College Admissions Decoded

How College Admissions Are Different for Student Athletes

Episode Summary

How College Admissions Are Different for Student Athletes

Episode Notes

The admissions process is different for college athletes. What do they, and their families, need to know?  When should they get started on their college preparation?  And what should they watch out for in the recruiting process?  

Guests: Jennifer “JT” Thomas, who coached at the Division-I collegiate level, Bill Morrison, a college counselor and coach at Highland Park High School in Illinois, and Scott Verzyl, vice president for enrollment management and dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of South Carolina. Moderated by NACAC member Eddie Pickett, a college counselor and dean at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, California.

Episode Transcription

Eddie Pickett: Hello, new and old friends, and welcome to the College Admissions Decoded podcasts, an occasional series in the national association for college admission counseling, or NACAC. NACAC is an association of more than 25,000 professionals at high schools, colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations, as well as independent counselors who support and advise students and families through the college admission process.

I'm your host, Eddie Pickett. I'm a longtime NACAC member and a college counselor and Dean at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, California. In today's episode, we're talking about a topic near and dear to my heart, student athletes and college admissions. What do athletes and their families need to know? When should you get started with your college application process and what should you watch out for in the recruiting process?

Playing college sports demands, focus, but getting the college does too. I'm joined today by three NACAC members and experts in the field of college admissions. All have many years of experience in guiding student athletes on their path to college. They are JT Thomas who has coached at a division one collegiate level. She uses her expertise to guide student athletes and athletic clubs through the chaotic college recruiting process.

JT Thomas: Thanks, glad to be here.

Pickett: Bill Morrison, the college counselor and coach at Highland park high school in Illinois, which regular sends student athletes to competitive college programs. And he's a wide receivers coach like myself.

Bill Morrison: Yes, I am. Thank you very much for having me Eddie.

Pickett: And last but not least Scott Verzyl with that sexy Southern draw, the vice president and enrollment management and Dean of undergraduate admissions at university of South Carolina, a division one school. Scott is also the father of a competitive college diver.

Scott Verzyl: Thanks Eddie. I'm glad to be here with you today.

Pickett: Thank you for joining. I got to say, so my wife is from upstate South Carolina, and so in my house we root for the Cal bears and the Clemson tigers. Hey Scott, go tigers.

Verzyl: It's never too late to change Eddie.

Pickett: For those of you who don't know, there is a rivalry between Clemson tigers and the USC university of South Carolina. What do you guys call it again?

Verzyl: We're the Gamecocks.

Pickett: Oh yeah. Those things. Yeah. I thank you all for joining me today and let's get started. I think the first question is just a reality check. So students and their parents don't always understand how difficult it is to be admitted to college, the student athlete, and to play college sports. Can you enlighten us a little bit and we're going to pass that down to Bill first.

Morrison: The reality check, so to speak as you put it... I think it's a good way to put it is that people see the news stories of the high level division one kid who's being recruited by everybody and has all this love. And for him, actually, the process is not very difficult. Like he has a bunch of offers. A lot of people interested in, he gets to choose where he wants to go. But for the vast, vast, vast majority of student athletes, that's not how it works. The process is much more of a match with student and a specific institution, both athletically, academically, admissions wise, financially, all these different things come into play. And it becomes more of a two prong kind of thing as you go into the process because you're not only looking for college, but you're looking for college with the athletics piece and it just gives you extra work.

So like I said, I think when families get into it, they start to understand a little bit more how much more complicated it can be. And sometimes often struggle with the unknowns of the process because it's not just, I want this, they got to also want me. So there's a lot of things that are up in the air throughout the process. I'm sure Scott can say, as we were talking about earlier, a lot of things that are up in the air, so you've got to really get your hands around as much as you possibly can.

Verzyl: Yeah, exactly. Bill. I think a lot of people think that being a strong athlete is a golden ticket to admission to any school you want to attend. And that's just not the case. It's much more nuanced than that for most student athletes. And it helps to be a strong as well as a strong athlete. It opens the most doors for students.

Thomas: 2% of high school athletes are going to get that scholarship, that athlete that Bill was just talking about. And that's what all these athletes aspire to. And it's 2%, that's a low number. In my sport, which is women's soccer, when I coached at Cal, 7.6% of high school female soccer players will play NCAA soccer. Those numbers are low, the kids going into it, they just see the bling, they see the bling and they don't know how hard it's going to be to really make it happen and get to the next level.

Verzyl: And of those 7.2% that play. Not all of them are getting a full scholarship, either.

Thomas: Not in women's soccer. 

Pickett: Many of them are not.

