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The College Application Process for Student-Athletes

High school athletes college application

The college application process for athletes can seem overwhelming. With so much to think about and accomplish—from putting together your athletic profile to attending events and making sure the right coaches see you play—it’s easy to forget the fact that you actually have to apply to college. If you’re not organized and miss important deadlines, there’s no real safety net. It’s up to you to manage your time wisely so you can sign on the dotted line and begin your college athletic career.

How does the college application process work?

Each college’s admissions process is different. In addition to the applicants’ academics, extracurriculars, application essays and recommendation letters, admissions counselors also need to consider the college’s unique factors like enrollment projections, student body diversity, faculty and recruitment goals.

The application goes through an evaluation process to eliminate applicants who have not met the minimum institutional requirements. Applications that move forward then go to the committee, where admissions counselors read applications and determine who gets accepted. 

Students who are clearly a good fit for the school will get accepted, but other applicants who need more review may go through several rounds of evaluation. College admissions officers want to know if you’re a well-rounded individual who can help the college reach its admissions and retention goals.

College application process steps 

There are seven main steps to the college application process for student-athletes.

  1. Register for and take the ACT or SAT
  2. Register with the NCAA Eligibility Center (for D1 and D2) and/or the NAIA Eligibility Center
  3. Fill out and send college applications
  4. Fill out and submit FAFSA paperwork
  5. Request your final amateurism certification
  6. Send your final proof of graduation to the Eligibility Center(s)
  7. Sign your acceptance letter

Download NCSA’s College Application Process Checklist >

ACT and SAT registration and test dates 

Student-athletes enrolling in a D1 or D2 college program are no longer required to take a standardized test to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. Eligibility will only be calculated based on NCAA core course GPA and the core course requirements. However, many colleges still require ACT or SAT scores to be admitted and to be considered for academic scholarships.   

You can view 2023-24 ACT/SAT registration and test dates here

Insider tip: When it comes to studying for standardized tests, the more you learn about the tests, and the earlier you practice them, the better prepared you’ll be when test day comes. Learn test-taking strategies, time management skills and the types of questions frequently asked on the ACT and SAT with our partner, Method Learning

Do recruited athletes have to apply to college?

If you have already been recruited, you may be wondering, do recruited athletes have to apply to college? The answer is yes. Recruited student-athletes must submit a college application to the school that recruited them. 

Some decide not to apply to a college until after they have taken an official campus visit. Others have already applied, been accepted and received a scholarship offer when they go on their official visit. Either way, it’s important to let the recruiting coach know once you’ve applied so they can be on the lookout for your application.

When do you apply for college?

The most popular time for students to apply to college is in the fall of their senior year of high school. Admissions experts say that, generally, a student should begin the application process by the start of their senior year of high school. Some colleges may have different deadlines, but most applications for regular fall admissions are due by January.

College application tips

By the time you’re ready to apply to college—usually the summer before your senior year—you should have your target list of schools narrowed down. You can apply to as many colleges as you’d like, but keep in mind that there are application fees involved and filling out the forms can be time-consuming. Every college has different deadlines for its admissions process, so make sure you have a method for organizing those important dates. A good practice is to create a spreadsheet or calendar to stay on top of the various timelines.

Insider tip: Student-athletes should consider using the Common Application, which allows you to send multiple schools the same application information at once. It’s a huge time-saver.

You have three application choices:

Each of these options has different deadlines. Most student-athletes decide to apply as part of the regular decision, so they have more time to make a final decision on the program they are most interested in or get their test scores up.

When are college applications due?

College applications for regular admission are due January 1. Some deadlines can vary based on the college or type of application. Early decision and early action applications are due November 1 and November 15.

Early decision applications are usually due around November 1 of your senior year, while most regular decision applications aren’t due until January 1

College application deadlines

The table below lists the most common college application deadlines for various application options, such as early action and regular decision.

Application DeadlineApplication Due DateAdmission Decision
Early Action November 1, November 15December
Early DecisionNovember 1, November 15December
Regular DecisionJanuary 1, January 15March
Rolling AdmissionVariesUsually within 4-6 weeks

Are Ivy League or Top-50 colleges on your target list? offers 1-on-1 guidance from admissions experts to strengthen your college applications and boost your chances of admission.

Early action vs. Early decision

Early action and early decision applications are important when applying to college. They can make it easier to get accepted early, but you need to plan ahead and know which college you want to go to. The big difference is that early decision means you have to go to that college if they accept you, while early action is more flexible and just gives you an early answer about your acceptance.

For more on the topic, check out this video featuring D3 Kalamazoo College swim coach Jay Daniels and former D1 and D3 swim coach Danny Koenig. 

Can you apply to multiple schools early action? 

Most schools allow you to apply early in one of two ways: early decision or early action. Since early action is non-binding, meaning you are not required to attend if you are accepted, you can apply to multiple schools from your target list. An advantage of early action over early decision is the opportunity to compare financial aid packages from those colleges to make the best decision for you. 

Should you apply early decision? 

Applying early decision can save you money, reduce stress, increase your chances of acceptance and provide more time for planning. It’s especially appealing for student-athletes who’ve found their ideal college athletically, academically, socially and financially.

