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Conducting One's College Search The Right Way

I am a former collegiate athlete who transferred twice before finding my ‘dream school’. I have spent six years as a collegiate assistant – three for junior college, two for NCAA Division III, and one for Division I. The last year and a half I worked for a juniors club, serving as college liaison for part of my job. I have gotten to see things from a lot of different angles, and at each stop along the way I’ve found myself wondering the same thing:
Why is the recruiting process for high school athletes so outdated?
Parents and players stress over it. For a young athlete, this is one of the biggest decisions they will make in their life. Statistics show 1 out of 3 students will transfer from their first school. It will put 7 out of 10 students in debt as they enter the real world, and every school they visit will have a carefully-scripted tour that tells them why it’s the perfect school for them. Letters from schools all over the country will pour into their mailbox with statistics and information that talk about why it’s the perfect place for them. However, none of the information actually teaches the families how to go about the process.
Coaches pour an incredible amount of hours into it each year. They filter through the dozens of emails they receive daily, and only a handful give more details than a player’s year, position, and interest in playing volleyball. There are thousands of videos/profiles online to scour, as well as tournaments to attend in order to try to land that recruit that rival schools are pursuing as well. It can be one of the most exhausting parts of the job, but necessary for a program’s success.
Recruiting agencies charge a substantial amount of money to assist with it. They create profiles for the athlete with a video displaying their skills as well as information on their athletic/academic accomplishments. An athlete’s profile is then sent out to various coaches, hoping that one of them takes interest in one of them.
With the amount of information at our fingertips, shouldn’t we be educating families on how to take control of their college search process? The purpose of college is to set a person up for success after they graduate: With the ability to research institutions and reach out to coaches, why  do athletes wait for a coach to approach them, or let a recruiting agency do the search for them?
I have had some people tell me it’s because parents and kids don’t want to do the legwork – I disagree. I’ve spoken with hundreds of families over the last couple years, and I could count on one hand the ones that wanted nothing to do with the process. Most families aren’t doing the legwork because they have no idea where to start. We are doing a terrible job educating them on how to expand their search for colleges beyond “This is what I want to major in, and I want to play volleyball”. As someone who chose their first college because “I was good at math, and I wanted to make money”, I understand why 17-18 year old’s do it: It was easy! It’s also the reason so many students transfer after their first year.
I spend 1-2 meetings with my families, and they can take control from there. Here are the basics for a good strategy when looking for a school:
Step 1: REALLY think about what you want both on and off the court – build your ‘Dream School’
There are so many athletes that start emailing coaches, but if I ask them basic questions such as “Why do you want to play volleyball in college?” and “What are your Individual/Team Goals for your college experience?” they have no idea. Before even looking at schools, an athlete should REALLY think about why they’re going to college. They won’t always have answers, but we want to at least get the gears turning. Here are some questions I ask:
  • Do you know what you want to major in? (If not, what are some things that might interest you?)
  • Does geographic location matter?
  • Does class size matter to you? (As someone that went from a class size of 20 to 200, that was a huge culture shock to me)
  • Do you have financial restrictions? (Some families have a # in mind – always good to consider)
  • Are there any other interests/extracurricular activities/clubs that you’d like to participate in?
  • If you had the choice between starting on a single-digit win team or being a reserve on a team competing for a conference/national championship, which would you take?
  • What are some attributes of coaches you really liked? What are some attributes of coaches you haven’t seen eye-to-eye with?
  • What is your personal philosophy as an athlete? What do you hope to bring to the table for your program? What do you want your program to do for you?
  • What student-athlete balance are you hoping to achieve?
No two kids are completely alike in what they want their college experience to be, and that’s OK. The more they specify what they want, the more comfortable they’ll be with finding the right fit.
Step 2: Use that information to make a list of schools that meet those needs
The college search process can be overwhelming, but it’s never been easier to locate information and make an educated decision. Some websites I always point people to are below:
http://www.collegedata.com – they have a great search engine that allows you to really be specific on what you’re looking for, and the data it gives back on schools is extensive. This information can be helpful when comparing schools.
http://www.thecollegesolution.com – Lynn O’Shaughnessy has written a blog with an incredible amount of information for parents/students. There are hundreds of entries neatly broken down into various topics (Parents typically perk up when hearing about the money section). This website is a great resource for people that feel overwhelmed trying to interpret all the data they’re receiving from colleges.
http://www.ncaa.org/about/who-we-are/search-school – The NCAA has a nice google map with links to both the main/athletic pages of all their participants. This can be broken down into 3 categories: Division, State, and Sport. Many of my athletes have a specific geographic area they’re looking at, and this can be coupled nicely with the collegedata search to ensure they’re getting both academic and athletic information.
Step 3: Create an email that puts your best foot forward!
The majority of emails sent by athletes to coaches don’t give any information that actually sets them apart from the rest. “Hi, I’m <name>, I play <position> for <school/club> and graduate in <year>. I’d like to learn more about your program, I look forward to your reply!” isn’t going to grab a coach’s attention. Here are some tips:
  • Make sure to put an attribute that makes you a unique prospect. It can be athletic (6’3 male outside hitter with an 11’2 jump touch) or academic (3.9 GPA with a 27 ACT score). Stating you were the team captain or accolades like all-conference would work as well!
  • Take some time to look at the school’s website, find something you like, and explain why the school appeals to you aside from volleyball. An example: “I am interested in pursuing a major in engineering and was impressed that U.S. News and World Report deemed <school> to have one of the best engineering programs in the country.”
  • Talk about yourself off the court – what do you do when you’re not playing volleyball? Are you involved in any type of community service? What separates you from every other athlete that is emailing the coach?
  • Ask a few questions about the school/program. What are you looking for in a player? Who is the head of the <major> department? How would I go about the application process?
Remember: Recruits are a time investment for coaches, and time is extremely valuable. The more you can show that you’re potentially a good fit for the program, the better chance that the coach will invest time in you. Make the email count!
Other various tips:
  • Diversify the pool of schools you look at. If you have only a little interest in a school, reach out to them and see what comes from it. Don’t say no to Division III without ever seeing a Division III match. If a friend gives you a positive/negative review of a school, take it into consideration but visit yourself and make your own conclusion. Remember: Every athlete has different wants and needs. Who knows, your dream school may be one you’ve never heard of!
  • Be persistent: Coaches are busy. If they don’t respond to your first email within a week and you’re very interested, email the assistant saying you realize they’re busy but wanted to reiterate your interest.
  • Give yourself options: Too often once a coach emails back, a student-athlete begins solely to focus on that school. If things don’t work out, they end up back at square one. Keep looking at other schools as you talk with a coach: They’ll be looking at other recruits as well!
  • Ask questions “interviewing” the school. I always encourage athletes to contact the head of their major’s department and ask about where their graduates typically find work, or if the school does anything to help place them. The more information you get, the better you’ll feel about your decision when you make it!
Remember: There are literally thousands of athletes that want the same thing you want. It’s time to stop relying on external parties for your future. Coaches want players that want to be there. Go get their attention! The tools are out there: Let’s empower the student-athlete. Set the bar higher than finding a school you CAN attend – find the school that will best prepare you for the real world and tell them why they would be lucky to have you.
Please contact me with questions/comments – I look forward to updating this blog with more information to help empower families with their search!