Scoring an Athletic Scholarship

Getting an athletic scholarship is not easy but very much in the realm of possibilities if you have what it takes. In the end, getting a college degree is what matters and athletic scholarship is one way to help finance an education.

We are all familiar with the concept of scouting: school representatives or privately hired scouts sit in the stands and come talk to coaches and athletes about the possibilities of playing for a school.

However, while that is true for the superstars who benefited from press and/or national exposure, the vast majority of prospective college athletes need to approach coaches themselves. Moreover, athletic achievement is not enough. Making the grades in high school and college is paramount to grant funds. Last but not least, a commitment to excellence at all levels is key: athletic and academic achievement, and wearing the school colors with integrity.

TJ Cotterill's excellent article in The News Tribune perfectly illustrates the three prong approach involved in granting scholarships. Brian Strandley, an assistant coach at Eastern Washington University, sums it up as follows:

"… if you go out and play well your senior year and your grades are good and you are a good leader
and you win a lot of games – that’s the best way to get recruited, in my mind."

It's not easy

According to the NCAA, 2% of high school athletes receive an athletic scholarship in an NCAA institution. What if you include the NAIA and the NJCAA? What is the big picture? There is a set number of scholarships for each sport depending on many factors that we'll explore later. Overall, a total number of 177,559 full scholarships were available to 517,489 college athletes in 2012. Let's have a look at the breakdown per gender and sport.

Percentage of male college athletes who received an   NCAA/NAIA/NJCAA athletic scholarship in 2012. Data from  Scholarship .

Percentage of male college athletes who received an NCAA/NAIA/NJCAA athletic scholarship in 2012.
Data from Scholarship

Percentage of female college athletes who received an   NCAA/NAIA/NJCAA athletic scholarship in 2012. Data from  Scholarship .

Percentage of female college athletes who received an NCAA/NAIA/NJCAA athletic scholarship in 2012.
Data from Scholarship

Total number of available scholarships: top sports in all athletic associations in 2012 (click for larger image).
Data from Scholarship

Not only is the sport you choose a big factor in determining the number of scholarships but so is the gender. In other words, you can make the team but still not get a scholarship. Let's see why.


College sports scholarships (with the exception of NCAA III and NJCAA which do not offer athletic scholarships) are ruled in part by the concept of limits. They are fixed numbers of yearly grants that vary depending on the sport and the athletic association.

Baseball scholarships limits 2017-2018. Data from    Scholarship .

Baseball scholarships limits 2017-2018.
Data from

For example, baseball has limits of 11.7 in NCAA I schools, 9 in NCAA II schools, 12 in NAIA schools, and 24 in NJCAA schools. In that example, an NCAA II school can only grant 9 full scholarships per year to its entire baseball team.

You'll notice that the limit for NCAA I is 11.7. The fraction reveals another concept that rules athletic scholarships: head-count vs. equivalency.

2017-2018 scholarship limits for men and women. Data from    Scholarship .

2017-2018 scholarship limits for men and women.
Data from


Head-count sports have an absolute limit that grants a full scholarship count to each student ("full" meaning the maximum amount of money allowed).  Equivalency sports, on the other hand, have a limit that can split scholarship counts among several athletes.


The difference is critical to understand how the funds are allocated. For example, women gymnastics is a head-count sport and, with a limit of 12, grants a full scholarship to 12 gymnasts in an NCAA I school. It is an equivalency sport for men and, with its limit of 6.3, it can grant 6.3 scholarships in fractions spread out among the whole team.

All NJCAA sports are head-count sports while there are only very few head-count sports in the NCAA:

  • NCAA I basketball and NCAA I FBS football for men
  • NCAA I tennis, gymnastics, and volleyball for women

Given that information, it is important to consider limits when applying for an athletic scholarship. Keep that concept in mind and confirm with the coaches the rules that apply to their teams in terms of scholarship amounts. The site Scholarship lists out all the limits for every sport in every association. It is comprehensive in its scope and will give you all the information you need.

NCAA I yearly scholarship limits for male (left) and female (right) athletes (click for larger image).
Data from Scholarship
* Beach volleyball is sponsored if indoor volleyball is not already a sponsored program.

How much money are we talking about?

The amounts doled out vary per association, sport, and gender. Money making sports and Title IX play a role in the way scholarships are apportioned.

Average scholarship amount for NCAA I male athletes in 2016 (click for larger image).
Data from Scholarship

Average scholarship for NCAA I female athletes in 2016 (click for larger image).
Data from Scholarship

Average scholarship amount for NCAA I male athletes per sport in 2016 (click for larger image).
Data from Scholarship

Average scholarship amount for NCAA I female athletes per sport in 2016 (click for larger image).
Data from Scholarship



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"Get your grades up, get your grades up" says Brian Strandley in The News Tribune. Not making the grades in high school will prevent you from getting a scholarship and not making the grades in college may cause you to lose a scholarship.

The NCAA has strict guidelines as far as academics are concerned. In NCAA I academic requirements for your SAT or ACT score are inversely proportional to your GPA score, which has to be at least 2.3. In other words, the lower your GPA is, the higher your SAT or ACT needs to be.


  • if your GPA is 3.4 your SAT needs to be 490 (ACT: 42)
  • if your GPA is 2.8 you SAT needs to be 790 (ACT: 57)

As Aaron Trolia, president of AT Sports Inc., puts it in the article above, "bottom line – if you want to guarantee yourself a scholarship, get the grades."

