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College Recruiting Process: How Do Colleges Recruit Athletes?

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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

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:

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.

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:

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.

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.

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 by 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.

Read more about how verbal commitments and offers work.

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.

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:

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.

Meeting a college coach

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.

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.

When does the recruiting process begin?

The recruiting process varies depending on the sport and the level of competition, but it generally begins early in an athlete’s high school career. 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 reach out to college coaches with emails, video, transcripts, etc. as early as they’re ready to —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.

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:  

College recruiting timeline

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 prospects 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:

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:

College recruiting timeline for freshmen

While recruiting timelines are different across all sports and division levels, it’s never too early for athletic recruits to get a head start on the college recruiting process. However, this doesn’t mean student-athletes have to start contacting coaches or sending coaches their highlight or skills videos.

To set themselves up for a successful recruiting process, freshmen recruits should research different college programs and division levels, gather clips for their recruiting video and create an online recruiting profile to make it easier for college coaches to discover and evaluate their athletic and academic skills.  

Watch former D1 University of South Dakota football player Phill Wells break down what freshmen student-athletes should be doing to get a head start in their college recruiting in the video below.

College recruiting timeline for sophomores

By sophomore year of high school, recruits should be spending a few hours a week on their recruiting. This includes taking time to build out their recruiting profiles, create a target list of 30-40 schools they’re interested in, finalize and start sharing their recruiting videos and get comfortable with reaching out to college coaches on a regular basis.

Sophomore athletes who are serious about landing a roster spot should also complete recruiting questionnaires for schools they’re interested in and write strong, personalized emails to college coaches to showcase not only their athletic and academic skills, but also that they’ve done their research and are interested in learning more about the program to see if it’s the right fit for them.

In the video below, former D1 and D3 college coach Danny Koenig shares his tips for what student-athletes should be doing during their sophomore year—and how some college coaches are looking ahead and adding current high school sophomores to their list of prospective recruits.

College recruiting timeline for juniors

Junior year is an important year for college recruiting. Former D1 football player Phill Wells and D1 and D3 college coach Danny Koenig agree, saying this is the year when it’s “game on” for recruits.

While freshman and sophomore years were spent getting familiar with the recruiting process and laying the groundwork, junior year is go-time for recruiting. This is typically when student-athletes and college coaches interact with each other the most as NCAA recruiting rules now allow (most!) college coaches to connect with athletes directly. College coaches often let recruits know if there are open roster spots for their grad year, whether they’re actively recruiting for their position and if a recruit needs to improve athletically or academically to stay on their list of prospects.

For recruits who aren’t hearing from coaches, or who haven’t started the recruiting process, all hope is not lost! Thankfully, there’s still plenty of time to land a roster spot, though it’ll take some hard work and dedication to play catch-up! 

Check out the video below to hear Phill and Danny break down what student-athletes should be doing during their junior year no matter where they are in the process (or when they started!).

College recruiting timeline for seniors 

Senior year is the time when college coaches want to get athletes on campus for unofficial and official visits. Coaches want to ask prospective recruits questions (and vice versa) to learn more about them and gauge their interest in their program.

Visits are a great way to see if a school is the right fit—from attending a class, meeting with admissions officers and hanging out with the team or attending a practice or game, recruits should be prepared to narrow down their focus to a few schools and get closer to making a verbal commitment or officially signing their National Letter of Intent.

Seniors who are just starting their recruiting process or haven’t been hearing back from college coaches need to work hard—and fast—to secure a roster spot. While it’s not too late to get recruited, some college rosters, like those at the D1 and D2 levels, tend to fill up earlier in the year, so recruits need to be prepared to expand their target lists to include schools across all division levels.

In the video below, NCSA’s recruiting experts Phill Wells and Danny Koenig offer their tips for senior student-athletes who are close to making their college decision—and share their advice for seniors who still need some time to explore available opportunities and connect with college coaches before making their commitment.

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.

The recruiting process and reasons to start vs. wait

No athlete’s recruiting process looks the same. While some athletes verbally commit as young as 7th grade, others wait until their seniors to find last-minute opportunities. Because there’s no true start to the recruiting process, we’ve broken down the reasons why your student-athlete should start the recruiting process, and reasons why they just might want to wait, based on grad year.

