent with athletic accomplishment, average to better grades and test scores, and, knowing what to do when. While emphasis may be on athletic skills, academic skills and test scores cannot be ignored. They are musts for getting an athletic scholarship especially at NCAA Division I colleges. Each year, there are many very talented athletes that don’t go on to college or find themselves at a junior college not because colleges didn’t recruit them, but because their grades and/or test scores were below par.

How does the Athletic Scholarship Work?

An understanding of the process is a must to help you understand what you must do and why.  Before you go further, go to the DyeStat article, "College Athletics and Scholarships for Track and Field - What's it all about?" The article provides an overview for understanding the college athletic scholarship process and  contains information about the number of scholarships available. 

Start By Deciding What's Best For You

There is a student at "Captain University"; let's call her Charlotte.  In her senior year of high school Charlotte did not think much about where she wanted to go to school.  She was pretty sure that she would be offered a scholarship.  Her idea was to see who recruited her and take the best offer.  Charlotte was recruited by a couple of colleges.  She made a visit to Blue University, liked the location, the environment, the students and the coaching staff.  They offered her a 50% scholarship.  But then Captain University came along and offered her a full scholarship.  Captain University was located in a large city across the country from where she was living.  She had read a little about the area but neither she nor her parents had ever visited the city.   It was late in her senior year, and while she wanted to make a visit, she had a full schedule with papers coming due, and senior prom planning.   She wasn't  sure she had time for a visit.  She talked to the  Captain University coach on the phone and met him at one of her meets a month ago.  He seemed nice enough.  When she got the offer from Captain University, she discussed it with her parents and coach.  They reasoned that  it was foolish to turn down a full scholarship.  So, Charlotte went to Captain University. 

Now, Charlotte is getting ready to transfer to Red University where she will be a walk on.   Red University doesn't have enough scholarships for next year to pick her up.   She hopes she can get a scholarship next year. But she doesn't care now, because she will be out of the city that she has come to hate.  She doesn't like the coach, is homesick, not happy with her classes and wants to leave.  Charlotte did not do her homework last year.  She let the recruiting process drive what she did. 

The lessons to be learned from Charlotte are many.  But the most important lesson to take from Charlotte,  is that it is important to decide what is best for you now, so that the decisions you make will be best for you later.  Just because a coach is interested in you, doesn't mean that you need to listen to him if the college or program doesn't fit into your college choice plan.  Going for the best scholarship dollars or school prestige may not always be the right decision.

Making a decision about college is hard work and may mess with your emotions.  You may want to go to a good academic school or a good athletic school or one that is both or maybe you don't care as long as you get a scholarship and can compete.   If you don't think about selecting a college, you may drift into a decision or have one made for you by your parents and coaches. 

Before you can make a good choice you need to decide who you are, what you want out of college and college athletics.  Ask yourself several questions:  how important is athletics to you?  What level of competition do you want in college?  Where does athletics fits into your future?  Are you an elite, good, or average athlete in your event?  Do you have good grades?  What are the colleges that match your athletic performance/skill levels?  Answer to these types of questions help to focus your efforts and will really improve chances for a scholarship because goals may be more realistic. Sometimes athletes end up in a Division I school with a partial scholarship or on the team as a walk on.  But because the athlete doesn't have the highest scoring potential may end up not participating in big meets. If that would bother you, you might be better off at a college with less of a reputation for athletics.  Maybe this athlete would have been better off at a Division II college or at a Division III or NAIA school where sports are still good but in a different environment. 

Elite athletes probably won’t have to worry much about getting an athletic scholarship, unless they don't have the academic and test scores for college entry. Their biggest problem might be deciding on which school or how to handle the visits from coaches.  Still, elites also need to decide what they want out of the college experience. 
Doing this will help you narrow your official visits and the time you spend with coaches in your living room.   

