Sport Scholarships Explained: How To Get A Full Ride

11/03/202011 minute read
Sport Scholarships Explained: How To Get A Full Ride

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Graduating from secondary school is a difficult time in anyone's life.

A time of big change where you are forced to make some important, and often confronting, life decisions.

Up until this point, life has probably been pretty sweet.

School, sports, social life... it's all been relatively cruisey.

But now it's time to knuckle down and make some big calls.

The biggest of all being:

Should you continue your education, or pursue professional sports?

Yep, that's right,

As a high school graduate, you are often forced into choosing between two options:

  • Taking a risk and pursuing a pro sporting career


  • Reconsidering your sporting dreams and going to college

Well, here's some good news for high school athletes:

In the US, you can do both.

That's right, no need to give up on your sporting dreams.

"But how?" I can hear you asking

The answer is simple:

With a sports scholarship!

A college sports scholarship allows you to play the sport you love at an elite level and earn a university degree at the same time.


Heck, YEAH! Sign me up.

Great news for you and even better news for your parents!

What now?

How do you get one?

What do you have to do?

What if your grades aren't that great?


What if you're not even that good at your sport?

Well, never fear:

There's most likely a place for you... somewhere.

Let's take a look.

Collegiate organisations


There are a number of collegiate sport governing bodies in the US, the biggest being the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA).

This NCAA governs over 1,100 universities and colleges, over 19,000 teams, and nearly half a million college student-athletes.

Being a student-athlete at a US college is basically exactly what is sounds like.

Not only are you a student at the college, but you compete as an athlete for your college against other colleges in your division.

The governing bodies make sure this is all running smoothly.

There are a total of three divisions within NCAA sports: Division I, Division II, and Division II... makes sense, right?

You've most likely heard of the famous Division I colleges like Duke and North Carolina, whose football and basketball teams attract massive followings.

Division I athletes in these sports are often treated just like the pros.

Travelling the country, signing autographs, playing in sold out stadiums... the only real difference is that you don't get paid (that's an issue for another day).

However, this pro athlete lifestyle is not for all Division I schools.

Some Division I colleges, such as Yale and Harvard, have a stronger focus on academics.

So while they're still strong athletically, they don't garner nearly as much attention for their sports.

As for Division II and III:

While many Division II and III colleges are very competitive sports wise, they tend to place more emphasis on academics than sports for their student-athletes.

Student-athletes are expected to give equal, if not more, attention to their academics during their time on campus.

This is definitely not the case at the big Division I schools where you're expected to train upwards of six days a week, including games!

Amongst all that, you have to attend classes and achieve strong grades.

Being a student-athlete can be really hard work, and you need to be extremely disciplined and organised to get the balance right.

These are great skills to learn, though, and will hold you in good stead for your chosen career, whether it be on the court, field, in the pool, or in the office.

In fact, a study by EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW surveyed more than 400 female executives in five countries (20% were American women), and of these top executives, over half (52%) played a sport at a college or university level.

Yeah, you read that right:

More than half of top female executives were college athletes.

Despite the positive impact college sports can play on your life, there are still a lot of rumours about the lifestyle of a student-athlete, the different sporting divisions in the NCAA, and collegiate sports in general.

If you're serious about applying for a scholarship, you need to understand the nuances between the different divisions and each school as they could affect where you decide to study and play.

Division Standards

Most people believe Division I, Division II, and Division II are nice and neatly structured, Division I being the best quality of sports and Division III being the worst.

However, this is not necessarily true.

While the top schools in Division I are easily the best in the country and the worst schools in Division III are of a much lower standard, there is still a lot of overlap between the three divisions.

For example,

The best schools in Division III can be as good if not better than a lot of the schools in Division II, and they can even be as good as some low-end Division I schools.

This may be because they've nominated not to climb a division as they've chosen to place more emphasis on their academics.

They understand that people will want to attend their college regardless of their NCAA division or sporting reputation.

Knowing where a school sits in terms of academics and sporting success, beyond their labelled division, is key to understanding whether that school will suit you and your life goals.

You can gather that there's a fair bit of overlap between divisions, so don't just base your decision on what it looks like on paper.


Once you've taken some time to consider the standard of sport you'd like to play and what kind of college you'd like to enrol at (leaning towards academics or sports), you should start considering how you can get there.

The number one way to gain admission is to secure a sports scholarship.

However, this process can be a tad tricky.

Once again, there are many differences between the divisions and the types of scholarships on offer, so make sure you know your stuff.

Division I and II

Combined, NCAA Division I and II colleges provide more than $2.9 billion in athletics scholarships annually to more than 150,000 student-athletes.

For men:

In Division I, the average scholarship amount is $14,270.

In Division II, the average is $5,548.

For women:

In Division I, the average scholarship amount is $15,162.

In Division II, the average is $6,814.

As a disclaimer: major sports, such as Basketball and Football, tend to get higher scholarship amounts.

Division III

For men and women,

NCAA Division III colleges do not offer sporting scholarships.

Okay, so this may sounds crazy, but your best option might be at a Division III school.

This will depend on how much balance you want as a student-athlete. Are you more student, or more athlete?

If your focus is as much getting a quality education as it is quality sports coaching, you can choose one of the better schools that populate Division III. This means you'll be under less pressure athletically, but you'll pay a bit more in tuition.

Having said that, there are some ways around the system.

In some cases, student-athletes at Division III colleges can receive substantial need-based aid.

Or, you might even be able to go for an academic merit scholarships at one of these schools.

So, depending on your goals and priorities, your best option might not be a full-ride scholarship at a Division I school, but rather an academic scholarship at a Division III school.

Figure out your ideal academics-sport ratio, and go from there.

