College Admissions Guide for Student-Athletes

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College Admissions for Student-Athletes

Understanding the NCAA’s college application requirements is crucial to the admissions process for prospective student athletes. The applicant must complete core requirements, register with the NCAA Eligibility Center, and work with their coaches to guarantee the best possible athletic opportunity. It is also important to understand the nature of each available opportunity – whether the student is being recruited, treated as a preferred walk-on, or is a traditional walk-on – and the implications of the university’s NCAA division. There are significant differences between Division I, II, and III schools, which are generally of the university’s level of athletic involvement and prowess.

Recruited Athletes

A recruited athlete is an athlete who is asked to join a university sports team on an athletic scholarship. The athlete and their parents work with the coach of that team to ensure that the student meets the appropriate academic benchmarks to gain admittance to the university. Why would this type of athlete need Ivy Scholars’ help? Ivy Scholars can improve a recruited student athlete’s experience in a number of domains:

1. Improving test scores to meet benchmarks
2. Offering evaluation of application strength
3. General application guidance

Even recruited athletes can face stiff competition, given that they are often pitted against similarly high-level athletes. When there are two athletes with roughly equivalent abilities, the athlete with the better grades, test scores, and overall well-roundedness will receive the final offer.

Preferred Walk-On Athletes

Universities do not work with an unlimited number of scholarships and often have to make difficult decisions regarding who to award scholarship money to. When coaches do not have adequate scholarship money to offer athletes they view as desirable, the athlete is often given a slight admissions boost and remains eligible to earn a scholarship in the years to come. As with recruited athletes, preferred walk-ons with stronger applicant profiles are more likely to be accepted to their intended university.

Walk-On Athletes

Walk-on athletes apply to universities regularly, with no coach involvement. Once they begin their freshman year, they attend an open tryout where they are athletically evaluated. The coach then decides whether to extend the student an offer to play for the team.

For athletes who want to continue with their sport above all else, joining a club or intramural team is another viable option.

NCAA Divisions

NCAA divisions are based on school size, athletic budget, and the number of scholarships available. These divisions allow for fair competition amongst different-sized schools with variable expendable resources. Scholarships can vary widely by sport. For example, a D1 school can offer a maximum of 85 scholarships for football, and a minimum of 4.5 scholarships for golf. These numbers typically reflect the school’s degree of involvement in a given sport as well as the amount of revenue that specific sport generates for the school.
These universities have the largest student populations, the biggest budgets, and the most available scholarships. Over 165,000 students are D1 student athletes. All of the major sports conferences (SEC, Big 10, Pacific-12, and ACC) are D1. Ivy League schools are also D1, but do not offer athletic scholarships.
These smaller universities, both public and private, usually have less than 10,000 students. All scholarships are equivalency scholarships, meaning that the total amount of available scholarship dollars is divided among athletes more evenly. Most athletes receive a partial scholarship, rather than a few select athletes receiving a full scholarship. While scholarship amounts vary, very few D-II athletes receive full scholarships. Approximately 110,000 students around the country are D2 student athletes.
With 195,000 students, 446 universities, and 44 conferences, D3 is the largest division. At D3 institutions, student athletes comprise roughly 25% of the student body. While D3 athletes are not eligible for athletic scholarships, 75% of D3 athletes receive some kind of non-athletic scholarship. D3 athletes also have a 5% higher graduation rate than other student athletes.

More About Divisions

No matter which division you participate in, being a student-athlete has long-term post-graduation perks. Student-athletes tend to be more respected in the competitive job market, given that they have demonstrated a strong commitment to both their academics and their sport. Graduates of athletic programs also have a specific alumni network that is generally more involved than the larger alumni network of the entire school.

Student-Athlete Admissions FAQ

Is it easier for athletes to get into college?

While some believe that athletes have huge college admissions advantages, it isn’t always that simple. As an athlete, your admissions chances will depend on the divisions of your schools of interest, your athletic desirability, and of course your academics and other extracurricular activities. If you are a recruited athlete, your university may have lower academic expectations for you relative to the rest of their student body. While these expectations will be easier to meet, each university also has minimum academic expectations that all athletes that must meet.

The power of university coaches in advocating for athletes can vary widely across institutions. The only criteria that must be universally met are set by the NCAA, and these rules and regulations are specific to each division.

What is the college application process for athletes? Do they have to apply?