Junior Year

The junior year focus is for preparation and completing basic steps.  It is  the year to narrow options and move toward making those final choices in the senior year.   Begin the year by developing a plan or reviewing the one you may have and following the steps in the "To Do List" below.    By mid-junior year, you should have a good plan that reflects a self analysis for both athletics and academics.  The analysis and good planning will help to identify weaknesses that can be corrected before it's too late.    The junior year is the time to take the achievement tests for college entry and to begin or refine your research and study of colleges. It's the year to start making college visits.  These visits will  help in deciding where to apply  and which athletic programs to make a final push for.  By the senior year, there is the normal school and athletic year; and, there are the activitieIts associated with graduation.  At the same time, you will need to make choices for colleges and submit college applications.  The hectic senior year makes it hard to squeeze in research and to make paid or unpaid college visits.  Of course, if nothing is done during the junior year, then everything depends on squeezing two years into one and hoping that you have enough time to do all the steps correctly.  You may also risks your chances of a scholarship entirely because failure to do some of the steps earlier may make you ineligible for college athletics.  Time spent in your  junior year is the way to go.

Senior Year

The senior year focus is on plan implementation, recruiting and final selection.  This is the year to watch your college choice plan materialize.  If you're just getting started, this is your last chance. Start by taking the steps below in "Things to Do."   By the end of the junior year, most coaches have completed their list of potential recruits based on performances they've seen.  You may have already been contacted and thinking about making an official visit.  Make the visits early in the year.  Time will go by fast and get complicated when the many senior year activities require your attention. 

If you've not heard from coaches, you may need to "toot your horn" more this year.   More on this in "What You Should Know About Contacting Coaches," below.
If you haven't made a list of colleges or done any college visits up to now, you'll have to work quickly this year to make up for lost time.  By mid-year you'll need to submit applications to colleges and do a lot of other things.  So get going.

The To Do Lists

The steps listed below can be done in either junior or senior year, but ideally during the junior year.  If you wait until your senior year, you won't have the time you need to do many of the tasks to get the best benefit.   More importantly, you will not have built the foundation for making your college choice.  