Thomas: I know you guys are headcount sport guys, but Olympic sport athletes. Yeah. A lot of those girls are just coming in for the support of the application to get into Cal.

Pickett: Picking up on something that Bill said, not everybody gets discovered only a small number actually get discovered by coaches. And oftentimes students are putting themselves on the radar of the college coaches. So what do they need to do to get the ball rolling?

Morrison: I would say for me, the simplest way is for students to start putting an athletic resume together list of their accomplishments, along with maybe an email that access a cover letter, so to speak and depending on who you are and what your goals are for your athletics, I'll have students do anything from go shotgun effect and send that to 50 or 60 schools to maybe just, identify eight or 10 schools that they're really interested in participating athletics at and focus on just those schools and sign them to there. So I think that's a really good way at the very beginning of the process. And then from there and maybe JT can talk a little bit more about this, depending on what your sport is, there's different ways that you get identified through maybe certain camps or tournaments or club teams and things like that.

Thomas: I always tell my players that you have to work as hard at this process of getting yourself seen and exposed to coaches or identified to college coaches as you do at developing your game. And if you're not willing to put equal time into the process, I mean, unless you're that unicorn that 2% of athletes that are like every coach in the country wants. The rest of us, the 98%, you need to work really hard. Bill's exactly right, you start by shooting out the emails, shooting out your video, filling out questionnaires online, all this busy work.

And if you can't manage that, it doesn't matter how good you are, unless you're in the 2%. It's a full-time job. Summers, ID camps, showcases, combines all of that. You have to get out in front of coaches as often as possible and the right coaches, right? The right fit schools for you. If your grades are too low, you shouldn't be looking at these schools. So you have to really match yourself up, fit wise, just like we tell our students in college counseling, but the athletic piece becomes a huge component of fit also.

Pickett: I want to pick up on that. So there's two things, you said, both the academic piece, but also the recruiting process. And so we'll start the recruiting process. Then we'll get to the academics. If you're a student athlete who really wants to play at the college level, when do you start? Where do you start? How do you start?

Morrison: So football tends to be more like juniorish maybe like sophomore, if you're that kind of kid, but anything earlier than that unless you're that 2% man child, they haven't seen you grown up yet. And so a lot of coaches will want to see what you look like summer or between junior and senior year, where in other sports a really good hockey player, baseball player could get a freshman year offer because the guy doesn't care how big he's going to be. I think a lot of it too is when the season is, so spring sports, those kids will usually be wrapped up by sophomore to junior year, where if you're a fall sport, it could last a little longer up their senior year like football. So I think that's a piece of it as well.

Thomas: And let's talk about my people on the women's side, the girls are going early in high school and the NCAA, bless their hearts, slowed the process down. So now you cannot commit until after June 15th of your sophomore year. Now in women's soccer, volleyball, softball girls prior to this rule change were committing in eighth grade. And they haven't even been to high school yet. And guess who had the highest rate of transfer in the college game? Women's soccer. Okay. So clearly they didn't look at all the factors and they were committing too early in the NCAA slowed it down which has been fantastic, but the top women's soccer players are getting looked at in ninth and 10th grade. And it's a body thing too. A lot of us have already matured where you don't have to wait until junior, senior year on many of us. So they're going a little earlier than the guys.

Pickett: How much does student athletes be concerned about academics, getting good grades and taking challenging courses during their high school experience?

Verzyl: Yeah, I think that academics are critical in the process and students often think, well, my athletic abilities are going to carry the day and it does to a degree. But if you don't have the academic preparation for the schools and you're not competitive for admission academically to the schools, you're interested in, it's going to make it that much harder for that coach to recruit the student. Also point out that there are a lot of schools that give out merit money for academics, just like they do athletic aid. And a lot of coaches rely on that merit aid. So they want to see a strong student that is getting an academic scholarship because then they don't have to commit as much athletic aid to the students. So it benefits them. They also know the student's going to do well academically. They not have to worry about that student athlete struggling in the classroom. So understanding what the academic requirements are, it's critical to the process, don't overlook it.

Morrison: And I think it just gives you the largest pool of schools potentially to be recruited by and selected from. Pat Fitzgerald, the head coach at Northwestern is a friend of mine. And he will tell you that at any given year in the ESPN top 300, he can't recruit two thirds of them. He just... They're not going to be able to get into Northwestern. So just having those grades just put you in the best position possible to get recruited by as many and make a decision.

