How to Qualify for Athletic Scholarships - COLLEGEdata - Pay Your Way

How to Qualify for Athletic Scholarships

Many successful high school athletes hope their talents will be rewarded with generous college scholarships. If you are one of them, how do you get your share of the athletic scholarship pie?

Your First Decision: Do You Really Want to Play?

The first fork in the sports scholarship road is deciding how much you really want to play. College sports demand tremendous time and commitment. You won't have much time for dating, travel (except with your team), or other qualities of college life that most students look forward to. And for all your efforts, you may not get as much time on the field as you would like.

Also, you should be honest about the level at which you play. Are you skilled enough for a Pac 10 school? Or would you be happy to play for personal satisfaction? Or something in between? Have a heart-to-heart talk with yourself and your coach before you commit.

Your Second Decision: Is the Money Really Worth It?

Another consideration is whether the money you might win is worth the effort. If you are banking on a sports scholarship to help pay for college, be aware that there are few "full rides" and that most awards only partially cover college costs. The awards are for one year only and are subject to renewal every year. The competition to even get a scholarship can be fierce.

If you simply want to play because you enjoy it, consider applying to schools that offer your sport but offer little or no scholarship money in that sport. If you are a strong candidate academically, your sports skills may help you win an academic scholarship. Another option is to play on an "intramural" college team, where students play for enjoyment and compete informally with other colleges.

The Mighty NCAA

If you want to go for a sports scholarship, you and your family should know that the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) regulates and oversees most college sports competition, college team recruiting, and the distribution of athletic scholarships. It is a huge and extremely influential organization that works with the U.S. Congress and the Department of Education to control the flow of funding and financial aid for college sports programs.

About 300 small colleges belong to another association, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which runs national championships in 13 sports. Many of these colleges also offer athletic scholarships. For more information, visit the NAIA website.

The NCAA Divisions

Based on the size of the college and the level of competition, the NCAA divides member colleges into three groups: Divisions I, II, and III. Division I colleges award the most scholarships. Division III colleges offer only academic, not athletic, scholarships.

NCAA Standards for Who Can Play

The NCAA sets academic standards that college athletes must meet in order to be eligible to compete at the college level. To be eligible to play (and compete for an athletic scholarship) for an NCAA Division I or II college, you must fulfill four requirements:

  • Graduate from high school.
  • Complete the required number of core high school courses, listed below.
  • Earn a minimum GPA on a 4.0 scale in required core academic courses. For Division I, the GPA you must earn depends upon your SAT or ACT score, and is specified in a GPA/test score index published by the NCAA. For Division II, the minimum required GPA is 2.0.
  • Achieve a minimum SAT or ACT score. For the SAT, the NCAA looks at your combined best scores on the SAT critical reading and mathematics sections. For the ACT, it's the sum of your best scores on the English, mathematics, reading, and science sections. For Division I, the score you must meet or exceed depends upon your GPA, and is specified in a GPA/test score index published by the NCAA. For Division II, the minimum SAT score is 820 and the minimum ACT score is 68.

For Division III, simply gaining admission to the college means you have automatically met academic standards and fulfilled core course requirements.

Required High School Core Courses for Athletes in Divisions I and II

The NCAA requires students to complete several years of approved college preparatory courses to be eligible to play on a Division I or Division II team. Students must earn at least the passing grade established by the student's high school. You can look up the core courses approved by the NCAA for your high school on the NCAA website.

For Division I, NCAA requires you to complete 16 core courses:

  • Four years of English
  • Three years of math (Algebra I or higher)
  • Two years of natural or physical science (including one year of lab science if offered by your high school)
  • One additional year of English, math, or natural or physical science
  • Two years of social science
  • Four years of extra core courses (from any category listed here, a foreign language, or non-doctrinal religion or philosophy)

For Division II, students must complete 16 core courses:

  • Three years of English
  • Two years of math (Algebra I or higher)
  • Two years of natural or physical science (including one year of lab science if offered by your high school)
  • Three additional years of English, math, or natural or physical science
  • Two years of social science
  • Four years of additional core courses from any category listed here, a foreign language, or comparative religion or philosophy

Filing Your NCAA Paperwork

If you wish to play for a Division I or II college, you should register at the NCAA Eligibility Center at the beginning of your junior year in high school. You must file an online Student Release Form with the NCAA by the end of your junior year. This form allows the NCAA to send information about you to college coaches. The form is available on the NCAA website. The fee is $70, with fee waivers available. Division III students do not need to file this form.

Once you file this form, the NCAA will send a preliminary report of your eligibility to college officials who request it. You may request a copy of the report at or by calling the NCAA Eligibility Center at (877) 262-1492.

The NCAA also asks you to arrange for your high school transcripts to be sent to them. Your request should include your grades from sophomore through senior year.

All requirements are spelled out in the NCAA's Guide for the College-Bound Student Athlete, available for free on the NCAA website, from your high school counselor, or by calling the NCAA at (800) 638-3731.

Getting on the Team

Of course, the first step to becoming an athlete at a certain college is gaining admission to that college. But getting on the team will require passing another hurdle: approval from the college coach.

Coaches of generously funded and highly competitive sports teams have a "Don't call me, I'll call you" strategy. They search for the most outstanding athletes to fill open spots on their teams using a network of contacts with high schools, word of mouth, and media coverage. If you show up on their radar, a scout might come out to watch you play. If they like what they see, they will contact you through your high school. They will also notify the NCAA that they would like to recruit you. This scenario, however, is rare.

What about contacting coaches directly? There is no NCAA rule against this. In particular, Division II and III coaches may appreciate your introducing yourself. This may also be true for some Division I sports departments with small recruiting budgets. Many student athletes stop by the coach's office during their campus visits to drop off their sports bio and clips of their playing performance. You can also speak to the coach by phone, and mail your bio and clips. Like an increasing number of student athletes, you can post web pages with videos of your playing and statistics about your performance.

Once you get noticed, you may be encouraged to join the team. At Division I or II schools, you may be offered a sports scholarship as an incentive. If a coach pursues you, however, be sure you understand the recruitment rules posted on the NCAA website.

Understanding What Your Scholarship Covers

Most sports scholarships only partially cover college costs. All athletic scholarships are for one year only. Each year, it is up to the coach and the financial aid department to decide if they will renew your scholarship, reduce the amount, or keep it the same. They must inform you of their decisions each year no later than July 1.

If You Can't—or Won't—Play

Suppose, after you enroll and receive your scholarship, you get injured or otherwise become ineligible for competition. The financial aid office is free to reduce or cancel your athletic scholarship. This is likely to happen if you

  • Lie on your application
  • Accept non-scholarship money or gifts from anyone involved with the college
  • Break the college's rules
  • Withdraw from competition voluntarily

There's More to Life Than Being a Player

A successful college experience includes more than winning championships. It helps you prepare for a promising career and a rewarding life. No matter how good you are in your sport, the odds are against your becoming a world-class, highly paid athlete after graduation. Always have a backup plan and choose your major accordingly. That way, you'll be a winner no matter how your final season turns out.

You can find other athletic scholarships in a variety of sports with CollegeData's Scholarship Finder.

Note: Financial information provided on this site is of a general nature and may not apply to your situation. Contact a financial or tax advisor before acting on such information.

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