 Things to do - Athletic
(Because of the number of schools participating in the NCAA,  specifics about athetic eligibility and recruiting in this section refers to the NCAA  regulations for Division I. For Information about the Division II and III and NAIA and NJCAA visit their websites.)  However, most of the things to do apply to all NCAA Divisions and associations.
  • Request  a copy of the guide for college bound student athlete from the athletic associations, If you don't already have it. You need it to make sure you follow all of the rules and regulationns.  You can obtain a hard copy or download a copy from the web sites: NCAA, NAIA, NJCAA.
  • Register with the NCAA Eligibility Center. This is required of all students wishing to attend a NCAA Division I or II college and participate in sports. Registration can be done on line. Go to NCAA Eligibility Center.
  • Make a plan for the next two years if you don't already have one.
  • How do you stand athletically?   Are your performances good enough to attract college coaches?  Unfortunately, college coaches don't publish the marks they are looking for.  As an alternative, you can use DyeStat TFX lists to give you an idea how you rank.  It's not possible to predict from rankings and performance who will be recruited and by which colleges.  If you are an elite athlete you stand a better chance of being recruited by many and highly competitive colleges.  As an elite athlete you may need to choose among many attractive offers.   If you are not an elite you may still be recruited, but whether you earn a full scholarship or any athletic scholarship may depend on college needs and how the college evaluates your potential to improve.  And, athletic skills are not the only thing college coaches evaluate.  So, you can't predict.  But one thing is for sure, you need to put forth the effort and do the best you can. You can use the DyeStat ranking cutoffs as guides to setting up your performance goals.  Discuss establishing your goals with your coach.  Be realistic or you may be disappointed.
  • Consider a junior college if:
a)   your grades and test scores are poor and/or they do not meet the NCAA eligibility but your athletic skills are good.  While at the junior/community college you can improve your academics and compete athletically.  After you improve your academic skills, you may be eligible to transfer to a four-year college.
b)  you don't think you will qualify for a either an academic or athletic scholarship and you have the funds for a junior college and want to compete athletically. 
c)  you think you can be competitive for an athletic scholarship at a junioir college.  Contact the NJCAA for more information.  Click on Prospective Student/Athlete Guide. 
  • Research college athletic programs.  What are the colleges that best match your athletic skills?  Are you a good candidate for the high profile Division I colleges?  Or, would smaller state and private schools be a good fit?  Or would some of the NAIA schools be a good fit? There are statistics at college websites and other sports websites that contain information on team and individual performance.  Would you rather have a partial scholarship at a high profile at a Division I college rather than a full scholarship, maybe a mix of athletic and academic at a Division I that is not particularly high profile or Division II, or NAIA?  Prepare a list tht you can use for making college visits.
  • Start making college visits (unofficial for juniors and official for seniors) as soon as you can.  College visits can be costly. So you need to plan accordingly to spread out costs.  Research ahead of time and where possible coupling visits with family vacations will save you time and money.  Of course, if you have only a few places you are considering, then life may be easier. But keep in mind that colleges are being more selective in their admissions.  If you have too few colleges under consideration you may be limiting your availability for admissions and to scholarships whether they be academic or althletic.  How many is enough is hard to say.  But too few or too many are not good choices. See below  "What You Should Know About Recruiting" for information about  visiting colleges.
  • Plan ahead for unofficial college visits.  For official visits, you will be working with coaches.  But many of the suggestions that follow apply to both unofficial and official visits. 
  • Contact the college admissions.  Make sure to arrange a visit  to the athletic department.  Try to visit when teams and coaches are on site so that you can see a practice, talk to athletes and coaches. (You must pay for unofficial visits.)
  • While on campus ask the admissions office about scholarships, how they are awarded and the possibility of financial aid from both athletic and academic sources.
  • Tour the campus and look around at the grounds, dorms, sit in on classes, check out the distance from dorm to athletic facilities.  Tour the neighborhood the college is in to see if it has the kind of shopping and restaurants you like.  Is there transportation to get into the surrounding area or around campus?
  • You should prepare a list of what you want to do and see and questions to ask.  Ask your current coach to help you prepare the lists of questions.  Here are some questions to consider:
  • How is practice handled?What is a practice schedule?
    • If I'm a track athlete, do I participate in cross country?
    • Are there special coaches for the various events?
    • What kind of help is there for athletes with physical or academic problems?
    • What is the coach's approach to your event?
    • What is the red shirt policy?
    • What will happen to my scholarship if I don't perform as the program expects?
    • How does the program handle renewal of scholarships?  What is the criteria?
    • Is there a rating scale or specific levels that must be achieved in order to keep the scholarship? 
    • Are scholarship amounts ever modified to go up or down.  If so, what is the criteria?
Things to do - Academic
  • Visit your school counselor.  The counselor can help you in many ways from information to helping you think things through.  The counselor has tools such as interest, attitude, and academic inventories or tests that can help you understand yourself better.  In addition, the counselor usually has materials on colleges, test preparation, scholarships, and information about the best on-line programs to help you with all issues related to a college choice. 
  • Keep the grades up.  Make sure the classes you are taking will meet the core requirements for your school and count toward athletic eligibility.  Your high school counselor can help make sure your classes meet eligibility.
  • Discuss with your counselor the various sources for financial aid including academic, athletic, and other kinds of scholarships that are sometimes available from the community.  Ask how these all may be used to your advantage.
  • Juniors take the PSAT in October.  The PSAT is a standardized test that is used to determine National Merit Scholarships.  It is also used to practice for the achievement tests used by colleges for entry and by the NCAA to determine academic eligibility for athletic participation in college.  The tests used are the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the Academic College Testing program known as the ACT.  
  • The PSAT is also helpful in identifying academic strengths and weaknesses.  If you know about your weaknesses, you can seek help to improve your skills before taking the SAT or ACT.   Schools handle the registration for this test, so see your school counselor.
  • Juniors take the SAT or ACT in the spring.  (Seniors should take it as early as they can in the senior year.)   Unlike the PSAT where the school registers you, for these tests you need to submit a registration form. This can be done using a paper form that you can get from the school counselor or online at SAT or ACT. There is a fee to take either test. If you need financial help, contact your school counselor; there may be fee waivers. Test results from these tests are part of college entrance criteria. So they are very important. Doing poorly on the test especially if you have a poor GPA can keep you from getting into college, participating in athletics in college or getting a college athletic scholarship. 
  • There is help for you online for both the SAT and the ACT.  Both sites not only have information about the test,  test dates and test preparation,  but they include help with planning, finding, applying and paying for college.
  • There are also many books, computer programs, preparation courses that can help you prepare for the tests.  Most of these charge a fee.  Check with your school counselor and the Internet to help identify sources and costs.
  • You must be registered to take either the SAT or the ACT.  There are deadlines for registration.  Check the websites for specific registration deadline dates. Also there are alternate days for those students who cannot test on Saturdays.  See the SAT website for more details.
  • Research colleges and majors. Start to narrow the colleges search. Make a list so you can use it as you research colleges and teams. Pull together some questions to help you make some choices. Start by asking yourself questions such as:

