For some kids, sports are their lifeblood. They love the competition, the physical challenge, the adulation, and the euphoria of winning. For them, the thought of giving that all up just because they're headed off to college is unthinkable, so the "sports culture" of schools may be one of their top priorities when they decide where they want to attend.
Whether they just want to play or they want to pursue athletic scholarships (or both), simply knowing that your child intends to compete at the college level will help you find a college as the college selection process progresses.
Sports in college: benefits and choices
Athletic talent can come in handy during application time, as student athletes can reap many benefits in college. Your child might get a break in the admission process and instantly become part of a tight-knit group that gets to travel, meet lots of people, and stay in shape. If your child is a particularly extraordinary athlete, he or she may be able to obtain partial or full sports scholarships as well.
However, if sports matter when it comes to choosing a school, it may actually complicate things during the process.
Big differences: research college information
By the time young athletes reach the college-exploration stage, most realize that there is a big difference between landing a spot on a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I team and landing one on a Division III squad. (Division II falls, predictably, somewhere in the middle.) The likelihood of your child being recruited or selected for a team varies not only from division to division, but also from conference to conference, school to school, and sport to sport. The more competitive the sport, the harder it will be to get recruited.
Given that variable, if your child's top pick for a sports college has both the athletics and the academics desired, but recruitment doesn't happen, you may be presented with a hard choice. Your child may be accepted on academic record alone, but if he or she really wants to go to that school, the dream of participating on a school team may have to go.
Athletic scholarships aren't a given
Not all Division I and II institutions award athletic scholarships, even though they may be allowed to do so if they choose. For instance, Ivy League schools sponsor Division I athletic programs but provide no funds for athletes without demonstrated financial need. A Division III sports college isn't even a consideration as far as potential sports scholarships -- the Division III schools aren't allowed to offer any aid based on athletic ability.
If your child is talented enough to play at any level or even qualify for an athletic scholarship, there are still decisions to be made when you try to find a college, and information is key. Would your child be happier as a perpetual practice player at a Division I school or as a four-year starter in Division III? You both have to keep in mind that your child is a student first and an athlete second, even if there's hope of being recruited straight out of college and into the pros (although that doesn't happen for most people.) Ultimately, education is what usually secures a student's future, not the NFL or the NBA.
Find a college that appeals to a large number of the student's interests
There are many talented high school athletes who hope to continue their favorite sports in college, but most of them won't be signing letters of intent or collecting athletic scholarship offers. In the end, your child may need to opt happily for club, intramural, or spectator sports in college, especially if he or she is really a more typical athlete, rather than a star. A realistic assessment of your child's talent should help decide if seeking recruitment is worthwhile or just an added part of the application process which may bring few, if any, results.
If you do decide that pursuing athletics in college is necessary, start preparing early. Seeking athletic recruitment and sports scholarships is an additional process that ties in closely with the rest of the application process.
Also, make sure your child chooses schools based on more than just their athletic interests. If the coaches don't come knocking at your door, at least you can rest easy knowing that your son or daughter will be applying to schools that appeal to their other interests as well -- and provide a good education.