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College Recruiting Process: How Do Colleges Recruit Athletes?

Impact of Coronavirus on College Recruiting: The NCAA has continued its suspension of all in-person recruiting through January 1; D2 and D3 levels have resumed their normal recruiting calendars. The NCAA also granted an extra year of eligibility to college seniors. In addition, due to the closure of college campuses, official and unofficial visits as well as college camps are on hold. NCSA will continue to provide updated information on our coronavirus resources section.

How does college recruiting work? For many families, the most difficult part of the recruiting process is understanding how colleges recruit, evaluate and show interest in student-athletes. To better explain the college recruiting process, let’s look at it from a coach's perspective.

The steps of the college recruiting process

College coaches generally follow specific steps through their collegiate athletic recruiting process. Knowing these steps will help potential recruits understand where they are in the recruiting process and what still needs to occur going forward. These steps include:

  1. Gather a list of prospective athletes
  2. Send out recruiting letters, questionnaires, and camp invites
  3. Conduct evaluations
  4. Extend verbal offers and scholarships
  5. Sign athletes

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Step 1: College coaches gather a list of prospective athletes who meet basic requirements

To start out, coaches need to gather a large group of recruits. They will identify recruits who meet basic criteria like height, weight, position, grad year, academics, location and more. To do so, college coaches will use the following tools and methods:

  • Recruiting media sites like Rivals.com or 247Sports
  • Third-party recruiting services like NCSA (we have the largest network of student-athlete recruiting profiles)
  • Recommendations from high school or club coaches
  • Emails and messages from recruits
  • Camps and showcases where they can see many potential recruits in one place

At this point in the college recruiting process, around 800 athletes may make it through the initial evaluation process at smaller programs, while nearly 8,000 prospects may make it to the next step at larger programs.

What this means for you: As a recruit, you need to look at the college recruiting process like a funnel, too. Start out with a list of programs that would be a good athletic, academic, financial and social fit for you, and then pare that list down based on your preferences and the interest of college coaches.

Consider attending camps and showcases held by coaches at schools you’re interested in. Create your free NCSA Recruiting Profile so college coaches can easily find your information online. And get your name in front of college coaches as much as possible through emails, social media and other ways to contact college coaches. Always include key pieces of information college coaches need to know to conduct their initial evaluation of you as a recruit, including your measurables and recruiting video.

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Learn more about how DI coaches find recruits.

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Step 2: College coaches send out recruiting letters, recruiting questionnaires and camp invites to prospects

The next step for most coaches is to begin sending out messages to a large group of athletes to get an idea of how many might be interested in their program. Athletes who pass the initial evaluation will likely receive one or more of the following:

  • Requests to complete a recruiting questionnaire
  • Invitations to a camp
  • General interest letters from the school

How do college athletic recruiting questionnaires work? They are forms with fields for basic information that coaches want to see about any potential recruit and are very common in college sports recruitment. After coaches send these communications, they will see who responds—and consider how genuinely interested each athlete sounds—and narrow their list of prospects down to between 500–3,000 athletes, depending on the size of the program.

What this means for you: Recruiting questionnaires, camp invites and general interest letters from a school may seem impersonal and not worthy of a follow-up. However, they do serve an important purpose. Respond to each coach with a personalized message, thanking them for the letter and letting them know you are interested in their program. Coaches are very good at spotting generic messages and mass emails.

At this point, many athletes want to know if a college coach is really interested and the answer is usually quite simple: If you've received mail (or an email) from the coach, they are most likely evaluating you as a recruit. It's in your best interest to quickly follow up to ensure you get to the next step in the recruiting process.

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Step 3: College coaches conduct in-depth athletic, academic and character evaluations of recruits

Where do college coaches evaluate athletes they are looking to recruit? At this stage in the college recruiting process, coaches really need to get to know recruits in order to create a ranked list of top prospects. This often means they will get in touch with athletes and start calling their high school and club coaches for an evaluation or recommendation. They may also travel to large tournaments or showcases where many of their recruits will be competing, or they will send athletes personalized invites to their own camps. Official and unofficial visits can also happen at this time, as coaches aim to create a solid list of top recruits.

Once this round of rigorous evaluations is complete, coaches will have a ranked list of about 20–300 athletes, depending on the sport and the division level.