    • What do you want out of college? Do you want a business, professional, technical career?
    • What do you want to study or major in?
    • What do you want out of college athletics? Are you thinking professional? Olympic? Or, a way to pay for college and have fun?
    • Do you want to attend a small or large school? Going from a small to large school is frightening to many students. If you're not sure how you might react, visit some college campuses. If you can, sit in on some classes.
    • Do you prefer small or large lecture type classes?
    • Do you want city or country atmosphere? Many times students like the reputation for a college but are turned off if they think the college is too isolated from entertainment and easy transportation.
    • Do you want year around mild climate or seasons or does it matter? The climate can make a big difference to your attitude and mood. Where possible visit other areas if you think you’d like something different.
    • Do you want diversity in the student population? For example how do you feel about ethnic diversity or students from all parts of the country?
    • Do you want to live on campus or off campus?
    • Can your family pay if your scholarship isn’t enough?
    • What is important to you, academics, athletics, both?
    • What level of athletics do you want: NCAA Division I, II, III? Should you consider the NAIA or Junior College?
  • Get and keep your grades as high as you can.
  • Start or continue to consider majors and field of interest for potential study in college.  
  • Juniors, request college applications at the end of the year.  See your high school counselor for information or visit college websites.  Follow the directions in the application packages.  Make sure you meet the deadlines.  Ask your counselor if you have questions or need  help.
  • Seniors request college appications, as soon as possible.  See your high school counselor for information or visit college websites.  Follow the instructions in the application packages.  Make sure you meet the deadlines.  See your counselor with  questions or need help.  You need to make sure that your application is received on time so that your application gets into the pool of applicants for academic and need-based scholarships.  Once these funds are disbursed there are no more sholarship of this kind.  This is particularly imporftant,  if you do not receive a full athletic scholarship.  You may need these other types of scholarships to make up the difference from the athletic scholarship.
Recruiting and You

In the NCAA Division I, what you or the coach can do relies on some definitions.  
  • A contact occurs any time a coach has any face-to-face contact with you or your parents, off the college's campus and says more than hello.  A contact also occurs if a coach has any contact with you or your parents at your high school or any location where you are competing or practicing. 
  • An unofficial visit is one by you and your parents to a college campus paid for by you or your parents.  The only expense you may receive from the college is three complimentary admissions to a home athletics game, such as a football or basketball game.  You may make as many unofficial visits  as you like and may take those visits any time.  The only time you cannot talk with a coach during an unofficial visit is during a dead period.
  • Dead period is a date range that the NCAA designates during which almost all recruiting is prohibited.  The only things permitted are phone calls, 1 per week, and correspondence.
  • Official visit is a visit to a college campus by you and your parents paid for by the college.  There are some rules that go with the official visit as to what can and cannot be paid for you during your visit.  Check with the Guide for College Bound Students for more detail and/or the NCAA website.
 Junior Year
What You Can Do
What the College Coach Can Do
  • Receive written recruitng material starting Sept  1
  • Make calls to the coach at your own expense
  • Make an unlimited number of unofficial visits.
  •  Call you once per week starting July 1 after your junior year
  • Make off campus contact  July 1 after your  junior year.

