This post is written for high school student athletes taking their sport to the next level in the NCAA. Whether it’s Division I star athlete, Division II walk-on, or Division III, the process of choosing a college can be extremely tough (especially for my girls at Kingwood, overwhelmed with so many great opportunities!). When you have coaches offering you scholarships, parents pushing you one way, and college admissions counselors laying out potential paths for you, remember: it’s important to make the right decision for you. I’m writing this as a transfer student athlete having moved in high school and now again in college, between running programs of a completely different caliber with varying opportunities and experiences.
After running at two different colleges in high school and two in college (both large-scale and small-scale programs, from unknown schools of just enough to run a team to schools with a whopping 40-80+ girls – some of the largest in the US), I’ve been fortunate to run for a few different programs and see what each has to offer.
I’m about to share questions to ask to coaches on your visit (or via a phone call, to save yourself the trip – but preferably a visit). It’s just as important that you ask yourself these questions as it is that you ask them to coaches. Because while they can draw up plans and visions for you as an athlete and counselors can lay out major/career paths, you will be the one to answer and fulfill them. It primarily comes down to this: Academics, Athletics, and everything else. If you’re succeeding and pushing yourself in academics and athletics, there won’t be much time for other things, but having fun is still crucial to your experience there (don’t forget that!).
In addition to specific questions, keep in mind the overall vibe from the coach, team, student body, and overall atmosphere. Even after the important questions are answered, it comes down to what school feels right for you. I may not have covered them all, but below are a few to get you rolling.
Questions to Ask the Coach:
Academics – the don’t forget “why you’re there” – I’m assuming most of these questions can be answered with a visit to the school’s website, but there are some that pertain more to the running program which are important to get answered.
- What is the overall team GPA?
- Are there any other girls/guys in my major? (study buddies!)
- How does scheduling classes work? What are your policies for missed practice due to class or what if I have a required class that interferes with practice?
- Are any of your athletes on academic scholarship? Would this be possible for me? (This is a really good idea if you can get academic, even if you already have partial athletic!)
- What academic support is available? Does your team have a full-time academic advisor and tutors available?
- Do you have required study hall hours? (Most NCAA schools do, at least for freshman year).
- How does the team find a balance between academics and athletics?
Athletics – the program – while these questions are designed to ask the coach, definitely meet the team if you can (and ask them some of these, as well).
- How long have you been coaching? Where did you coach previously?
- How would you describe your coaching style?
- How many other incoming freshmen have committed so far and how many do you expect to have next year?
- Where do you see me fitting into the team?
- What are your expectations of me as an athlete and as a person?
- Would you recommend I redshirt my first season or year?
- What is the training schedule like for a typical week? Where do you train?
- Do you have the team do any training outside of running (cross training, biking, swimming, strength training)?
- How is the team dynamic (younger/older/graduating seniors)? Where are most of your girls from? Do you do any unique team building/bonding or pre-season activities?
- How much travel do you typically do in a year?
- What are the most impressive accomplishments of your program in the past five years?
- What would you say is the best way to improve myself as a runner over the summer and this next year?
- What is your greatest team asset / priorities?
- What are your team goals for next year, over the next four years, and beyond?
- Are the athletes on your team close with each other?
- What is housing like? Do teammates typically live together?
- Do student-athletes stay on campus during summer/winter break?
- Does anyone on the team have an internship or work part-time while running?
- What is a typical “day in the life” like for an athlete on your team during the season? What about during the off-season?
- Specifically, what expenses does the financial aid and/or scholarship package cover? (Tuition, room, board, books, supplies)?
- Is financial aid available for summer school?
- If I’m injured, what happens to my financial aid?
- What conditions are used to determine annual renewal of scholarship?
- What medical expenses does the college cover? Do I need other insurance?
Topics to Make Notes on (for Yourself):
Your major – This should be a given (make sure they have a solid program for your major – if you are undecided, look for 2-3 potential programs you may go into).
Classes- What is the average class size? Do they offer AP credit? Where do most classes in your major meet? Do professors know their students by name? If you can, meet a few professors in your major while on your visit. At the very least, meet the department chair.
Rigor – Will you be challenged? Is it a manageable course load?
Coach – What kind of impression do you get from the coach? How do they seem to you, as a coach and as a person? What do your potential teammates think of him or her? Can you tell that he/she really cares about you?
Team – Are they nice? (They better be!) How is their training going? Do they know/associate people outside of the team? What do they do on weekends? Do you share the same interests apart from running? Do you see yourself fitting in and getting along?
