College Update. The Sports Stuff.

M came up with her own college list. We didn’t say that she had to stay within a certain radius or insist that she apply to any specific school, and she’s not entirely sure what she wants to do as a grown-up, so it’s not like she needed someplace with, say, cello playing opportunities or an awesome medical research lab. She did her own research and I tried not to pry too much, but I know she paid attention to acceptance rates (if they were too high she’d dismiss the school as too easy) and graduation rates (too low and they were out) and she paid attention to things like campus diversity and internship opportunities (yes please) and Greek Life (not too much, thanks).

Sports made things interesting. She started out thinking that yes, she’d probably like to play Division III soccer. Coaches approached her about track, too, and she ever-so-briefly considered it as they talked about scholarship opportunities. But she set that aside because, sadly, a track scholarship would require way too much running. She actually doesn’t like running, which is too bad, since she can run pretty fast. M loves soccer. After some preliminary college visits, it became clearer that she was aiming for a small liberal arts college, so that reinforced her DIII soccer inclinations. Meanwhile, the colleges on her list that didn’t quite fit that mold started to lose their luster (Colorado College’s soccer team was DI and likely too competitive for her and Reed College doesn’t do varsity sports at all). The colleges that had a soccer team that was a likely good fit stayed on her dwindling list. Gradually we realized that figuring out the sports part was going to be important. And it was going to be its own project all by itself.

If you Google for information about playing sports in college, most of it is talking about how to play NCAA DI or DII sports, because those schools offer athletic scholarships. For those divisions, you have to register with the NCAA to ensure that you’ve met specific academic eligibility requirements, and there are rules about when coaches can contact athletes and how many official college visits (paid for by the college) you can make. Generally DI schools are bigger and more competitive than DII schools, but not necessarily.

For DIII schools, there are no athletic scholarships and the understanding is that athletes are focused on academics first. To go along with that, the recruiting process is not carefully monitored by the NCAA and can vary quite a bit from school to school. Depending on the quality and priorities of the school and the team, a DIII team could include very competitive athletes who could have played DI but chose to focus on their excellent academic pursuits or pretty good players with pretty good grades or great athletes who are welcomed in spite of their crappy grades at an academically easy school or even beginners who “walk on” to try outs for a team that doesn’t have enough experienced players. For M, the ideal was to find a school that would be academically challenging with a campus vibe that she liked, but also with a soccer coach who would want her to play and hopefully want her enough that she’d advocate for her admission and overall merit (not athletic) scholarships, and a team at least as good as she is, but not so much better than her that she’d never get off the bench. A bit of a tall order, really.

So how the heck did we figure that out? Well, there are definitely things we would have done differently if we had known better from the start. We would have started everything a little earlier, just because that would have been a little less stressful. The biggest surprise for us, though, was that we really needed a video.

The notion of parents creating a highlights video of their kid for colleges felt pretty gag-worthy when I first heard of it. We told ourselves that videos were for hyper-competitive sports parents trying to get their kids into top DI schools, and we blew the whole idea off. And then we realized that we could really use a freakin’ highlights video.

By early summer, M had a list of potential colleges, and she went to their websites and filled out their online recruiting forms. Questions on these forms include what position you play, your height and weight, the names and contact information for your school and/or club coaches, any honors you’ve received, and your GPA and test scores. Plus, you’re supposed to upload a transcript and a video. When M started filling these out, it was pretty damn discouraging to fill out form after form without being able to provide a video. If we’d been on the ball, we could have been taking videos over the last year or two so that we’d have clips of her most super-impressive moves readily available. Instead, M filled out several forms and even interacted with coaches who specifically requested video, and she didn’t have anything. We realized that we had to get our act into gear, pronto.

Lucky for us, M had played at a spring soccer showcase (not technically a tournament because there aren’t winners, but an event with multiple games designed to draw college coaches) that offers videotape service. We paid the hefty fee for the raw footage (for a much bigger price tag, you could purchase a personalized highlights reel and be done) and then we shared the video with some other parents, who pitched in some money. The footage was not terrific. It was actually so bad that we got a partial refund. For example, in one game, M scored a goal in the first two minutes, but the video operator didn’t start recording until the third minute. Still, at least we had something. Then, we’re very fortunate that Cute W is pretty good at video editing and knows soccer well, himself, so he was able to put highlights together, and he even spotlighted M so it was easier to find her in the shots.

The video absolutely helped, and coaches became much more interested in learning more. Is it entirely unfair that many kids may not have parents who have the cash, time, and skills to whip up a highlights reel? Yes, and it’s just another example of how sports are crazy.

It was interesting to see how the different colleges handled the process. In general, M would fill out an online profile, and then either a coach would email her, or she might send them a follow-up email, and then they’d set up a phone call, and then there would be a request for a bigger commitment of some kind, like an invitation for a campus visit, a camp or clinic, or a meeting at some regional tournament. But it varied quite a bit. For one of M’s safety schools, the coach immediately brought up specific amounts of merit aid M could expect to score. For a couple of her tougher schools, the coaches really didn’t want to proceed until she could produce an official transcript and test scores that proved she’d have a realistic chance of getting accepted by admissions. One coach required video of two uninterrupted halves from two different games, shot from above; another insisted on attendance at a clinic; and a few were sold entirely on the highlights video and her school record.

Through it all, M carried on all of the correspondence. I only spoke with one coach once, when travel plans were especially sticky. Altogether, she emailed, texted, and spoke with many coaches, and she got all sorts of random invitations along the way, but she ended up attending one college overnight camp, one full-day clinic, and two overnights with college teams. The overnight camp left her feeling pretty “meh,” and the full-day clinic was better, but she learned that the girls on the team didn’t all get along well, and the coach was not super-enthusiastic about M. That left the team overnights, and by the time she was headed out for these visits, it seemed likely that either of those schools could be The One. So more on those in the next college post.

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