Beginning September 1 of the junior year, colleges can start the recruiting process by distributing recruiting material.  Make sure you know the recruiting rules and what your responsibilities are in the recruiting process. Go to Recruiting Rules here and at the association sites: NCAA, NAIA, NJCCA.   But until the end of your junior year, the coach can't do much.  So it's up to you to let coaches know if you are interested. You can write or make calls to college coaches at your own expense.  See below for tips on making contacts.
 Senior Year
 What You Can Do
 What the College Coach Can
  • Receive written recruiting material.
  • Call a coach at your own expense. 
  • Make off- campus contact. 
  • Make an unlimited number of unofficial visits.
  • Make official visits beginning the opening day of classes for your senior year.  But only only one official visit per college up to a maximum of 5 official visits to Division I and II college
  • Call you once per week beginning July
  • Contact you or your parents/legal guardians not more than three times during your senior year.
  • Make evaluations of your athletic skills up to seven times during your senior.
  • May contact you or your parents/legal guardians not more than three times during the senior year.

What You Should Know About Contacting Coaches

t's important for you to make contacts.  It tells the coaches that you are interested in them and their program.  Such contacts will be remembered and may make a difference when coaches start to narrow their recruiting prospects.  In most cases, you need to "Toot your Horn."  In other words, you need to get the attention of colleges coaches.  This is especially true if by the end of your junior year, you have not been contacted.    Most coaches have done their list of potential recruits based on performances they see by the end of the junior year.  So, if your a senior and you've not heard from coaches, you may need to "toot your horn" more this year.   Of course elite athletes won't have to do this as much.  But it doesn't hurt to let the colleges know if your interested.  

Most coaches have many candidtates to choose from, so you need to show them that you are a good candidate and interested in their program.   Whey coaches start to narrow their recruiting prospects, they willl remember contacts made by interested and enthusiastic athletes.  Also, keep in mind that coaches do not want to spend time contacting  you if you're not intersted.  This is especially true for elite athletes.  So, if a coach calls you and you are not interested, politely thank him for his time and interest in you and tell him that you don't think his program is right for you.  For help on contacting college coaches, read on.

Making the Contact.  Don't contact just one and wait for them to contact you.  You want to contact several colleges.  First prepare a list of colleges.  Then send the coaches an email or letter .  (You don't want to call the coach before e-mailing or sending a letter about yourself.  A call out of the blue may put the coach on the spot and be an awkward contact.)  You can find the coach's contact informtion at the college’s web site. The email or letter should indicate that you are in high school, on the cross country and/or track and field team, interested in being on the college team.  Include the name of your school, your graduation year and your GPA. Describe your track record and point out your best performances. Include your address, telephone number and Internet address.  After a reasonable time, call the coach.  If you don't connect, leave a message saying that you are following up on the email or letter you sent about paticipating on the college team next year.  And leave your telephone number.  Don't pester the coach.  If you don't hear from the college within two weeks.  Move on.  

Have a statement handy that you can use as a discussion guide for your call or visit with the coach.  You should do some research ahead of time and learn something about the track program for each of the schools on your list.  You can use this information to show your interest in the program during your contact with the coach.  The guide should contain the same kind of information that you put in the letter or email.  It should include your hig h school academics --GPA, SAT scores and that you've met the core requirements.  It should inlcude your track/field accomplishments/rankings and why you are interested in the college and what your athletic goals are. 
On the advice of a few coaches, you should know that when a coach contacts you whether on the phone or in person, you need to be prepared to talk about your accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses with more than a yes or no answer.   A coach contacts you to get to know you and to decide if you are a good fit for the college program.  If you just  say yes or no to his questions, or leave the talking to your parents and or coaches, he won't know much about you.   He may leave without knowing if you will fit in to his program.  Later, if he finds someone he thinks is a better candidate, you will be the loser.

