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Become a Student-Athlete: Score a Sports Scholarship to a Top US College

06/03/202010 minute read
Become a Student-Athlete: Score a Sports Scholarship to a Top US College

Did you know that playing a sport can actually help you get into a top US university?

Did you know that playing a sport can help you pay for tuition and living expenses at a top US university?

And did you know that you don't even need to be the top of your game athletically or academically in order to make your college sports dream a reality?

Well you do now!

But look, it's not that easy. For starters, obtaining a scholarship is part of an official recruiting process, so you're going to need a strategy to get scouted, and then there are visits, negotiations and eligibility to think about.

Plus, you’ll need to fill out college applications just like everyone else!

The paperwork alone is astronomical, but believe me when I tell you it's all worth it in the long run, 'cause being a student-athlete at a college in the US is THE BEST THING EVER.

Let's start there, shall we?

Why you want to become a student-athlete

When you hear the term "student-athlete", one word should spring to mind: perks.

On the academic side of things, you get private tutors, counsellors and athlete-only study spaces to ensure that you stay on top of your uni work. Usually you'll be granted extended deadlines on assignments when you travel for competition, too.

But while all that's pretty sweet, the best thing about being a student-athlete is by far and away the athletic advantages. You get access to some of the best facilities in the world. I’m talking tricked out locker rooms (hello, bowling alleys!) and massive stadiums. Then, of course, there are the top coaches and trainers to keep you at the top of your game, and the physios, medics and nutritionists who are at your beck and call. Obviously, these vary from school to school, and the better the division, the better the perks!

It's also worth mentioning that you'll have a much easier time adjusting to college because your teammates become your friends from the moment you walk on campus. Unlike most first-year students, you’ll never have to eat a meal alone!

And you know what? Being a student-athlete is the gift that keeps on giving; the benefits of playing college sport don’t end after you graduate!

Athletic alumni networks are extremely active. I'd be willing to bet that every job you get post uni will come through college sport connections.

Types of student-athletes


Before we go into the finer details, I just want to get one thing straight: sports scholarships are not just for the would-be pros, nor are they just for the footballers and basketballers of this world.

In fact, there are three types of students who receive funding to play sport at US colleges.

1. The Pro Athlete

This one's obvious. If you’re an ultra-competitive, super talented athlete on track for international stardom, then it's safe to say you're in the running for a pretty decent sports scholarship package. Plus, with access to the best coaches, facilities and industry connections, attending a top sports university in the US can actually bridge the gap between amateurism and turning pro!

2. The Athletic Academic

Do you have equally awesome grades and athletic ability? If so, you’re probably an athletic academic! Being brainy and sporty makes you a great candidate for top academic schools like the Ivy Leagues, so if Harvard is the dream, sport may be a better way in!

3. The Recreational Athlete

Who said you had to be in it to win it? If you want to experience the US college lifestyle and you just so happen to be pretty good at a sport, then you're definitely a recreational athlete! There are scholarship dollars up for grabs for you, too, just at less competitive colleges, meaning you'll get all the advantages of being a student-athlete, without the pressure and with more time to party... I mean study.

Regardless of the type of student-athlete you are, coaches will always look for four qualities in prospective recruits:

1. Single sport focus: Most coaches look for athletes who excel in one sport; however, if you play two sports really well and there is some crossover between the sports’ skills such as football and track running, you may be in luck. Colleges are interested in unique students, and guess what? If you excel in two sports, you’re definitely unique!

2. High level of competition: If you’ve played on a national or international team, your chances of getting a scholarship are very high. If you’re not strong enough to play at such a high level, don’t worry! As long as you’re competing outside of school, you’ve still got a good chance to earn a scholarship. That being said, the lower the level you compete in, the harder it is to get a scholarship, so get out there and challenge yourself!

3. Statistics and achievements: Stats and wins are a great way to catch a coach’s eye so keep an official record of everything that you do.

4. Well-rounded person: It’s easy to get carried away and forget that you're applying to be a student-athlete, which means in order to play for a college, you first need to meet the academic entry requirements. US colleges look for more than just good grades, though; you also need to prove that you can contribute to the school both on and off the field.

Check out the video below to see just what well-rounded looks like. This dude is a USC basketball player, pre-med Human Biology major, and founder/CEO of a multimillion dollar investment firm. (Okay, so maybe this is an extreme example, but there's nothing wrong with aiming high!)

By the way, if you were wondering, Sam is definitely the "athletic academic" archetype.

The US college sports system

US college sports are such a big deal that they even have their own governing body!

Introducing: the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a.k.a the NCAA.

Currently, the NCAA oversees over 460,000 amateur student-athletes in 24 different sports, regulates games, and funds 90 championships.

If your sport isn’t governed by the NCAA, don’t worry! Some colleges may still offer it. For example, many schools offer squash, which is governed by the College Squash Association.

In order to organise so many students and sports, the NCAA created three divisions: I, II and III.

DI schools are typically large, national universities that have heaps of money to spend on scholarships and sports facilities.

DII schools are typically smaller, more regional universities with less money but still give out scholarships.

DIII schools are typically very small universities, and these ones don't offer scholarships.