Review the Academic Requirements set out by the NCAA here.

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Your achievements in your sports understandably play a large role. A way to get there is to make sure you play several sports. Specializing in one sport will make you more prone to injury, as demonstrated by a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Playing other sports also makes you a more balanced athlete, as some skills are transferable from one sport to another. Some sports are more complementary to each other than others, but the fun needs to drive you so you don't burn out.

In an article by Kevin Lytle at The Coloradoan, three-sport varsity athlete Gabbie McDonald sums it up nicely: "The cross-training is just fantastic. In basketball, I dive like a goalkeeper all the time. In goalkeeping, I’m better at jumping and judging high balls because of basketball. My balance in all my sports is from track."

Richard Tardits, nicknamed "Le Sack" or "Biarritz Blitz" or "Tour de France" was a French linebacker at the University of Georgia. In spite of his complete inexperience in football, his years of playing rugby allowed him to sack quarterbacks unlike anyone else as a walk-on, which made him one of the best linebackers in the school's history and allowed him to play in the NFL.

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Personality goes a long way

Coaches look for a specific student-athlete's profile. Being approachable, coachable, and trustworthy to wear a school's colors will interest coaches. Talent alone is not enough and while there are many talented athletes, those that make it far are dedicated.

Consider Courtney Hollander, a senior guard on Seattle Pacific University's basketball team. Scott Hanson from the Seattle Times quotes Courtney's coach explaining why she's on the team: "She doesn’t like to lose, and she’s going to find a way to make her team better. That’s one thing I liked when I recruited her."

A lot of it is genetics
and a lot of it is their personality.
— Troy Taylor, University of Utah offensive coordinator

TJ Cotterill's article in The News Tribune abounds with examples of what coaches want. Mat Taylor, Skyline High School's football coach explains that college coaches ask questions about an athlete, such as "what’s his demeanor like when the team is trailing at halftime or down by seven on the final drive – what kind of competitor is he?" Brian Strandley, Eastern Washington University assistant football coach adds: "Play your butt off, go win games, and be a leader." Finally, Troy Taylor, University of Utah offensive coordinator concludes: "A lot of it is genetics and a lot of it is their personality. They have a certain mentality and belief."


Thinking outside the box

Now that we have established how difficult it can be, let's explore ways that will get you that scholarship.

You don't have to be a superstar. You need to be good enough for a team and show potential for improvement. Remember that many Division I schools do not have the same exposure as those we watch on TV but still offer scholarships under the same rules. Further, do not disregard Division II schools because the competition is just as fierce.

NCAA III schools are a very good alternative. There are no athletic scholarships but "merit scholarships" instead. In other words, scholarships are given to students who not only have good grades but offer extra talents such as athletic abilities and "leadership," thus offering opportunities for cumulative scholarships. Moreover, as noted in a CBS News article, being a great athlete skews the odds in your favor as competition between schools is a fact of life. There are 450 NCAA III schools today, which make up the largest division of four-year colleges. 

Another option is to explore NAIA schools. They determine how much student-athletes receive, the same way any other financial aid is disbursed to all other students. The NAIA further states that "financial aid given to student-athletes is limited to the actual cost of tuition, mandatory fees, books and supplies required for courses in which the student-athlete is enrolled, and room and board... Financial aid awarded to academically gifted students can be exempted from these limits if the student meets academic criteria established by the NAIA."

NJCAA schools offer a great opportunity to compete a maximum of two years on a scholarship as a preparation for a possible transfer to an NCAA school if that is what you want. Requirements, as it is the case for NAIA schools, are set by the schools individually under general guidelines set by the NJCAA.

Schools are not the only source of scholarships! As points out, if you want to find alternative opportunities "instead of or in addition to university athletic scholarships, private scholarship funds do exist." For instance, the the University of Washington's "Balanced Man Scholarship" describes its goal as follows: "Each year, the Washington Beta chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon awards $5,000 to six incoming freshmen who exemplify our philosophy of the Balanced Man: excellence in academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities. The scholarship will be awarded to the students who best exemplify the ideals of the Balanced Man, and show a strong commitment to personal and academic development." You can see the complete list on

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Last but not least, promote yourself, no matter how talented you are. Many great athletes go undiscovered because scouts and coaches do not know about them. If you are a superstar and regularly appear in the news scouts will come to you. However, it is simply a fact that scouts cannot be everywhere all the time. They could also be at your school when you happen to have an off day. Not only do you need the exposure but you have to demonstrate the leadership qualities coaches look for. So get started!


The bottom line

Keeping in mind the ever increasing costs of education, you owe it to yourself to make the best of any talent you have. According to US News, while the consumer index inflation has increased in the past 20 years by 52.7%, it is far outpaced by the rising costs of tuition and fees at four-year universities.


Inflation and tuition & fees increase at four-year universities.

Increases are in percent between 1997 and 2017. Data from US News: Briana Boyington, Sept. 20, 2017

Getting an athletic scholarship is a lengthy process that starts early in high school. You ought to be able to do the following:

  1. Demonstrate your achievements
  2. Increase your exposure since you cannot participate in all the camps
  3. Let the coaches know who you are before you meet them

A recruiting video allows you reach all those goals in one fell swoop. You can cover it all: personal statistics, awards, recognition, skills and game day footage, and interview.

Regardless of your level, Reel Hawks Studio is here to help you document your achievements, highlight your skills, and showcase you to scouts and coaches. Let's talk!