Should You Ask Coaches Questions?

Also, keep in mind that contacts should be balanced and two sided.  A coach talks to you about his program trying to decide if you will fit in.  You should talk to the coach to learn what the college and track program will do for you.  Be prepared with questions you have about the college, track program, life on a scholarship.  Here are some suggestions:
  • How is practice handled?
  • What is a practice schedule?
  • I'm a track athlete, do I participate in cross country?
  • Are there special coaches for the various events?
  • What kind of help is there for athletes with physical or academic problems?
  • What is the coach's approach to your event?
  • What is the red shirt policy?
  • What will happen to my scholarship if I don't perform as the program expects?
  • How does the program handle renewal of scholarships?  What is the criteria?  Is their a rating scales or specific levels that must be achieved in order to keep the scholarship?  Are scholarship amounts ever modified to go up or down.  If so, what is the criteria?
Ask your parents, coach and friends to help you develop your list.

Signing the Letter of Intent

Signing the letter of intent in the last step in the recruiting process.  Review information about the Letter of Intent in the DyeStat Overview article or the NCAA Eligibility Center.  The signing dates for the letter of intent for track and field typically begin in February and end the first day of August.  The exact dates are available on the NCAA site.  The signing period is the time when the college coach that you've been dealing with and have agreed to sign with asks you to sign an agreement commiting you to attend the college he represents.  You can receive the letter of intent by mail, attachment to an e-mail or in person while on an official visit.  But the college coach cannot be present when you sign the letter.  Your parent or guardian must also sign the letter if you are under 21.   A substitute for your parent may sign but prior permission is required.  (Check with the NCAA Eligibility Center.)  After you sign the letter of intent in triplicate, you must return it to the college.  The college then signs it and sends a copy to the conference office.  The college must file your NLI with its conference office within 21 days after the date of final signature. If this filing deadline is not met, the letter will be declared invalid.  Once you sign the letter of intent, you are no longer available and other coaches cannot contact you.  You can then congratulate yourself for a job well done. 

Should You Walk On?

A walk-on athlete is a college athlete who was not offered a scholarship to participate on a college team, but rather tried out and made the team.  If a college coach initiates no more than one phone call, does not offer an official visit, or does not make a scholarship offer to any recruit then in NCAA terms the athlete is not recruited.  The athlete then can contact the coach as much as they like and retain "not recruited" status.  So why would does this matter and why you want to walk on? 

1.  Often an athlete with an academic scholarship wants to continue to compete in college but may not have strong athletic skills.  If that athlete is a "not recruited" status athlete, he/she may compete as a walk-on athlete without  concern that the academic scholarship will count against the team.  If you are interested, contact the coach at the college where you will receive your academic scholarship.

2.  Your athletic skills may not be good enough or marginal for a full or partial scholarship and you haven't been recruited; nor have you heard from any of your outreach to coaches, and you are able to pay for college with scholarships or money if you have to,  you may want to try competing for a walk-on spot.  This would be especially true if you think you may be able to be competitive.   It is possible for you to earn a scholarship for the next season.   But keep in mind that scholarship money is very competitive.  You have a better chance of walking on and earning a scholarship for the next year at a smaller college or program.   If interested, contact coaches.

Because there is no financial scholarship involved between the college and the walk-on athlete, there is no signing of a letter of intent.

This article contains a lot of information and even more "to dos" for you.  But you can do it and you can succeed this year if you start now.  Be sure to work closely with your high school counselor, your parents and your high school coach.  Get Going and Good Luck.

Part 1 - College Scholarship Overview
Part 2 - Freshman - Sophomore Years
Part 3 - Junior - Senior Years
Part 4 -  Beyond Division I