The biggest difference between each of these divisions is their competitiveness, and generally, the bigger and wealthier a school is, the more competitive they can be, because they have more to offer in terms of funding and facilities and can recruit the better athletes.

As such, the better your division, the more time and effort you’ll need to commit to your sport.

That being said, there are over 300 schools in each division, which means there are great colleges at each level, both academically and athletically.

Each division is then split up into smaller groups called conferences, which are usually based on geographic location.

There are 37 multi-sport DI conferences, 25 DII multi-sport conferences, and 47 DIII multi-sport conferences.

Side note: The NCAA also has a younger brother named the NAIA, which oversees 14 sports, has two divisions and gives out sports scholarships! NAIA member schools generally have much smaller student bodies.

NCAA eligibility


Before you can officially be granted a sports scholarship by a US college, you need to be deemed eligible by the NCAA, regardless of the division or conference you want to play in.

And this is no joke. The NCAA has strict eligibility criteria that every prospective student-athlete must meet. It doesn't matter how good you are at your sport – there are no exceptions!

First and foremost, you have to prove that you are an amateur athlete, which means you can't have signed a professional sporting contract or have received money for competing.

Then, you have to meet all of your NCAA academic requirements, which differ slightly between Division I and II.

For DI:

You must complete 16 core subjects, 10 of which must be taken before your final year:

  • Four years of English
  • Three years of maths
  • Two years of natural or physical science
  • One additional year of English, maths or natural or physical science
  • Two years of social science
  • Four additional years of English, maths, natural or physical science, social science, foreign language, religion or philosophy

You need to have maintained a minimum GPA of 2.3 (pretty close to a C+) over these four years of high school, and earn the ACT/SAT score matching your GPA on the DI sliding scale.

For DII:

You must complete 16 core subjects:

  • Three years of English
  • Two years of maths
  • Two years of natural or physical science
  • Three additional years of English, maths or natural or physical science
  • Two years of social science
  • Four additional years of English, maths, natural or physical science, social science, foreign language, religion or philosophy

You need to have maintained a minimum GPA of 2.2 (about a C) over these four years of high school, and earn the ACT/SAT score matching your GPA on the DII sliding scale (scroll a bit further down the page).

Don't just aim for the bare minimum, though. Exceeding these standards makes you a more desirable candidate and will put you in a better position to negotiate for a scholarship down the track.

Many schools have their own additional academic standards that you must meet, so make sure you're across those as well.

Getting recruited

Ice Hockey

Getting recruited by any university is a long, tedious process.

Top college sports teams start looking for talent very early – I'm talking second year of high school early! So you really need to get a move on if you're more senior than that.

There are seven main steps to getting recruited:

1. Start early: It goes without saying, the earlier you start preparing for the recruiting process, the better.

2. Build your portfolio: Collect all of your stats and achievements and upload some video footage of you online.

3. Email the coaches: Once you build a list of school’s you’re interested in, reach out to the respective coaches. Just remember to use a professional email. Unfortunately, won’t cut it.

4. Build relationships: Always be on your best behavior, on and off the field. You never know when there's a recruiter watching you and showing bad sportsmanship or being rude can jeopardise your chance of getting recruited.

5. Meet the coaches: Eventually, you’ll need to meet your prospective coaches in the flesh!

6. Visit schools: You may also be invited on an official or unofficial tour of schools that are interested in you.

7. Negotiate for a scholarship: This step applies if you have more than one scholarship offer, in which case you'll have some bargaining power!

Types of sports scholarships


There are two types of scholarships that schools offer:

  • Full scholarships (a.k.a. "head count")
  • Partial scholarships (a.k.a. "equivalency")

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

While that sounds like a lot of money, it’s important to remember that full scholarships are the exception, not the rule, and the amount of aid available to you depends on the sport you play.

Although only NAIA, Division I and II unis offer sports scholarships, there are six DIII schools that offer funding for certain sports as well.

  • Clarkson University: M/W ice hockey
  • Colorado College: M ice hockey and W soccer
  • Hartwick College: M soccer and W water polo
  • Johns Hopkins University: M/W lacrosse
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: M/W ice hockey
  • St. Lawrence University: M/W ice hockey

Academic scholarships for student-athletes

If you have great grades, you may qualify for academic aid as well as athletic aid. This is called scholarship "stacking" and it's double the fun(ding!).

You may also have the option of applying for other merit-based scholarships offered by individual universities.

However, if money is a serious problem for you, you may want to consider the Ivy League colleges (if your grades are strong enough, of course).

The Ivy League will do almost anything to ensure that money is not an issue if you get in.

In fact, if your parents make less than $60,000 USD a year, they won't need to contribute anything to your education.

Needless to say, there are heaps of ways for you to pay for college, so don’t let the cost stop you from following your athletic dreams!

Final Thoughts

Becoming a student-athlete can be hard work but once you step foot on your state-of-the-art field in front of 70,000 fans after getting ready in an incredible locker room, you’ll be grateful for all the time and effort you put into getting recruited.

Whether your goal is to go pro, or you simply want the college experience with some healthy competition on the side, then getting on a sports scholarship at a US college is the way to go.

Don’t be afraid of the work, because it’ll definitely pay off... in more ways than one!