Whether an athlete is recruited or not, the application itself remains the same. Once their application is submitted, the athlete will notify the coach, and the athletic department will tell admissions to flag the application to make sure the student is considered for a position on the team as well as an athletic scholarship. It should be noted that being an athlete is less influential in admissions decisions at many upper-tier schools than at other institutions.

What are the best sports for Ivy League admissions?

Specialized sports that are not offered at many high schools like crew, fencing, and pole vaulting are typically the strongest at Ivy League schools. To fill their rosters for these less popular sports, many colleges recruit internationally. If you are a successful student who plays one of these high-demand sports, your application may have special weight if coaches identify you as a desirable admit. While these sports are all frequently in need of athletes, each Ivy or peer institution has different priorities. While Harvard may most highly value crew athletes, Dartmouth might be in search of champion pole vaulters. It is helpful to familiarize yourself with the success and relative importance of your sport to a specific school to fully understand how your student athlete status may impact your candidacy.

When and how should a student-athlete start engaging with schools they are interested in?

In a perfect world, by the end of their freshman year, an athlete will have begun to think about universities they are interested in, toured campuses of interest, and possibly met a few coaches. While coaches are prohibited by the NCAA from reaching out to student-athletes until their junior year, high school athletes can contact and meet with coaches as long as communication is initiated by the student.

Depending on the sport, high-demand athletes can be unofficially recruited starting in eighth grade. This may sound excessive, but the earlier a student begins thinking about college, the more opportunities they will have to engage with interested coaches. Even if you are still a few years out from applying to college, putting yourself on a coach’s radar at a college of interest is always a good idea.

Is a coach required to stand by a verbal offer?

The truth of the matter is that much of the college athletics world goes on behind the scenes. Athlete trades, changing scholarship amounts, and newly announced admission requirements may be entirely out of the student athlete’s purview. While coaches do have the power to change their mind about a recruit, the student athlete also has the power to change their mind about an offer as long as they have not signed a National Letter of Intent (NLI). Once a student signs an NLI, the offer becomes official, and the terms are set.

Every year on the third Wednesday in February, student-athletes begin to receive and sign NLIs for their intended college. NLIs are only signed by D1 and D2 athletes due to the possibility of financial gain associated with their contracts. These contracts are valid for one year and prohibit any other school from contacting the athlete once he or she has signed an NLI. Nonetheless, athletes are sometimes contacted by other universities and may change their decision if and when this is approved by the original university.


The enormity of variables that student-athletes and families of athletes need to consider can be overwhelming. One way to organize that chaos is by working with a team of seasoned Ivy Scholars mentors who can help guide student athletes through each step of the college application process. From getting the attention of a university to building the best possible application materials, we are experts on what needs to be done, and how to do it well. We are excited to offer student athletes assistance as they pursue their passion and academic future at the collegiate level.

Ivy Scholars Athlete Success Story

Nika Filippov

Graduation Year: 2020

Hometown: Houston, Texas

Professional Aspirations: Mechanical Engineer or Manager

GPA and SAT Score: 4.0 GPA; 33 ACT; 1440 SAT

Extracurricular Activities: Fencing, robotics, women’s empowerment initiative, NHS, school magazine, and debate

The Result

After working with Sasha, Charly, and Mateo, Nika achieved a test score increase and was admitted to Columbia University.

Nika’s experience with Ivy Scholars in her own words:

“This process – from the day I first met with Ivy scholars in 10th grade to reminiscing with my mentors today as I graduate high school – has been a whirlwind of progress and self realization. I knew nothing about the college application process before starting with Ivy Scholars and never dreamed I would be accepted to an Ivy. I was a good student with all As and participated in a few extracurricular activities, but I lacked vision for my future and doubted my abilities nonetheless. 

Two years after starting with Ivy Scholars, I got into my #1 dream school: Columbia University. I was over the moon with excitement and couldn’t help but run circles around the house while I called every family member in my contact list. However, I also felt my acceptance was well earned because I had developed a new set of skills, including self confidence, great time management and organization, a compelling writing style, and an open mind to the world’s opportunities. Ivy Scholars taught me more about myself than I ever expected and through the process I made valuable connections with my mentors, whom I now consider my friends. Whether it was math review for the SAT or editing application essays, my mentors pushed me to my full potential while supporting me. The greatest impact they had on me was helping me realize that the only thing holding me back from success was my own vision for myself, and they helped me set my goals higher than I ever believed achievable.”