Helping Your Runner Choose the Right College Doesn’t Have to Be Hard, Follow these Steps

Deciding whether or not to go to college is a big decision for any high schooler. This decision become even more complex if you factor in athletics, and add that as another criteria on your school’s must-have list.

This post is a high level look at the process for choosing the right college for continuing a student-athlete’s running career while, more importantly, achieving their academic ambitions.

Going into their junior year, the student-athlete should have college at least on their radar. Maybe they visited some schools over the summer, maybe they did not. Either way, no decisions have been made, and their options are still very open.

Creating the initial list of colleges

The first step to finding the right school for your student-athlete is to create a broad list of schools based on 3 key factors:

  1. Academic interests
  2. Regional considerations
  3. Running competition level

Some of these may be more difficult to pinpoint than others, but the important thing here is to create a list of 10-15 schools that meet certain criteria, and then you can narrow down from there.

1. Academic interests

The number one, top priority consideration is the academic environment and whether this is a good fit for your student-athlete. Even if they join a cross country/track program, academics will still take up the majority of their time during their college experience. It is important to find a school that will allow your student athlete to pursue their interests off the track, both classroom and extracurricular.

2. Regional considerations

Some kids are home bodies, others can’t wait to get away from home and explore the world. This is probably the most limiting factor in a student-athlete’s decision, will they stay within a certain radius of home, or will they go to the opposite coast? Once you’ve had this discussion, they should have a pretty good idea what schools will fall within the boundaries (or lack thereof).

3. Running competition level

This is important for obvious reasons. Is your student a solid performer who would do well by a division 2 or 3 school. Or are they a standout that has aspirations of competing against the best in the nation at the Division 1 level. This is usually determined by whether or not they are being actively recruited by coaches. If a coach at a D1 school thinks your student-athlete is on par with the caliber of runner they normally recruit, than he or she will most likely receive a letter in their Junior year from that coach, notifying them of their interest.

Likewise, if a coach of a D2 or D3 school thinks your student-athlete is a good fit, they will also make contact in their junior or senior year.

This is not to say that if you don’t receive a letter or other form of communication, you have no chance of running for that program, especially at the D2 and D3 level, they usually will allow you to train with the team for a trial period and let you prove yourself worthy of a spot. Even at the D1 level they often accept walk-ons who fall just outside their recruiting standards, but show potential, and prove themselves in some sort of trial.

This is an important conversation to have with your student-athlete, if their ambitions are to go to an Ivy League school for academics, but they’re middle of the pack in terms of running performance, then it’s probably best to focus on maximizing the academic potential, and sacrificing the running. Most schools have a running club that enters races etc, where this student-athlete might be more competitive.

On the other hand, if your student-athlete is one of the top performers in your area and has aspirations of running for a D1 program, yet their grades are not stellar, they should probably set their sights on schools slightly above what they might be able to get into on academic merit alone.

Usually the coaches of these programs, especially if you’re an active recruit, have some influence in the admissions process. It helps if you show a clear commitment to them early in the process, then they are far more likely to advocate for you internally.

The other consideration for a student athlete who’s heavily recruited by D1 programs is whether their temperament is best suited for this competitive of an environment. These programs are very demanding, and the level of team competition can be extreme depending on the coach and the culture of the program.

I’ve seen several runners in my day who may have been better suited for a D2 or D3 program, where they could have excelled and competed on a national level, instead of being stifled by inter-team competition and constant battling for top spots at a D1 program. Some standout runners thrive on being top dog, and the second they aren’t for any period of time, they start to lose interest. Knowing your student-athlete, and them knowing themselves and the type of environment they would perform at their best is crucial.

The key is to temper their expectations accordingly, and find that academic/athletic balance that best fits your student-athlete’s future ambitions.

At this stage your student-athlete should have a relatively well thought out list of schools to start working through.

Narrowing down the list colleges

Now comes the hard part. Once you have the list of schools for consideration, you have to start crossing schools off and further reducing this list of 15 or so down to about 5. Some people go in with the “blanket apply” mentality, where they will just apply to 10-15 schools and that’s their form of narrowing down their options. I find this method a bit impersonal, your student-athlete should seriously consider each of these options, and based on information gathering missions, like a campus tour or an official visit for those athletes being recruited, they should narrow their options that way.

At the end of the day, you want your student-athlete to absolutely own their decision, and be super excited to go wherever they end up, not just attend because that’s where they got accepted and it met most of their criteria.

So instead of stopping at 10-15 schools and applying to all. Why not narrow it down to 5 based on their experience there. Take your student to the campus, go on an official campus tour, but better yet, if you know someone who attends the school, ask them to meet you and tour you around. Usually the scripted tours are far less interesting than the informal ones.

This is the true value of the official visit as well for the recruited athlete. They get to spend 2-3 days on campus, living the student life, seeing it from the first person perspective, and the athlete gets the added benefit of actually hanging out with their potential future teammates, which starts the bonding process, and also eases tensions (both of the athlete and the parent) about them entering college. They already have a support network built in and people they’ve met and are familiar with.

Even if your student-athlete is not a recruited runner, many schools still offer a similar experience to this, with student hosts taking prospects in and showing them the first person perspective of the college experience. Check with your schools to see if this is an option.

Honing in on the top choice

So they’ve narrowed the list to a select few schools, they’ve made sure to leave in some that are a shoo-in, and others that are a little more of a stretch. However, all the schools on this list should be potentials, not on there because they are either easy to get in to, or the best D1 program that recruited them. Based on the above experiences, the student-athlete should be confident in the decisions he or she has made regarding their top 3-5 schools.

Out the final remaining on the list, there certainly is a top choice, whether it’s because of it’s academic reputation, or athletic success, or (even better) because your student-athlete really connected with the campus, community, team members, it doesn’t matter, as long as there is one that stands apart. There’s risk in accepting that there is a top choice, but there are things you can do to improve your chances of acceptance. Some high school seniors are fortunate to know in mid-fall which school is their number 1, and as a result can apply for early admission. This is offered by many schools, and it shows a level of commitment on the part of the student-athlete.

If the student-athlete is recruited, they may have to sign a letter of intent, and oftentimes the school will issue a similar document (prior to official acceptance from admissions) as their formal commitment to the student.

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