Pickett: There's the minimum eligibility requirements that the NCAA has. And as you look at that, you're like, "Oh, interesting." What academic standards does the school have? And I tell my student athletes and so I work at a high school, about 380 kids, and there's about 90 kids per class. We send 10 athletes every year. Most of them, D3 and a couple D1 each year. But I was telling them like, that's the bare minimum. If you did the bare minimum in your sport, would you be getting recruited? So why are you going to do the bare minimum in the classroom? It makes no sense. And then they have this, Ah-ha moment.

Thomas: I feel like this process has always been hard COVID and test optional and all these things have just made it a little bit harder. So now students can get the NCAA has allowed student athletes, one extra year of eligibility. If they played less than 50% of their season during COVID. Coaches in college, don't know their roster sizes, they don't know who's graduating. I just talked to a coach last night and she said, we still don't know this year what seniors are actually going to graduate and what seniors are going to take their COVID season.

So how do you recruit with that? So a lot of the rosters are massive right now. And a lot of the coaches are gun shy and bring in too many players because they won't have the money or the roster room for them. So on top of everything else, getting good grades and being the best you can be. Now, these student athletes have another hurdle to jump. Fortunately, they're all really competitive for the most part and grinders and they have grit and all that. So they're willing to do it, but it... the process has gotten harder in the past couple years.

Pickett: Can you talk a little more about that? Because as many colleges are declaring themselves testing optional and they don't require the SAT. So are you still telling your student athletes to the testing in?

Verzyl: I recommend students take the test. You don't have to send the test in until you apply for admission. So take the test, see how you do, if it strengthens your application then use it. If it doesn't, then you can apply test optional on about 90% of the schools in the country that are going to be test optional this year, except for Florida and Georgia, everybody else. It gives you an opportunity to present one more piece of information that strengthens your application.

Thomas: And on top of that, the NCAA went test optional for the past two years, we're assuming they're going to keep going test optional or not like, that's the question?

Morrison: Well as the member of the NCAA high school review committee on this, right. They still see efficacy.

Pickett: We're also throwing out a lot of acronyms. So the NCAA, the NC2A, different divisions, can we describe what the different divisions are, how they go athletically and scholarship wise as well. And anything else in the eligibility center would be helpful too, just for clarity.

Thomas: So this podcast is two hours long, because we could do that.

Morrison: Right we could just spend two hours of the hierarchy on the NCAA, right?

Verzyl: The largest conference is the NCAA, the national collegiate athletic association and it has three divisions. Division one division two and division three. Division one schools tend to be the most... It's the largest division and also tends to be the most intense in terms of expectations from an athletic performance level. So the division one is the top and there's merit money that comes for those student athletes. In most cases at the division, one level is probably the most highly regulated division of the NCAA. Then there's division two, which has a little more student sport balance student life sport life balance is in that division. It's a little less maybe competitive athletically in the big sports like football. And then you have division three. And the thing about division three is that those student athletes do not have... they do not receive any kind of scholarship money to compete.

Thomas: D3 is... the more I learn about it, the balance seems like a cool thing.

Verzyl: That's right. So that's the NCAA.

Pickett: Then you also have the junior colleges and community colleges as well and in California's community college and depending on what state you're in some offer scholarships and some don't. So I'd really have to check on your state's regulations.

Thomas: And I'd say, just check on the success of your specific sport at that junior college and how often does that coach get his or her athletes out to for your programs? That's what you want to do, because they're very sport specific, especially in California.

Morrison: Yeah. And like you said, state regulations too, even within conferences, you can only have a certain amount of out-of-state kids on the roster, things like that. There's all kinds of funky things that can happen at the JUCO level.

Pickett: And now we're sitting here, we're... I'm a student athlete, I'm ready to begin this process. And I have all these questions running through my mind. So can we talk a little bit about this student's college search process? How many colleges should they consider? What features are they looking for? And just the idea of fit for that student.

Thomas: Okay. So they're looking at way more colleges, but they're looking at the same factors, but just adding athletics in significantly. You need to look at cost and size and location and class size and school vibe. And what are the people like? What's the area like all that goes into consideration with the athletics and the team and the coach. And how far do you want to go away? A lot of kids don't want to travel that far and you don't know that till the end of the process and you have them going across the country on official visits and they come back and they're like, "It's too far. My parents will never see me play." You look at the same factors, but you just have to add the athletic piece in, which is why I agree with Bill. A normal college list may have 15 schools on it. An athlete's list is going to have 20 to 40. The soccer players I work with. We start early sophomore year with about 40 schools in varying levels, divisions, conferences, so that they have something at the end. You just want to throw out a huge net.

