A Student-Athlete’s Path to College — Tips From an Expert

Student laying on his stomach on a football field while holding a football
Expert advice on how student athletes can find the most money, athletic scholarships, and the best choice for college.

A Student-Athlete’s Path to College — Tips From an Expert

Published June 18, 2019 | Last Updated June 10th, 2023 at 10:12 am

Expert advice on how student athletes can find the most money, athletic scholarships, and the best choice for college.
Student laying on his stomach on a football field while holding a football

Does a student-athlete’s path to college differ from that of a non-athlete’s?

We discussed this topic with expert Michele Larson during a Facebook Live, when she filled us in about what student-athletes should focus on before they apply.

Here’s what she advised…

A Holistic Approach for Student-Athletes

While not an athletic recruiter, Michele does advise many students who have aspirations to play college sports.

She takes a holistic approach with them in that she reminds them that “you go to college to get a job, and playing sports is a bonus.”

Her recommended strategy is that students first find out what they’re suited to do, then find the colleges that would be a good fit, and THEN contact the coach.

In addition, making an honest assessment of how “good” you are is also important.

What’s the “Hope & Surely Method?”

“We HOPE we’re going to get seen” and “SURELY the coaches will notice us.”

This is a method that Michele has seen many parents and their students follow…to no avail.

Her advice is that accolades at the high school level very rarely transfer to the college level, and no one will automatically see you and notice you without proper planning and intervention.

Facts About College Sports Associations

There are two primary college sports associations:

The NCAA is very well-known.

The NAIA is not as well-known and lesser tiered; however, if you’re passionate about sports, it’s an organization you should get to know, as it has the most money at its disposal.

Different Divisions

D1 Schools — Five primary sports that potentially give out full-ride scholarships: Men’s/women’s basketball, football, volleyball, baseball

D2 Schools — Second Tier Sports — Generally not full-ride scholarships.

Coaches in this division are given a “purse” with which to field their entire team

Since the amount is never large enough, coaches look for creative ways in which to make this money go as far as it can.

One of the ways is by specifically looking for athletes who are armed with need-based or merit-based money and are not totally dependent upon the money from the coach’s kitty.

Michele points out that a coach will more often favor a student with lesser skill and more aid money over one with better skills and no aid money.

Bottom Line: Coaches LOVE academic athletes who are armed with merit aid money.

So, good grades matter!

D3 Schools — Generally do not have any athletic money.

Because student athletes attending D3 colleges will not receive athletic scholarships, families determining the level of generosity of these schools will need to do the same type of research that families with non-athletes need to do, by searching for colleges that will meet your family’s financial need and/or award your student for their merit accomplishments.

What Every High School Student-Athlete Needs to Know

When Should an Athlete Start Preparing?

Second semester of the student’s Freshman year, in other words, the earlier the better.

Coaches are not permitted to reach out to students before their Junior year, however, there is nothing that says students may not reach out to coaches before that time. In fact, says Michele, showing an interest in a particular school and getting your name in front of a coach beforehand is important.

Sports Camps…Are They Worth It?

Most of these camp invitations are marketing tools, but if your student chooses to go, make sure it is at the college of his or her choice.

And because these camps tend to be rather expensive, don’t waste the opportunity: Make sure you know which coaches will be there, and make sure they will know YOU are there by sending a personal note or resume.

Signing Day/ National Letter of Intent

Different sports have different signing days, but all of them are emotionally charged and exciting for all involved.

Essentially, a National Letter of Intent says that the student will be receiving a certain amount of money to play a particular sport at a particular school.

It is a contract, and should be treated as such.

Once it is sent back, no further negotiations can be orchestrated.

Should a student back out once the letter has been sent, he or she will not be eligible to play for any other NCAA team.

It is for this reason that Michele highly recommends that you “make sure you have all your financial ducks in a row before you send that letter in.”

The Takeaway

Playing a sport in college is a great achievement, and can have a huge impact on a student’s life.

BUT, it won’t necessarily have an impact on a student’s career, so choosing a school that will be a fit major-wise and financially should be a first priority.

Athletic scholarships are not guaranteed for four years.

They can be taken away: Accidents can happen and new coaches and better players can come along, so it’s advisable to not put all your eggs in the athletic scholarship basket.

It’s better to cobble together financial aid from a variety of sources.

So a student athlete’s path to college is not really that different than that of a non-athlete’s after all.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Division 3 Athletic Scholarships and Your Student-Athlete

Is Going to a Junior College (JUCO) a Good Step for Athletes?

Colleges With High Acceptance Rates




Watch the Facebook Live with Michele Larson below and learn more about student-athletes.

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