What this means for you: Don’t wait for college coaches to start contacting you! Instead, take the initiative to show them why you deserve to make it to the next round of the college recruiting process. Send them updated athletic and academic stats and highlight videos with your best and most recent footage. Ask your high school and club coach to reach out to college coaches on your behalf. And let coaches know you’re coming to their school for an unofficial visit and that you’d like to arrange a time to meet with them while you’re there.

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Step 4: College coaches extend scholarship offers and lock down commitments

At this point, coaches will have a ranked list of their top prospects and will look to lock down commitments. How do college coaches make offers? As with every step of the college recruiting process, different coaches will approach this in different ways. For large programs at D1 or D2 schools, college coaches will have a list of nearly 200–300 athletes. Not all those athletes will be joining the team, but the coach will start by giving out offers to the recruits at the top of their list and then work their way down until they’ve filled all open roster spots. Coaches may still conduct on-campus visits at this step, so athletes should be prepared to answer if they get an offer.

When can college coaches make you an offer? That depends on the type of offer. Verbal offers—non-binding, handshake agreements between a recruit and a college coach—can happen at any time and age. However, one of the biggest problems with early offers is that both the recruit and the coach can back out of them at any time. For example, if an athlete was given a verbal scholarship offer their freshman year of high school, that offer can still be rescinded the athlete’s senior year of high school. This leaves the recruit in a tough spot if they haven’t been communicating with any other schools. Offers usually become official when the athlete signs their National Letter of Intent, which typically occurs their senior year of high school.

After all offers are made and accepted, a recruiting class can range from 2–30 athletes, depending on the sport and division level.

What this means for you: If you’ve made it to this point of the college recruiting process, you need to be ready to handle some tough conversations about scholarships, offers and financial aid. Talk with your family about narrowing down your target list of schools and make sure to identify the schools you’re prepared to commit to.

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Step 5: College coaches sign athletes and ensure academic eligibility

The last step for college coaches is ensuring that each recruit signs with their program and meets eligibility requirements. Here’s how the committing and signing timeline works in most cases:

  • The athlete verbally commits to the school.
  • The college coach extends an official offer.
  • The athlete signs the official offer.
  • The athlete continues to meet eligibility requirements by taking all the necessary core courses and receiving the required GPA in those courses.

Unfortunately, every year, there are athletes who have signed with a college but end their senior year ineligible to compete at the college level. This leaves both the athlete and the coach in a tough spot. The coach will need to go back to their list of top prospects and see if the athlete who ranked number two in that spot is still available, interested and academically eligible. The former recruit will likely need to compete for a year or two at a junior college to gain academic eligibility.

What this means for you: While it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of athletic recruiting and signing with a school, you still need to make sure that you stay academically eligible. If you’re concerned at all that you may not be able to meet the requirements, meet with your guidance counselor to go over what grades you need to meet in your core courses and strategize a way to get there.

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What does recruiting mean?

In college sports, “recruiting” basically refers to how college coaches fill the roster spots on their team with prospective student-athletes. Even though every college coach’s job depends on them winning, different coaches have different needs. Some coaches will need to find athletes with stronger grades and test scores than other coaches because their college is academically rigorous. Other coaches will need to fill their roster spots according to their current positional needs. In effect, recruiting is the process of finding prospects that will be a good fit for a coach’s team before they are extended an offer to play at the college level.

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What is the college recruiting process?

Many coaches begin the college recruiting process by contacting a large group of athletes that think would be a good fit for their program. For bigger programs, this number can be in the hundreds or even thousands. Through evaluations, reviewing highlight video and contact with recruits, they slowly start to whittle that number down until they've filled their open roster spots. In other words, the college recruiting process resembles a funnel, starting out with a large group of recruits and narrowing down to a select few. That’s why NCSA’s athletic recruiting services can help recruits at different stages of the process. Read on to learn the typical steps coaches will take to get to their final recruits.

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When does the recruiting process begin?

The recruiting process actually begins before a student-athlete has had any recruiting interaction with a college coach. Some sports, like track and field and cross country, tend to recruit closer to senior year of high school when coaches have a better idea of athletes’ development. Other sports, like women’s gymnastics, recruit closer to freshman or sophomore year of high school because athletes develop so quickly. Additionally, for most Division 1 and Division 2 sports, coaches can only start proactively reaching out to recruits June 15 after their sophomore year or September 1 of their junior year. But student-athletes can partake in early recruiting by reaching out to college coaches with emails, video, transcripts, etc.—college coaches just can’t respond until the rules say they can.