Sports that give you the best chance of securing a place at college:


So, now that you have an idea of how it all works, it's time to assess your sports scholarship options.

As you'd expect, some sports are more popular than others, making applications for sports scholarship much more competitive and difficult to obtain.

But some sports are niche.

So niche, in fact, that the percentage of high school athletes that continue on to compete at university are pretty dang high!

However, the sports that you're most likely to continue playing at college vary between genders, so make sure you do your reading before picking up an odd sport like... curling, for example.

Here are some stats about the percentage of high school athletes that continue on to compete at collegiate level.

For men:

The sport you're most likely to continue in college is fencing.

In 2015/16, there were 2,189 male students participating in high school fencing and 651 competing at collegiate level, meaning an impressive 29.7% continue playing.

There are 42 colleges in the US that offer fencing, of which eight are Division I.

The NCAA allows schools to provide four scholarships per team in Division I.

The second most likely sport for male students:


19.1% of male high school students continue on to compete at college level, with almost all of these competing in Division I.

At Division I, the NCAA allows 6.3 scholarships per school. Unfortunately, however, fewer programs and schools offer gymnastics.

For women:

Like men, fencing will give you the best chance of securing a sports scholarship at university.

1,774 compete at high school level with 677 women going on to compete at collegiate level. That's a healthy percentage of 38.2%.

The second best sport for women is:

Ice hockey.

This might not be such good news if you're an international student from Australia, but 23% of female high school ice hockey players (from countries with cooler climates) went on to compete at college in 2015/16.

What's more, Division I and Division II schools offer 18 scholarships per team, with some of those being academic scholarships.

Likelihood of competing beyond high school at more popular sports:

Stats 1
Stats 2

Most popular sports for international students


Sport Men Women
Tennis 32.30% 30.40%
Ice Hockey 21.0% 26.9%
Skiing 17.9% 17.8%
Squash 14.7% 15.2%
Golf 12.2% 15.8%
Field Hockey - 10.2%
Soccer 12.1% 4.9%
Water Polo 6.8% 6.9%
Basketball 6.1% 4.4%
Swimming 5.9% 5.8%
Fencing 4.7% 6.5%
NCAA I Avg 4.5% 5.6%

How to get scouted

Now you know some of the more popular sports, it's time to look at how to get scouted. At some of the better sporting colleges, coaches can be looking at you from as young as age 13.

The earlier you start preparing, the better.

However, for a lot of people, coaches may never have the opportunity to see them play or even hear about their results.

So here are a few tips on you can get noticed by your dream college.

Again, the process is different per division and even varies between each school.

Division I & II

Most of the big Division I schools will have a whole team dedicated to scouting, both nationally and internationally.

Even so, the process for getting noticed and scouted is similar for both Division I and Division II schools since they both offer sports scholarships and they want to ensure they're getting their money's worth.

1. Make first contact

Obviously, you need to catch the coach's attention if you want to get scouted.

If you're on the other side of the world, this can be difficult, even if you're breaking records in your sport!

That's why it's not a bad idea to make first contact.

This is the best way to get a coach looking at your scores and considering you as an athlete.

Start by reaching out to coaches at your dream schools and let them know you're keen to be scouted.

What have you got to lose?!

2. Grab their attention

Now that you've made first contact, grab their attention!

A good way to do this is to put together a portfolio of your sporting efforts. You could include things like a short video of you playing or competing at your sport, a list of your times, results and accolades, and a reference from a past coach.

3. Understand that a scholarship isn't guaranteed

The coach may love you and your times might be impressive, but you're never guaranteed a scholarship!

As you've read, the amount of scholarships each school can offer is limited by the NCAA.

So, if it means giving up your dream school to attend a place with more opportunity and scholarships available, it might be worth considering.

Again, this is completely up to you and what you and your family can afford.

4. Be proactive

If this is something you really want, don't stop until you're satisfied!

You may feel like you're hassling the coach, but if you believe you're good enough, don't give up until you've been given an answer or a path to pursue.

Division III

At Division III, the process is similar, but obviously not as dependent on your sports results given there are no sports scholarships available.

1. Make first contact

Same as Division I and II, it's not at all bad to make first contact with a coach. In fact, it's encouraged.

Reach out and let coaches know you're keen to compete in your preferred sport at college and that you're interested in their schools.

Let them know your academic grades and your sporting achievements to prove you're serious and worthy of admission.

2. Show your passion and interest in the college

Once you've made contact with the coaches and staff, let them know exactly why you're keen to attend their school.

Perhaps it's because of the facilities, the campus location and size, or because there's a particular course on offer.

Whatever the case, let them know why you're interested. Make them feel special.

3. Ask how to make it happen and what you need to do

Explicitly ask what you need to do to get admitted to the college.

Sports coaches have a lot of sway in this regard.

Although they won't be able to offer you a sports scholarship, they can speak to admissions officers and put you forward as a key candidate if they're impressed by you.

What's more, they can even suggest offering some sort of academic scholarship or financial aid for extracurricular involvement.

It's a good idea to get the coach onside and maintain contact during the admissions process.

Division I, II and III

One last tip, and possibly the most important tip before we sign off:

Getting scouted is not all about your ability to run fast, kick a ball or slam dunk.

Regardless of how incredible you are at your preferred sport, colleges are always looking for well-rounded students to make their campus a better place.

You need to impress on the court, in the classroom, and in your personal life to be considered a top candidate!

Final Thoughts

Now that you know some of the ins and outs of sports scholarships, start preparing!

Coaches can be looking at candidates as young as 13, so if you're already well into your teens, you need to get serious.

Talk to coaches, talk to students, reach out to athletes, and discuss the options with your parents.

It's not easy, but if it's something you know is worth doing, make sure you're giving it all you've got.