As athletes enter the later years of middle school, they often start preparing for the recruiting process and looking ahead to high school. While some parents are worried about SAT scores and whether their children will stick to their meal plans, parents of student athletes have significantly more stress. Will your youth athlete continue their sport throughout college? If so, will it come with any scholarship benefits?
And how soon is too soon to start going on visits and meeting with recruiters?
It’s impossible to answer all of these questions in one go, but students can start learning about official visits long before they actually attend one. Here’s what you need to know about college official visits for athletes and when you should expect them.
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NCAA Rules Around Official Visits Are Strict
Even if coaches are approaching you at practice or during camps, you’re not allowed to attend an official visit until at least junior year of high school. The NCAA sets strict rules for these visits, and coaches aren’t willing to risk the penalties for breaking them — no matter how impressive your athletic skills are.
These rules change annually, with new guidelines for visits, coach interactions, and even communication on social media channels like Twitter. By following NCAA changes now and over the next few years, you can take advantage of them and prepare to make the most of your visits.
For example, the team at Recruiting Realities reports that football recruits can’t take an official visit until their first day of senior year. However, basketball official visits can start in junior year. This completely changes the high school timeline for parents of basketball players.
Know Your Official Visit Limits
By the time you start making official visits, you should have an idea about what kind of university you want to attend. These visits are limited, which means you could be wasting your time meeting with coaches that you have no desire to play for.
The team at College Xpress explains the official NCAA policy on official visits so recruits can plan their visits accordingly:
- You can only visit a college on an official visit once.
- You only have five total visits to all Division I schools.
- An unlimited number of official visits may be made to Division II schools.
- Unofficial visits — where travel, lodging, and meal expenses are paid for by you and your family — are also unlimited.
Experts recommend taking as many Division II school visits as possible to get an idea of what is common at universities and what sets some apart from others.
Remember, unofficial visits are unlimited. During your freshman and sophomore years of high school, travel to some of the schools you hope to play for or want to attend. This will give you a plan for accepting your top five official visits.
Direct Your Efforts to Your Top Choices
These rules limit recruits for a reason. By narrowing your top choices to five Division I schools, you can concentrate your efforts on building relationships with these coaches. While you might email dozens of coaches during your middle and early high-school years, you should have a smaller list by junior year.
“It's a misconception that student-athletes have little control over where they can attend college,” Tom Kovic says. “With an honest evaluation of their academic and athletic abilities and goals, and a careful analysis of colleges that may meet their needs, prospects can effectively direct the college recruiting process and close in on a college where they can thrive.”
This is the value of planning for your senior year as early as seventh grade. Recruits can structure their efforts for the best results, instead of waiting for colleges to approach them and hoping they end up somewhere they like.
Research and Unofficial Visits Can Prepare You for Official Visits
Visiting a team officially requires preparation. Before you visit, take time to get to know the college and learn as much as you can about the day-to-day life. This is another benefit to taking unofficial visits during your early high school career. You can get answers to your most basic questions and be better informed by the time you’re a senior. When you do attend the official visit, prepare a few questions for the coach to find out what it’s like playing at the school and on their team.
“Refrain from asking cliché questions that could be found by a simple Google search or visiting the university’s website,” Chelsea Eytel writes at the National Scouting Report. “For one, it comes off as lazy, which you don’t want a prospective coach to think about you. Secondly, it prepares you to ask the hard-hitting questions you need to know.”
Anyone can figure out how many dorms a university has or whether it offers your ideal major. Try to ask something that will actually provide insight into the school.
The good news is you don’t entirely have to come up with all of these questions yourself. The writers at Go See Campus have a few sample questions you can ask a coach to get an idea of what your life will look like at the school:
- What is the weekly time commitment the coach expects? This includes practice, workouts, and games.
- What role does the coach see you playing? This applies to your position as well as your short and long-term plans.
- What are the team rules for conduct outside of practice and games? Are there dietary restrictions, dress codes, or requirements on where you live?
Some programs have specific rules for student athletes that you won’t be able to learn about online. Even that particular coach could have a specific rule for their particular players. While your unofficial visits will help give you a feel for the college, your official visits should help you understand what team life is like.
Document Your Experiences and Compare Them to Other Colleges
As soon as coaches start talking to you at practice or as soon as you start emailing them about watching you play, create a guide to track the differences between universities. Whenever you attend a visit (unofficial or otherwise), review these answers and compare them to other universities. The team at IvyWise says making note of these details when they’re still fresh in your mind can help when it comes time to choose your final school.
“If you still have trouble picturing yourself at a school after visiting, then perhaps it doesn’t belong on your list,” they write.
It’s possible for your perception to change between an unofficial visit during your freshman year of high school and an official visit senior year. Documenting every step of the process can help you remember what you liked or didn’t like about a program.