Verzyl: I think my daughter started with about 25 schools and she made a notebook and a page for each school and she wrote down the coach and she wrote the contact information and she kept track. Have I contacted the coach? When did I contact? When did I send the email, all these kinds of details, what they're looking for, what they need on their roster. Because if you're... Let's say you're a volleyball player and you're a setter, that's a very specific position in volleyball. And if you want to go to this school, but they've got three setters and two of them are freshmen and are on the bench.

They may not be interested in you because they don't need your position. A thing you have to know too is when coaches can talk to students, because sometimes you may send a note to a coach and they don't answer you and you can't figure out why. And it might be because it's the dead period when they're not allowed to talk. So knowing some of that helps too in the recruiting process because students might write, they don't respond. Well that means they're not interested in me. Doesn't necessarily mean they're not interested. It just might mean they can't talk to you right now.

Morrison: And just so everybody knows that. So when we were talking about dead periods here, there are just basically designated times when coaches can communicate with student athletes and their families. Not only in person, but on phone, by email, there's all different kinds of rules and dead periods for each individual sport. So if you're wondering about those contact times, you can always visit and they list them all out there for you.

Pickett: They're also in the handbook, the guide to the college-bound student athlete. I would highly recommend everybody look in that because all the pieces that you need for the process are all in the handbook.

Morrison: And NACAC also produced a nice little brief called getting into the game. It's on the NACAC website and it's free. Download it, take a look at it.

Thomas: Google NCAA membership map. And then you hit view map and literally a map comes up. I'm just such a visual kinesthetic person. And all the states will come up and it will have all the sports D1 blue, green, and orange and boom, it will come up. And if you only want to be in Carolina or Illinois or wherever, you can just Google your state or your sport.

Pickett: As we sit and you know, hear different terms, I've heard this term, the broken leg rule, college admissions officers sometimes have it. What is that?

Thomas: It's a very specific rule and you should counsel your athletes. I call it the broken leg test. If you have a career ending injury, you do something where you are a... sometimes it's a concussion now. So we can do the concussion test or a broken leg or ACL. And you're not going to be able to go back to the field. Are you happy? Are you happy at your school? As you're looking at these universities and colleges and coaches and programs and teams and everything else, school vibe, like we were talking about academic fit, are you happy there? And if you're not, you should really rethink your choice.

Pickett: Just one other topic that I've heard often is just a letter of intent. What is the letter of intent? What should students consider when signing it and who won't be signing a letter of intent too?

Morrison: Yeah. So this is something that often people get confused about. A national letter of intent is a document that totally solely ties you to scholarship money at a division one or division two institution where there is scholarship money being offered. You will often hear that kids are signing, quote unquote air quotes, letters of intent at a division three school here or there or whatever it might be. And those aren't an official letter of intent, that is just a student putting something down on paper and signing it to make everybody in the room feel happy that they got to sign something.

Pickett: All the warm and fuzzies, right?

Morrison: All the warm... If everybody gets a participation trophy kind of thing, it's totally completely tied to a division one or two scholarship in a revenue generating sport.

Verzyl: I want to make a distinction between committing to a school and signing a letter of intent. And what offers are? Students will say I've been offered a scholarship if I come and sometimes coaches are offering these scholarships to students in the eighth grade and the ninth grade. It's not a real offer until it's in writing. And until it's in a national letter of intent, that's when it becomes a real offer of scholarship money, commitment from the school, you can commit to a school and when say, I'm going to accept it if the offer's made, but you're not really committed until you sign that letter of intent.

And what you're committing to as Bill said is you're committing to attending at least one year at that institution to receive that scholarship money. If you don't attend, then you can't receive scholarship money from another NCAA division one or division two institution for that year. And you have to sit out a year basically and you lose a year of eligibility. So it's a big commitment to make when you sign that letter of intent. But it guarantees that the school is going to honor that offer and give you that money. And sometimes letters of intent now are for four years, and it's not just one year of scholarship money. It can be for all four years.

Pickett: So I just want to repeat for the student athletes listening to this podcast, if you sign a letter of intent and then you go to a different school, you're going to lose one year of eligibility. Is that correct?

Morrison: Yes.

Verzyl: Yeah, that's correct.

Thomas: Additionally, because a lot of the girls and women are committing so early June 15th of your sophomore year, the 2% are committing. It's a gentleman's or a gentle woman's agreement with the coach that you're going to come for this amount of scholarship. So your whole junior year until November of your senior year, when you actually sign the legal document saying that you're committed, it's just the good word of the coach and the family agrees. So that is a distinction that people really need to know about. And I often say you just have a backup in your mind because something could happen. There could be a coaching change. A lot of schools do honor the commitment, but things happen or you don't get into the school.

Pickett: There's two of you that are parents as well. What advice would you give to parents for this process?

Thomas: Take a big breath.

