At this point, most seniors never want to look at another college application. Writing biographical essays about an embarrassing or important moment in life and then wondering what schools accept you isn't the way you want to spend the best year of high school.
The college application process is difficult enough without athletics to worry about, and the reality is that getting a college coach interested in you can be just as daunting as convincing an admissions committee you belong on its campus. The thought of trying to walk on to a team, let alone get a coach you barely know to give you thousands of dollars, might seem downright scary, but it shouldn't. Thousands of high school seniors go on to compete at various NCAA levels each year, and coaches face the real burden of building and sustaining successful teams in order to keep their jobs. By being proactive and getting a little help from your high school coach and your future college coach, the recruiting process can be much less painful than it seems.
Herb Tolbert, the cross country coach and a guidance counselor at Gaithersburg High School, has sent countless athletes to compete in college in his 34-year career. Tolbert says you first should sit down with your high school coach during or after your junior year and make an assessment of your athletic ability. The conversation needs to be honest on both sides because any college coach will want to talk to your high school coach. You should remind your high school coach of your athletic and academic accomplishments (preferably in written form), as well as your goals for the remainder of high school. In many cases, your high school coach already will know this information, but you should make sure.
If you decide that you are serious about being recruited after this conversation, you must register with the NCAA Clearinghouse after you complete your junior year. More information about the clearinghouse and updated recruiting information can be found at www.ncaa.org.
Next, you should make a list of the schools you would like to attend and share that with both your parents and your high school coach. Jim Jones, the coach for the Division III Salisbury University’s track and cross country teams, stresses the importance of looking at the academics before considering athletics.
“Some students look at the athletic program first, then academics, which is the wrong order in selecting a school," Jones says. "The student should think about what they will be doing 10 years from now. The right academic program is important for their future.
"I always tell people think academics first, athletics second, and social activities third. If the student keeps these three things in order when selecting a school and continues with them as a priority in college, then they will be a successful student, accomplish a great deal athletically as an individual and with their team and still have time to enjoy themselves as a student on campus.”
At the same time, you must look at whether you would fit in at the various schools athletically. Roger Erricker, the track coach at Towson University and a native of Gaithersburg, says the best way to do that is to look at the results on the Internet.
“Tape measures and stopwatches don't lie,” Erricker says. "They are universal against all competition. In the ball sports you could score 50 points, but it may be against the Little Sisters of the Poor. If you run a five-minute mile, it doesn't matter who it's against.”
Once you have an informed list of prospective schools, most coaches say contact should begin by e-mailing the college coach. You also can ask your high school coach to do so, but this should be in addition to your e-mail.
"Ninety percent of my recruiting is following up on athletes that have contacted me,” Erricker says. "Every school has an athletics Web site that has a link for prospective student-athletes. ... Do not pay for a recruiting service. It is a waste of money.”
Says Jones: “You don't need to hire a company to send out the letter and resume. We get hundreds of these every year. Do something different. ... Do it yourself. It will save time and money in the long run, and you can key in on only the schools that you are interested in and have your academic program of study.”
Jones says it still is important to stand out when you make initial contact.
“A good way to contact a coach, the one that always catches my eye, is to send a personalized letter with a resume about themselves with a photo, GPA, SAT scores, academic and athletic accomplishment [with time and distances]," Jones says. "When I receive a personalized letter with that information in it, I normally take an added interest because the student has made the extra effort and I am willing to do the same in return.”
Of course, not all coaches will give you a response. Andrew Gerard, the track coach at George Mason, compares the recruiting process to a puzzle whose pieces are your interest and academic and athletic ability and the school’s needs. Most of the time a coach will not outright ignore a student who is genuinely interested in a school, but it is possible your e-mails and phone calls get lost.
Gerard recommends two things. First, you should make an honest assessment. Can you see the “puzzle” ever coming together for you at that school based on your credentials?
