How To Choose The Right Football Program For You
You decided that you want to play college football, and multiple schools are recruiting you, now what? For most people, choosing a college is the first big decision they will make in their life, and it is even more complicated for athletes. While most athletes want to play D1 football (because that is all they know), only 1 in 40 high school players actually play at the D1 level. So, how do you find the right division level and school for you?
First you must figure out what is important to you. Is it playing your freshman year? Playing for a particular coach? Being close to your family? Going to a top academic or athletic school? Having small class sizes, etc.? Once you know what you want, the next step is to figure out what school choices are available to you.
Understand Your Choices
Start by understanding the recruiting process and what schools are really recruiting you (learn more about the process in our Beginner's Guide). Most student athletes are only familiar with the D1-FBS schools they see on national TV. Even if a D1-FBS school is recruiting you, you should keep your options open until you have 2 or more scholarship offers. Just because schools are recruiting you, it does not mean that they will offer you a scholarship or a roster spot. You should familiarize yourself with other schools from each division that interest you. You can learn the basic differences between football divisions like the number players on their roster, scholarship opportunities, stadium capacity, and recruiting selectivity in our lesson about divisions, but the best way to get a feel for it, is to visit at least one school from every division yourself.
Additionally, academics play a large role in where an athlete can go to college. Each of the divisions and individual schools have minimum GPA requirements (learn more about how GPA impacts recruiting), and falling below those requirements means that the school is unable to recruit you, no matter how talented you are.
Make a list of a variety of different schools at different division levels that interest you, especially if they are showing you recruiting interest. The more variety you have on your list, the better the chances are that you will end up at the right school.
Visit The Schools
Once you’ve developed a list of schools you are interested in, it is time to visit those programs. It is best to focus on schools that are recruiting you and actively inviting you for visits, but if you are not receiving any interest you should just start by visiting the schools on your list.
The best way to visit a school is to be invited by the program for an official visit. In most cases, official visits are offered to athletes by schools that already know that they want that athlete and are looking to get his commitment. These visits are either partially or fully paid for by the school. The coaches will go to great lengths to make sure you learn a lot about the school and the football program, and also that you have a great time. Be prepared to ask good questions about the program (more on that later in the article) so you can really understand if this is a place you would like to spend the next four to five years of your life.
An athlete can take up to five D1 official visit starting on April 1st through June of their junior year, and starting again on the first day of classes of the athlete's senior year of high school. Most D2 and D3 schools offer official visits after the athletes senior season (be aware, many D3 schools only offer unofficial visits because of budget constraints but treat those visits as if they were official).
You should not wait to be offered an official visit to go check out a school. If the coach that is recruiting you encourages you to set up an unofficial visit, they either have extended an offer to you already or at least are considering it. Unofficial visits are a great way to connect with the coaches, meet a player or two, and tour the campus. Keep in mind that these visits are not subsidized by the college you are visiting, so some athletes and their families with multiple school invitations will need to narrow their list first and only visit their top choices. Remember that if you don’t have two or more scholarship offers, you should explore schools at every division.
The best way to set up an unofficial visit is to call the coach at the school that is recruiting you and tell him you would like to set up a visit. If they are interested in recruiting you, they will be eager to set something up and make sure you learn a lot about the school, team, and coaches during your visit. If they are not recruiting you, you can usually arrange an unofficial visit by calling the football office and schedule a day to come to campus. If it is not a major D1 school, you will likely get at least a few minutes of a coach's time to ask questions.
There are a few times of the year when you should avoid a visit: the dead periods. Coaches are not allowed to speak face to face with athletes during dead periods and are likely to be off campus with their families.
Criteria to Making a Good Choice
Below are a list of factors to focus on when picking the right school for you. Download or print out these graphics to help you prepare for your next visit or call with a college coach.
To see a table of more detailed questions you can ask, click here.
Only 1.6% of college football players make it to the NFL and most NFL careers last less than 3 years. Start thinking of what you want to do after college, and make sure that the school you are choosing is the right one for that path. If you want to be in finance, make sure that the school has a good finance program; If you want to teach, make sure that the school has a good education program you can enroll in, etc.
Understand Your Financial Options
Most athletes should consider cost as the biggest factor in choosing a school. Between the tuition, room, board, books, and other expenses, college can be expensive and costs can vary wildly (between $20,000 and $260,000 for four years). Luckily, most families do not end up paying the full costs for the school of their choice. Athletic scholarships, academic scholarships, and need based grants can reduce or eliminate the cost.
Only about 2% of high school athletes are awarded athletics scholarships to compete in college. In fact, colleges and universities award almost 3 times as much in academic scholarships as they do in athletic scholarships per year. You should fully understand your financial aid and scholarship choices by getting the complete picture of your out of pocket expenses (including loans) from each school during your senior year. While loans can make the school more affordable while you are attending it, those loans need to be paid back and should be considered as part of your out-of-pocket costs for the school. If the school you want to attend is not your most affordable option, let the coach that is recruiting you know. He might be able to help you get a better financial aid package. This will help you narrow your choices and ultimately save you money.
Committing to a Program
After narrowing your choices, ultimately you have to commit to a program. Most athletes never feel 100% sure before making a decision. When you are 90% sure, make your commitment and spend your energy making your decision the right one by working hard to be successful. After you have committed, the school is now using one of its limited spots for you. Commitment should mean that you are no longer going to consider other schools. If you are treating your commitment as a placeholder while you explore other options, you are not acting faithfully in the recruiting process. You wouldn't want the school where you committed to tell you a couple weeks before signing day that they have decided to sign a better player.
Figure out what is important to you
Visit schools and talk to the coaches, players, and professors or deans (from the academic program you want to study)
Understand what your total costs (including loans) are at each school
Decide what school has the most of what you want
Most athletes are never 100% sure, when you are 90% sure, commit, then work hard and enjoy your college football experience to make it the right decision