Freshman year: Why start the recruiting process?

It’s no secret that top programs recruit early, so if a student-athlete can and wants to compete at a Division 1 school, they need to start the recruiting process early. If an athlete falls into one of these categories as a freshman, they will likely gain recruiting interest earlier than most recruits:

Once an athlete begins receiving general recruiting materials, they should begin filling out questionnaires, looping in their high school or club coach and emailing college coaches at schools they are interested in attending.

Freshman year: Why wait?

Athletes grow and develop a lot between freshman and senior year, and some are simply not ready to start the recruiting process this early. While coaches are definitely looking for potential when they evaluate prospects, some athletes are late bloomers. In these cases, athletes will have more success in their recruiting journey if they wait and give themselves time to improve before reaching out to college coaches. 

It also might be too early for your athlete to start their recruiting if they haven’t thought through what kind of college experience they want and if they are truly committed to the goal of becoming a college student-athlete.

Sophomore year: Why start the recruiting process?

Athletes who spent their freshman year researching colleges are well positioned to take the next step and talk to coaches. While many Division 1 programs have solidified their recruiting classes by this point, it’s possible to find a few D1 programs with roster openings. Athletes should consider their options at the Division 2 level, which recruits heavily during sophomore year, or start building relationships with Division 3 and NAIA coaches. This is also a great time to plan unofficial visits as a way to meet coaches and see campuses in person.

Sophomore year: Why wait?

It’s okay to wait a little bit longer if the athlete feels they can improve in one or more areas to improve their recruiting opportunities. For example, maybe an athlete is struggling in the classroom and a boost in their GPA would help them qualify for colleges on their target list. Or maybe they suffered an injury and more recovery time will lead to a much stronger highlight video. 

If an athlete hasn’t yet taken the time to closely research colleges and is unsure of whether they want to take on a serious commitment like this, it’s best to begin. discussing their options with family, a high school or club coach or a current college-athlete, to understand what it’s like to compete at the next level.

Junior year: Why start the recruiting process?

If an athlete hasn’t started the recruiting process by this point, they’re losing out on roster spot opportunities. Junior year is when college coaches across all division levels can begin contacting recruits. Coaches can begin sending and responding to emails, texts and social media messages, as they build a relationship with recruits and their families. 

Plus, this is the year most student-athletes are ready to play in front of college coaches and get ranked nationally at showcases and camps. As athletes begin to fine-tune their list of top college, junior year is a good time to plan unofficial visits and official visits. 

Junior year: Why wait?

The only reason to hold back at this point is if an athlete’s ACT or SAT score is holding them back, or if they don’t meet their target schools’ admission requirements. Luckily, data shows that more than half of students who retake the ACT earn a higher score. 

But this doesn’t mean athlete’s shouldn’t continue building relationships with college coaches. While the athlete is working to improve their academics, it’s important to keep coaches in the loop on their progress and continue to show interest in the program. It might also be a good time to revisit the athlete’s list of schools and focus on connecting with the coaching staff at their safety schools, where admission isn’t a concern.

Senior year: Why start the recruiting process?

While senior year isn’t too late to start the recruiting process, athletes need to be proactive. This means bypassing the introductory email process and going straight to calling college coaches directly to get on their radar. At this point, athletes should focus on Division 3 schools along with NAIA, and NCCAA programs that will likely still have scholarship opportunities available. Another strategy athletes can use is following their favorite programs on Twitter to look out for any recruits who de-commit from a program.

NCSA works with college coaches across the country to match unsigned seniors with programs that still have roster availability. Learn more about how we help unsigned seniors.

Senior year: Why wait?

When it comes to senior year, every month counts. Rosters are mostly full by this point and putting off recruiting means fewer opportunities available. But after four years of competing in high school, some student-athletes still don’t know if they want to continue competing at the college level. Some athletes may realize that they want a more traditional college experience or time to focus on academics — or they’ve been accepted into their dream school, but they can’t compete there. For athletes who make this decision late in the recruiting process, they can speak to the coaching staff about possibly walking on to a team

Insider Tip: There are a lot of myths when it comes to the recruiting process. Check out our article debunking the most common recruiting myths.

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:

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, NCCAA, 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.

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.

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 2023:

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