Second, you should act like any other college applicant: visit the school unofficially (meaning the school does not pay for your visit). Tour the campus and see whether you are genuinely interested in everything else the school has to offer. If you can contact the coach, then you should try to make it to the track or cross country office for a brief meeting. If the coach is unavailable, make sure you leave a message letting them know you were on campus. You may find yourself getting a response as a result.
Do not be afraid to bring up an athletic scholarship. Coaches will be straightforward about the possibility of giving you money. Erricker says the most appropriate time to bring that up is during a campus visit, but he says it must be done with tact. In particular, he suggests you should not bring up money in front of other recruits or athletes currently on the team.
Sometimes your attitude can make a difference. Gary Aycock, the track and cross country coach at St. Andrews College, has been able to build a premier Division II team despite limited funds by recruiting high caliber athletes like former Gaithersburg standout Ryan Janes. He says in addition to athletics and academics, he looks at whether the athlete is self-motivated and will fit in with his current team. That means you should market your talents and personality and be persistent. He also says more money often becomes available closer to national letter of intent signing dates or toward the end of a semester.
Once you have talked to a coach, it is ultimately up to the coach whether he or she will remain in contact with you, set up a visit or make a monetary offer. You should keep the coach posted by letting him or her know where they can find your results online or any newspaper articles in which you are mentioned. Remember to be polite and honest with your level of interest. Also remember that sometimes a coach can have some influence on whether you get accepted into a school, regardless of whether you would be a scholarship athlete or a walk-on.
If you follow the advice given by these coaches, you may or may not end up competing for you dream school, but the process can become much more clear and much less painstaking.
More advice from coaches:
St. Andrews College coach Gary Aycock says it helps if you know the history of the program and the current roster. That shows the coach you have a great deal of interest. He also says you should do what’s best for you. That means you should not choose a school because your boyfriend/girlfriend wants to go there.
Gaithersburg track coach Adrian McDaniel suggests running summer track. You can improve your marks, but more importantly it may be the only opportunity for college coaches to watch you compete because they are usually too busy while they are in season.
Landon coach Addison Hunt says you should be prepared to move up in an event.
“Unless you are truly elite in an event, there is good chance you will find yourself running other events,” he says.
Hunt also suggests you look at the school's roster.
"If you are high jumper who is hitting 6-foot-2 and looking at a school that has eight 6-8 jumpers, it's time to consider other options.”
But if the team is about to graduate its star athlete, you could be the recruit it is looking for to replace him or her.
The following is a letter from Andrew Valmon, head coach of the University of Maryland Terrapins track team. The email was received after the publication of the original article, but contains more good information for students interested in being recruited for track and field.
As the Head Coach of the University of Maryland Track Program, attracting the top local athletes in the state of Maryland is my number one priority in recruiting. It is very easy for interested students to get in direct contact with me and our track & field staff here at Maryland via the www.umterps.com website. They can even fill out a form online that gets the recruiting process going. But because it is easy to get in contact I do get more e-mail letters of interest than I can easily handle therefore I really appreciate short messages that highlight a prospect’s accomplishments.
When a high school athlete summarizes his or her best performances for me in a short e-mail message it makes it quick and easy for me to evaluate how to handle that prospective student-athlete. Extra documents or individual DVDs require a greater time commitment and are not as easily accessible. If I'm interested in a recruit after seeing the highlights of their performances, I'll ask for a DVD if I'm unable to see them in person.
An athletic resume that summarizes an athlete's athletic progression over the course of the high school career is helpful, but I'm more likely to take the time to open it if the person has told me in the e-mail what their personal records are. I also like a brief summary of the academic standing (GPA, class rank, SAT score) in the e-mail message because that is the first thing I will be evaluating in addition to the athletic performances.
When an athlete has taken the time to do some research on our team's performances and has an understanding of the performance level of our current Terrapin student-athletes, then I know that high school student is genuinely interested in the University of Maryland and not just fishing around for a scholarship. I appreciate athletes who have taken the time to research our academic and athletic offerings and have decided that the University of Maryland is a good fit for them with the goals that they have. Then I know that these are serious prospects and my time will be well spent in furthering communication with them.
Head Coach, University of Maryland Track & Field