Verzyl: That's right. It's a stressful time. It's stressful for the student. Parents want to push. I know that we tried to push my daughter. You have to know your child and what they need to support them through the process, but it is stressful and the rules don't make sense. And it all works out in the end, even though the process itself is stressful.

Thomas: Make sure your student athlete throws out a big net. Don't just focus on that one dream school, because that's when I see things go just the wrong direction and it gets really sad. So be open at the beginning of the process, look at a bunch of different schools and really encourage them to get out and check out different... check out D3. I have 10 athletes at D3 schools all over the country. I'm trying to visit them and see their games. And they're having a blast.

Morrison: I think from my perspective, I actually have kids currently in high school who will be going through this? Yeah.

Thomas: Goodluck.

Morrison: I got a junior and a freshman. Yeah. Is to just know that there's going to be so much stuff about this process that you cannot control. So you just control what you can control and you can't worry about the rest of it. And just keep that for both students and parents, like I said, for parents even more so, because students a lot of times are just in the middle of it and they're not even thinking about it where parents are at home biting their nails, wondering when this final decision's going to be made, it can be tough. And like Scott said, it'll work out in the end.

Thomas: And that's excellent coaching advice, coach, I might say. The other thing is make sure your kid gets enough sleep and food and water and really support them that way, because they just need the extra boost I found that was key is making sure he slept.

Verzyl: Make sure they have an open mind, the students and the parents, because what you think you want from a school may be very different from where you end up from my own daughter's experience. The school that she ended up attending her initial thought if you had asked her a year prior was I'll go anywhere but there. And that's the place she ended up. And dad said, I told you so.

Pickett: Did you say it in those actual words? Or did you give her a hint? Yeah, I'm going to slide this onto the table. I told you so.

Morrison: He had t-shirts made.

Pickett: And then to the prospective student athletes, what advice would you give to them?

Morrison: Yeah. So the number one advice I give to all students and it goes along the lines of what we've been talking about here with having options. Is this the idea of not saying no to anything until you say yes to something. So as you get into this process, keep your mind as open as possible. And then as you start to evaluate the different options you might have, you might decide, "Okay, I'm now ready to say no." So it might be that I'm interested in playing my sport, but only at the division one level.

Morrison: And that's the kind of school I'm interested in. So if I'm not going to be able to play division one baseball at University of Illinois, I'm going to just go to University of Illinois on my own and play in the club team or something like that. Or you might say no baseball is a real priority for me. So I'm going to play at the best school I can play at. So maybe the, yes that I'm saying to is some division three schools that I know really like me. So now I can start saying no to some others, because I have something in my pocket that I feel good about where I'm at. So pushing that all the time.

Thomas: I absolutely love that quote. And I'm going to add to it is a former college coach perspective in division one specifically. The student athlete cannot lose sight of their love and joy for playing the game.

Pickett: Say that again.

Thomas: It's the joy and the love. Remember being six and playing your sport. Like you still need that inside you to play your game at the college level because you will be sacrificing in division one specifically, but in all the divisions, a normal college life to pursue your sport, you will not do certain things that your friends do and you need to be not okay with that. You need to be good with that. You need to love it. Like you used to love it. We'd run across athletes. Where I coached in the scholarship was the goal for so long for these kids and their family to get the scholarship that once they got it, some of them fell off and they had forgotten why they were playing.

Verzyl: Yeah. My advice would be like JT said, the scholarship's not the goal it's getting to college. It's getting a college degree. It's having that four year experience that you have to plan for. And so don't lose sight of that. It is going to be a different life than what a normal student has, but you also want to be a student. We've talked about the percentage of high school athletes that make it to the collegiate level. But then you have to also look at the number of collegiate athletes that become professional and it drops even further off from there. So they're going to graduate. What's the line? They're going to go pro in something besides athletics. That's true. And so these student athletes are athletes and they do it for the love of the game, but they also are students and they need to get that degree.

Pickett: I'm afraid. That's all the time we have today. Many thanks to JT Thomas, Bill Morrison and Scott Verzyl with that sexy Southern drawl for the informative and fun conversation today. And thanks to our audience for joining us for this episode.

College Admissions Decoded is a podcast from NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling. It is produced by LWC. Kojin Tashiro produced this episode. If you would like to learn more about NACAC's guests, our organization, and the college admissions process, visit our website at, or spelled out Please leave a review and rate us on Apple Podcasts. See you next time on College Admissions Decoded.

CITATION: National Association for College Admission Counseling. “How College Admissions Are Different for Student Athletes” NACAC College Admissions Decoded, National Association for College Admissions Counseling, December 8, 2021.