Even though some sports recruit earlier than others and there are recruiting rules that restrict activity, it’s never too early for student-athletes to research colleges, maintain their grades, update their recruiting video and prepare themselves to hit the ground running when they’re allowed to freely communicate with college coaches. Student-athletes should be ready to get recruited whenever an opportunity presents itself and not scramble to catch up with the rest of their class when recruiting activity is already happening.

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What do college coaches look for when recruiting?

College coaches have different needs for their rosters depending on the level of competition, open positions, academic requirements and more. Some may put more emphasis on certain categories than others, but these are usually what’s being considered:  

  • Athletic ability is usually the most important factor, even when college coaches won’t admit it. Their job is dependent on the team securing wins and finding success, so college coaches are absolutely looking for the best athletes that they can sign. But this is not the only factor they consider.
  • Academics are very important, too. Oftentimes, a college coach will have several recruits to choose from to fill a roster spot and when that happens, they are more likely to pick the one with stronger grades and test scores because they are less likely to experience academic problems in the future and lose their eligibility. At academically rigorous colleges, it can also be difficult for recruits to get admitted.
  • Character is more important than most athletes and families think. In fact, according to the 2019 NCSA State of Recruiting Report, 35% of college coaches said this is the most important factor when considering a recruit.
  • Location can also play a role in recruiting. Successful programs with big budgets may recruit all over the country and even internationally, but smaller programs may only have the resources to recruit from certain regions where they have relationships with high school coaches and can also cut down on travel expenses. In this case, recruits from a certain region can have a leg up in recruiting.

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College sports recruiting timeline

Different sports, division levels and programs deal with different recruiting timelines, but there are still some similarities across sports. This includes following the NCAA recruiting calendar, which outlines different recruiting dates that college coaches must adhere to. The expectation to know and follow these rules falls on college programs, but it still benefits prospect to know important dates so that they can be prepared for recruiting opportunities.

With that said, many athletes across a variety of sports do follow a standard recruiting timeline that breaks down certain activities for each academic year. This includes:

  • Freshman year: Research different division levels and learn differences in competition, understanding NCAA recruiting rules, knowing measurables for your sport (40-yard dash, vertical jump, etc.), etc.
  • Sophomore year: Building your athletic resume and NCSA Recruiting Profile, compiling highlight video, contacting college coaches at levels that can already recruit (D3, NAIA, junior college), etc.
  • Junior year: Focus on contacting college coaches, write letters, make calls, compile a target list of colleges, etc.
  • Senior year: Most offers are made by D1 college coaches junior year. For those that haven’t received an offer, continue to contact college coaches and be ready to target lower division levels.

This is by no means an exhaustive guide to the recruiting timeline. For more resources and guidance, reference these NCSA guides for staying ahead of the pack in recruiting:

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When should you start the recruiting process?

As mentioned previously, different sports and different division levels recruit the majority of their athletes in different periods. Top D1 prospects for women’s gymnastics or women’s volleyball will likely receive recruiting interest freshman year of high school or even earlier. Track and field athletes and swimmers will mostly be recruited closer to senior year. The important thing to know about starting the process is that the earlier you plan, the better prepared you will be to get recruited for college sports. Athletes can build their target list, research schools, attend camps, edit their recruiting video and use NCSA to get noticed before having contact with a college coach. In college recruiting, it is better to be ahead of the pack in order to receive recruiting interest while a coach still has open roster spots. It’s never too early to start.

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How the NCAA recruiting rules, recruiting calendar and recruiting periods impact this timeline

The NCAA recruiting calendar and related recruiting rules are meant to mandate the types of communication that athletes and college coaches can have, outline dates for specific communication and protect elite athletes from receiving an overwhelming amount of communication from college coaches. When these rules and periods are laid out for each sport, they create a recruiting calendar during which different periods allow certain types of recruiting activity. Here are the major periods:

  • Evaluation period: college coaches can watch an athlete in person or visit their school. Coaches are not allowed to have in-person contact with the athlete or their parents. During this time, student-athletes usually focus on the following:
    • Highlight and recruiting videos: Recruiting videos help potential recruits to get on the recruiting radar of college coaches. Coaches rarely start to seriously consider a recruit until they have evaluated their recruiting video.
    • Attending camps, showcases and tournaments: Evaluating recruiting videos is an important step for college coaches, but it is always preferable to see recruits compete in person. College coaches put a big emphasis on attending events for top recruits. 
    • School visits: It’s important for athletes to get a feel for the campus that they are hoping to attend and for college coaches to get a feel for athletes carry themselves. This is where school visits come in.
  • Contact period: communication between college coaches and athletes is allowed. This includes emails, texts, phone calls, direct messages and in-person contact. During this time, student-athletes usually focus on the following:
    • Emails: Often the first step in contacting college coaches is an email. Athletes should take time to craft a personalized message that doesn’t look like it is copied. What does it mean if a college coach emails you? There are different emails that coaches send and some may not seem personalized, but it is always important to respond in a timely manner because a college coach may be interested in you.
    • Phone calls: Calling college coaches us a great way to stand out from the crowd of recruits and establish a personal relationship with them. 
    • Texting: Texting college coaches is not as effecting as calling them, but it is becoming an increasingly common form of communication in college recruiting. 
    • Social media: College coaches will check out the social media profiles of athletes that they are interested in. Contacting coaches through social media is a good way to get on their radar.
    • Camp invites: A strong performance during a camp is one of the best ways to show college coaches that you deserve a roster spot, but not every camp invite is the same. What does it mean when a college coach invites you to a camp? Many coaches use camps to generate revenue for their program and divide invitees between campers and recruits that have a shot of making their roster. You’ll have to communicate with the coach to figure out if your camp invite is generic.
    • In-person visits: When a college coach takes time from their busy schedule to visit a recruit, they are expressing strong interest and trying to learn more about the recruit’s character and family. Visits are one of the last steps before being extended an offer.
  • Dead period: college coaches may not have any in-person contact with athletes or parents. Athletes and coaches can still communicate via emails, texts, phone calls and direct messages.
  • Quiet period: athletes can only have in-person communication with college coaches on their college campus. Athletes and coaches can still communicate via emails, texts, phone calls and direct messages.

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When do college coaches stop recruiting?

The obvious answer is that college coaches stop recruiting when they have filled their roster. But this depends on when they started recruiting and how long that takes. In general, because top athletes go to D1 programs, those schools start recruiting earlier and finish recruiting earlier than D2, D3, NAIA and junior college programs. Colleges at lower levels tend to recruit athletes that have been passed over by colleges at higher levels, so oftentimes colleges at the D3 level will be recruiting later than those at the D1 level.

As the college sports community deals with the impact of COVID-19, many college coaches are seeing their recruiting timeline extended to later dates. According to a recruiting survey of 600+ college coaches performed by NCSA, 21% of college coaches expect to be recruiting into late summer for the class of 2020 and 52% of coaches say COVID-19 is delaying their recruiting timeline for the class of 2021. 

Is it too late to get recruited senior year? For some sports and division levels the answer will be yes, but for others it will be no. Student-athletes can take advantage of NCSA services for unsigned seniors. But it’s most important to communicate with each coach individually about what their recruiting timeline looks like and when they expect to start and end recruiting.

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How NCSA helps coaches with college athletic recruiting

When recruiting for college sports, college coaches prefer to evaluate prospects in person at games and events such as camps, combines and tournaments. But they can only travel to so many places because of their location, schedule and budget. That’s where NCSA comes in. College coaches use NCSA to search the largest database of athletes and evaluate recruiting videos, measurables, references, experience, awards, transcripts and more. Here are some NCSA-related numbers as of 2019:

  • 90% of U.S. college athletic programs have had at least one NCSA athlete on their roster
  • 12,992,587 athlete follows by college coaches
  • 745,925 athlete searches by college coaches

What college coaches have to say about NCSA:

The information from NCSA has been awesome. It's user-friendly and very informative. We appreciate all your help."

– D1 Midwest Collegiate Conference football coach

Your service does an excellent job of matching student-athletes to our needs."

– D2 United States Collegiate Athletic Association women's soccer coach

We would have never been able to find [student-athlete's name removed] had it not been for your services. We are looking forward to getting him here next year and are excited to continue working with NCSA!"

– D1 Southwestern Athletic Conference baseball coach

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