Try to Simulate a College Experience
During an official visit, the school is paying for your transportation, lodging and meals. Many schools treat recruits like minor celebrities when they visit in an attempt to make campus life seem glamorous.
Depending on your sport, these visits might vary widely between colleges. Justin Berkman compared his recruiting visits between Illinois and Temple for NCAA men's gymnastics. The differences in funding and recruiting budgets meant one trip involved a hotel stay and official tour, while the other involved staying on the couch at the home of a team member. Perks, however, don’t always reflect campus life. At the end of the day, you need to choose the college that’s right for you athletically and academically, not the college with the biggest recruiting budget.
Meet With Academic Advisors and Professors
Berkman notes that his visit to Temple didn’t include a meeting with a guidance counselor, which set Illinois apart as the better choice. Remember, while you’re meeting with coaches to talk about your athletic time at the school, you will also need to compete academically.
Jessica Velasco encourages students to see the places that are important to them. If you plan to major in biology or engineering, tour the labs and meet with professors for that degree. Discuss the performance of athletes who juggle sports and classes to learn what your academic life will be like for you. This also shows your coaches that you’re dedicated to doing your best during the school year.
During an unofficial visit, set up meetings with admissions officers to discuss what they look for in athletic applicants and applicants for your major. The clubs or classes you join in your freshman year of high school can set you apart when you’re applying senior year.
Ask About Dorm Stays for Official Visits
Just because the school is offering a hotel doesn’t mean that’s the best idea for your college visit. Some colleges let recruits stay in dorms for the weekend to see what they’re like.
The team at SportsRecruits encourages players to try this option if available. It’ll give you an idea of the number of people you will share a room or bathroom with, the distance from the dorms to classes, and the quality of student housing. It’s a much more realistic experience than a hotel stay. Eating in the cafeteria and taking university transit will also help you decide whether the school is a good fit.
Remember, a flashy college visit with hotel stays and late-night parties isn’t a reflection of actual college life.
“They want you to come to their school and they laid out the red carpet for you,” T.J. Moe writes at Gridiron Now. “What happens when you realize that the fantasy weekend wasn’t reality and you chose the wrong school?” By opting for dorms over hotels and taking your meals with the team, you can enjoy the attention of getting recruited while realistically evaluating what life will be like on that campus for the next four years.
Talk to As Many People As Possible
During the time period leading up to an official visit, talk to as many people as possible to learn about the university. The college is likely to put their best representatives on display to encourage you to attend, which means it can help to meet with unbiased alumni who attended and played for the school.
Compare Experiences With Other Recruits
During your early high school years, talk to upperclassmen who receive official visits. Listen to their thoughts on the schools and programs.
“While you need to formulate your own opinion, talk to them and get their impressions of not only that team but other teams they have visited and what their impressions are,” the professionals at T2 Aquatics write. “While not all of them will choose this school, could you see yourself with them for four years?”
Also, they might notice something you didn’t that affects your decision about the team.
Push Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone
Introverted players might struggle to talk to other players and potential peers, but getting over this awkwardness can help you learn about the school.
“Talk to your host,” the team at CoachUp writes. “This sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many recruits just sit there and don’t say anything, and that’s almost more uncomfortable.”
Remember this any time you’re visiting a school or meeting with a coach or alumnus: If you don’t walk away with the answers you need then it was a waste of time.
Introduce Yourself on Any College Visit
Whenever you talk to a coach, you’re essentially going through a job interview. The coaches and staff want to see what you bring to the table in terms of performance and culture.
“Whether you already have an offer or hope for an offer, you are being evaluated from the moment you step foot on the campus,” the experts at Fullride write. “How you handle yourself with the coaches, staff, players and anybody else you interact with will be considered when choosing to extend an offer or honor the offer you have already received. They want to know if you will be a good fit.”
Failing to respect the coaches could make the staff rethink its plan to recruit you.
Get to Know Coaches, Trainers and Staff
One way you can stand out is by stepping up and introducing yourself to new people. Make sure you include your name, high school, town, and the position you would play at the school whenever you talk to someone in the program. If the person you meet has heard of you, this refresher will help them remember why they should care that you’re at the college.
Additionally, the team at Unigo encourages recruits to introduce any family members or guardians that you’re traveling with. This shows that you’re both courteous and professional.
Your Official Visit Can Lead to Scholarship Offers
The next four years will be filled with emails, meetings, and calls with coaches deciding whether they should pay for you to visit them. Many coaches only invite players (and pay their way) if they’re seriously interested in them.
“In my opinion, the majority (80% or greater) of official visits do end up with athletes having scholarship offers from that school,” the team at Recruiting-101 writes. “Schools are limited in the amount of official visitors that they can bring on campus. They would not be bringing in players who they feel cannot play so you really are among their top recruits.”
By taking steps today to get noticed by coaches and maximize your official visit experiences, you can make sure you end up at the right college to play and thrive academically.