Early decision may not be the right choice for you if:

What’s the Common Application?

The Common Application (also known as the Common App) is a form that student-athletes fill out with general information like academic history, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and an essay, which can be sent to various participating colleges and universities. It allows students to apply to multiple colleges and universities simultaneously by filling out a single application. While the Common App is free to use, every college charges its own application processing fee.

How to write a college application essay

Since courses, grades, and standardized test scores are set factors in the application process, a student-athlete’s personal essay is an opening to tell their story, display their interests, talents and motivations. When writing a college essay, student-athletes want to write something that stands out from the large stacks of essays college admissions professionals read. 

The tips below will help student-athletes prepare and write an essay that might land them in their dream college.

Understanding the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®)

While a full-ride scholarship to the school of your dreams is what every student-athlete wants, the reality is that only 2 percent of high school athletes are awarded athletic scholarships, and an even smaller percentage of that receive full rides. And there are no athletic scholarships at the D3 school level. Luckily, all students are eligible for financial aid to supplement scholarship dollars.

To receive financial aid, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Students (FAFSA®).

If you miss the college or state deadline for FAFSAÒ, you are not likely to receive much financial aid, if any. If you miss the federal deadline, you’re out of luck for that year. However, you can submit for the following year. To learn more about the state and federal deadlines, you can visit our financial aid guide for student-athletes.

NCAA Amateurism Certificate

Starting April 1 of your senior year, you must request your final amateurism certificate if you plan to play in a D1 or D2 institution in the fall.

If you’re enrolling in the Winter/Spring, you can request your final amateurism certificate starting October 1. To be eligible to compete and receive a scholarship with the NCAA, you have to meet certain requirements. You have likely already registered with the NCAA Eligibility Center during your junior year, but you must update the information in your senior year in order to become certified and cleared to play at the college level.

Final transcripts and proof of graduation

After you graduate high school, you must prove to the NCAA that you’ve done so. The best way is to have transcripts sent to the NCAA Eligibility Center with your graduation date included. If you can’t provide a transcript with the graduation date included, an administrator at your high school can sign a proof of graduation and fax it to the Eligibility Center.

Tell the coach when you’ve applied

One of the most common mistakes student-athletes make in the application process is not letting the coach know when they’re applying to the school. If an athlete applies and doesn’t get in, there’s nothing they—or the coach—can do about it. But if the coach knows that an athlete submitted their application, they may be able to flag it with the admissions office. Of course, an athlete’s test scores, GPA and application need to stand on their own, but coaches will want to know when top recruits have applied to their school.

If the athlete doesn’t have a relationship established with the coaching staff, they should still let them know when the application was submitted. It may remind the coach to take a second glance at the athlete’s recruiting profile and video. For many coaches, deciphering whether a recruit is seriously interested in their program or not can be a challenge, so communicating about your application to the college may give you a competitive edge over other recruits.

The role of college coaches in the admissions process

College coaches can serve as both an aid and a barrier in a recruit’s college admissions process. Below is a list of the main ways college coaches get involved:

  1. “Walk your application through”: College coaches usually have some sort of input on recruits being admitted, depending on the college, the sport and the influence of the coach in question. This process is often referred to as “walking your application through,” but even the most powerful coaches have a limited influence with admissions. In most cases, coaches are going to reserve this power for elite recruits. With that said, a college coach only has so much influence and recruits trying to get admitted to a strong academic school that don’t have the required grades would be a lot more difficult.
  2. Secure financial aid: Access to additional aid is important for many student-athletes, especially those playing in equivalency sports with smaller athletic scholarship budgets and Division 3 programs that don’t offer athletic scholarships. College coaches can coordinate with their college to line up financial assistance for recruits, including academic scholarships, need-based aid and other forms of financial help. 
  3. Dismiss unqualified recruits: If a college coach sees that an athlete may not meet the academic or athletic standards to gain admission on their own, then coaches may not even bother recruiting them. When building a list of prospective schools, athletes should have a good understanding of whether or not they meet the requirements to be admitted and if it’s realistic to add the school to their list.

Acceptance letter

Nothing is official until you receive an acceptance letter. And, even then, if you don’t formally accept, you haven’t made it quite yet. Each school has its own deadline for when you must accept, so make sure you note that when you receive your letter. If you don’t let them know you intend to come, they will offer your spot up to someone else. You’ve done all the hard work, so it’s time to make it official.

What if a coach recruits me after the application deadline?

Several coaches—especially at the D3 and NAIA levels—recruit student-athletes well into their senior year. Some student-athletes may find themselves in a position where the college coach is actively recruiting them, but the application deadline has passed. Fear not, there’s still a chance the coach may be able to override the deadline if their roster spots aren’t filled.

“Coaches would be calling you in the spring of your senior year knowing that they’ll more than likely be able to still get your application in, if you’re interested in their school,” says Julian Beckwith, Recruiting Coach at NCSA College Recruiting.

So, if an athlete is being recruited by a coach at a school they haven’t applied to, they should be up front and let them know. If the coach is genuinely interested in the athlete, they may be able to still get the athlete’s application in.