College Basketball’s March Madness kicks off this week, and with all its hype and coverage it can be easy to forget these are amateur athletes we are watching.  This week on TV you’re bound to see athletes and coaches posing for cameras and being interviewed by ESPN as if they were highly-paid celebrities.  So, I find it refreshing when the NCAA airs its commercial which boasts that almost all of its 400,000 student athletes will “go pro in something other than sports”.  Say what you will about the NCAA and its intentions, but their advertisement is true.

For most NCAA student athletes, there is hardly even an opportunity to compete in their sport at the professional level—at least, not as a full-time career.  For those few with a profitable professional league at the end of their yellow brick road, even fewer reach that promised land. The most dangerous pitfall I see families make in the college recruiting process is comparing themselves to their peers. Too often, the concern becomes when a teammate commits to a school, what level program someone else is being recruited by, and whether or not a student-athlete can “go D1”.  Without a multi-million dollar contract at the other end of that college program, who really cares about all of that?
  

The most dangerous pitfall I see families make in the college recruiting process is comparing themselves to their peers.

 
Sure, many of us may dream of winning a national championship in front of 28 million television viewers, but the reality is most collegiate athletic experiences are vastly different from that.  And, that is OK!  At the end of the day, a recruit should choose a college that will set them up for success 40 years down the road and not just 4.
 

The Best Advice I Ever Received

The best advice I ever received in my recruiting process was: use my athletics to get into a better school than I could on my own.

My father gave me this advice–not a recruiting consultant or even a club coach, but the guy whose top concern was my general well-being.  And while my 16-year-old self paid very little attention to most of my father’s suggestions, this gem stuck with me, and I will be forever grateful to him for it. His advice served as a guiding principle in my evaluation of each college program I considered.  

I found myself gravitating toward schools on my list with a prestigious academic reputation, not just an athletic one.  When a new school reached out to me I looked up their College Board ranking before their record from last season, and I crossed schools off my list that ranked lower than others.  By the end of my process, I was considering offers from 3 Patriot League schools–a competitive athletic conference better known for its graduation rate than number of national championships.  My final choice was easy by that point; I knew I’d be lucky to end up at any of those well-regarded institutions, so I decided on Bucknell mostly because I found the campus beautiful and the people friendly and kind.  

March Madness can make us forget that sports is an extra-curricular, and your high school career as a student-athlete is no different from those of your classmates that learn to play the harp or speak mandarin to distinguish themselves from other college applicants.  You should use your athletic talents the same way!

Here is what I mean:

  • Do your research. You still need to have an idea of what you’re looking for in a school—do you want to stay near home or go across the country?  Do you want to be at a small school or a large school?  Urban setting or rural? I suggest about 30 schools on your list, whether you’re just getting started with the process or stuck-in-a-rut and need to hit the reset button.
  • Segment your schools based off your academic ability. If you were applying on your own, would this school be a “target”—in line with your grades and scores—a “safety”—confident your scores would get you accepted—or a “reach”—you’d need to get a little lucky. Use resources to help you – SportsRecruits, College Board, Guidance/College Counsellor at school, trusted teacher, coach, or mentor.
  • Segment your schools based off your athletic ability. The same principles from the bullet above apply. Use your high school and/or club coaches for recommendations. Consider the types of programs you may already be in contact with. And, be realistic with yourself! Again, you’re likely not going pro, so you shouldn’t feel the need to go to the “best” athletic program around.
  • Finally, find the overlaps from the two lists. Where do my reach academic schools fall on my athletic list? Are any schools a safety for both academics and athletics?  It’s good to have a fall-back, but these programs may not be your top priority. Contact your favorite schools that are academic reaches—you want to be challenged after all, right?—and keep in mind where they fit in your athletic rankings.

This approach will help you find schools that are a good fit for you.
 

Your Next Steps

Next, start contacting the coaches of those programs—and you MUST be proactive to get on a coach’s radar.  As your communication with a coach progresses, ask questions about his school’s admissions process.  If it’s a reach for you academically, you want to be certain the coach can support you in the admissions process.  

Consider asking about the systems in place to support student-athletes once they’re attending that school as well—you want to be certain you have resources to balance being a collegiate student-athlete, too.

What’s most important is to root your college search in the goal of landing at a better academic school than you can get into on your own.  Just like your less-athletic big sister was president of the Model UN so she could get into that Ivy League school, you too should be leveraging your talents to change the framework of your admissions process.