Training – Trails or concrete? Miles per week? Workouts? Summer training? How are the facilities/training room/track? Any cross training?
Other – basically, life:
Location: City, country, or college town? Is the campus aesthetically appealing? Is the surrounding area safe? Mountains, beach, forests, or other places to explore nearby?
Living situation: Dorm or apartment? Would you be living with the other girls on your team? Do you get to choose roommates? Can you have a car or bike on campus? Is there a bus transit system? Are the housing options close to classes and where you’ll be practicing?
Dining options (don’t overlook this one!): Meal plan options? How many dining locations are there? What type of food is offered? Are there special dining options for athletes?
Student life: How large is the student body? What is there to do on weekends or outside of running? Any organizations or clubs that interest you?
Atmosphere: Is is a vibrant, active campus or a smaller, quieter one? Do you like the size and feel of the school? Are you pumped just to be there? What are you thinking to yourself and your parents while you’re there (Hint – you should be saying THIS is the school!).
After your visit (and/or before), reflect, make notes, and assess your priorities.
1. What is important to YOU:
You come first. Keep in mind, this is your life, your team, your school. What are you looking for? Take a moment and imagine your dream team. Where do you train and how often? What is the coach like? Where are you studying? How is the school, apart from running?
Now, looking at this list, number these in order of importance. Make a list of your top 3 priorities or must-have’s. What are the things you prefer vs. the things you require? Try to be reasonable, but also don’t ever feel like you have to give up what is important to you to be successful and happy. For example, my must-have’s are: a highly supportive team/coach, the chance to run in cool/new/exciting places (for those who don’t know me, I’m a big trail junkie), and academic/social/experience-related opportunities outside of running. University of Minnesota fits all of these (a well-known Big Ten school in a large city full of opportunity with a super supportive team and awesome coaches – woohoo!). The scholarship was a big priority for a while (as it should be!), but I let it take over with my first college decision, which led to an unfulfilling experience at Lamar. I realized that a free ride isn’t a reason to set aside your true values and desires (uh, c’mon Megan – why did you ignore these things?). Despite it not being my first, second, or even third choice school, I still had an amazing experience, ran in a program with highly talented international athletes from all over the world, met people I never would have talked to beforehand, got in all of my basic college credits and developed myself as a big fish in a small pond). Bottom line is, you often have to sacrifice a few things and take the risk that will reap the greatest reward. Your individual priorities will likely be different – and that’s the beauty of it. There is no perfect school for everyone, only the right one for you.
2. Review what the school has to offer. A school may not have it all, but it’s important that the one you choose meets your basic qualifications.
3. Assess how you fit in with the school. How does it match up?
Here’s a spin on things: rather than choose the school down the road that you simply feel comfortable at, choose the school that will challenge you: academically, athletically, socially – in every way. The school that is just slightly outside of your comfort zone. The coach that believes in you and will push you to your greatest potential, the team that sets out to reach new heights, the school that will allow you to fully explore and pursue your passion, the social life and location that you will fully live and thrive in.
In the words of Coach Hopkins at University of Minnesota (my coach now), would you still want to go here if your leg was broken? I’ve seen girls choose a school just for running, even on a full scholarship with the works all taken care of, and then get injured mid-year and be out for the season. And they were miserable. Some even so much that they transferred (me included- but no, I wouldn’t consider myself miserable, just unfulfilled). This is not to say that the school itself was bad, but just that the decision had been made primarily for running, without consideration of the other factors at play. Which came down to this: if running wasn’t going well, nothing was going well. There was nothing outside of running to keep them happy. I truly believe that a happy runner is a successful runner – it’s important to choose a school where you’ll have a life outside of running – you never know when there may be an injury or setback.
Ultimately, it’s what you make of it. Which school offers you the best opportunity to be your best self, with AND without running?
Take advantage of it!
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed: Don’t be afraid of making the wrong decision. There are plenty of right ones out there, and you could thrive in just about any of them. Just do your best to choose the most fitting one. Picking a school is like finding the right running shoe. In a sea of good running shoes, find the shoe that fits best.
Back to the broken leg question: where would you go if your leg was broken? Choose that school. The one where you feel like you would thrive, while running and especially without running. Because running has its ups and downs, guaranteed. You want a place where you’ll have support outside the confines of cross country.
Hope I helped in your college decision! I know it’s a tough one, but I’m confident you’ll make the right decision 🙂 Feel free to message me or comment with questions. For further resources (and if you’re looking for more questions to ping at potential coaches), check out these articles: