Updated: Apr 8, 2020
Guide for the College-Bound Runner
As you progress through high school, many of you will be considering colleges and universities as an important part of your future plans. If you have enjoyed competing in Cross Country and Track & Field and experienced some success, then you may have thought about the prospect of competing in these sports at the college level.
Geared with proper preparation, essential information, flexibility and an open mind, extending your running career after high school is a possibility for many runners.
The following information is what I have observed through my experiences; I hope that it can be of some guidance.
Crack Open the Doors.
From the moment you walk through the high school doors, there are steps you can take to help solidify your future.
Academics need to be a priority. You will automatically limit or enhance your post-high school options because of your grades. Work hard, get a tutor if needed; ask for help... good grades are essential. You can’t hide poor grades behind fast performances on the track.
Even as early as your freshman year, you need to start assembling the components of a strong resume. Volunteer and get involved with school, church and community functions. You don’t want to be filling out college applications as a senior and lack these types of experiences to highlight. There are always several volunteer options each year for high school students, so take advantage of these and use them on your resume.
Do. Not. Have. Your. Parents. Do. Everything. For. You.
Get used to communicating with coaches and teachers in high school. Become familiar with what you are doing in training: know your mileage, the types of workouts and the different intensities you run. Start packing your own breakfast for morning runs along with your post-run nutrition and water bottles. Check team emails, stay up-to-date on the schedule and take ownership of your performance.
Practicing personal accountability in high school will leave you well-prepared when you have to do all of this on your own.
The best thing you can do as a freshman is simple: compete in Cross Country and Track & Field (plus a winter sport or your school's winter training group) and get good grades.
Your grades will have a bigger impact than you can imagine right now, so make it a habit to study every night and complete all of your work with quality and care. There isn’t a delete button for your grades in 9th grade- they will be a part of your GPA.
As a sophomore, start thinking about areas of study you want to pursue and perhaps get a sense of the geographic area or region you could see yourself in for 4-5 years.
Your sophomore year is also a good time to fully commit to off-season training, as the habits you form this year will benefit (or hinder) you later on. You will probably not know if you want to compete in college when you’re a sophomore, but it’s prudent to get your ducks in a row just in case.
It seems like 10th grade is where the sum of your choices begin to pull you in one direction or another, so it’s important to make wise decisions socially, academically and athletically.
During your junior year, you will want to showcase your best performances. The off-season (in both Cross Country and Track & Field) will be critical to your performance.
Although it’s unfortunate that so much stock is put into a single year of results, this is the game you have to play. Your junior year is the latest and greatest information colleges can use to compare recruits.
That being said, it's not the end of the world if your junior year is sub-par. Just communicate with potential coaches. No one expects improvement to be linear.
11th Grade To-Do List & General Notes.
Get good grades.
Be committed to training, but don’t go crazy. Trust the process. Don’t make training mistakes by trying to do things that don’t fit within your coach’s schedule.
If you want to communicate/visit NCAA schools and coaches, you need to be eligible to do so. NCAA schools use a clearinghouse to make sure you would be a student-athlete eligible for participation.
The process is easy, but has to be completed:
Do not wait for coaches to contact you. Many coaches are also their own “recruiting coordinators” so their time and energy is already stretched thin.
Visit the websites of college programs that interest you and complete the “Prospective Student-Athlete” forms. Here is an example of the form found on the Track & Field page at Black Hills State University. Every school has these forms on their website. Complete them and then follow up with the coach.
There are contact rules for NCAA schools, so there are times on the calendar when coaches won’t be able to contact you (dead periods). Coaches won’t be able to personally contact you until after September 1st of your junior year. These rules also change all of the time, so check sites like this often:
Recruiting and contact rules can differ depending on which organization the school is affiliated with (NCAA I, II, III, NAIA or JUCO)
Hopefully, by the time you are a senior, you have done all of the dirty work (see Junior Year). If you haven’t, no worries, just go back to the items juniors should have completed and get them done as soon as you can.
If you have not already done so, take the ACT (or SAT if the university requires it)
If you have not already done so, fill out the FAFSA
I won’t go into the process of choosing a school, as it is a personal and family decision that will ultimately be based upon a multitude of factors. More information than you need is available online and it’s easy to contact almost anyone at any institution to ask questions and take a deep dig into programs; so research well.
Eventually, you’ll have to narrow down your choices to just two or three schools.
When you do, here is what I would advise:
Visit each school on your list.
If you are a high-priority recruit, this might be an “Official Visit”. The coach will let you know if this is the case- and you only get five of these total. The school might pay for some of your expenses on these visits.
If you’re the Average Joe (most of us) you can take a campus visit (called ‘Unofficial’) whenever you want. You can ask to meet with a coach during these.
Talk to a sampling of runners on the team. Contact a student that’s a top runner, someone in the middle and also one of the slower runners on the team and ask them about their experiences. This will allow you to see what the program is like through all different lenses.
Talk with the Coach and ask questions. You might spend every day for your college career with this person, so get to know them as well as you can.
I would recommend talking to, and gathering information from, actual people within a program rather than relying on second-hand information, social media, message boards, etc.
When you decide upon an institution, you need to give a courtesy call to the coaches at the other universities on your final list that recruited you. Let them know your final intentions and thank them for the interest and time they invested in you.
If you are awarded an athletic scholarship, you will sign a National Letter of Intent on or after one of these days that officially marks your commitment to their school and program.
The Nuts & Bolts.
College sport divisions/affiliations.
NCAA I, II & III
All colleges and universities that offer athletics are affiliated with one of the previously listed organizations. The NAIA is not affiliated with the NCAA and is a separate organization that sponsors athletics; these schools are usually smaller in size. Finally, there are junior college options, which are two-year community colleges.
How do these divisions compare?
The upper echelon of NCAA DI; ie. the schools make the NCAA Cross Country Championships every year- are very good. Many of the best athletes in the WORLD are running in the NCAA I ranks. Think of having to run somewhere in the ~9:15/4:15/1:54 range (boys) and the ~10:45/4:55/2:13 range (girls) as a junior to be recruited by these schools.
Generally, mid to low-level DI schools are comparable to the top NCAA DII schools. Mid-level DII schools are comparable to top NAIA schools and DIII schools. Those are just very rough comparisons and the actual fact of the matter is that even within divisions, there is wide variability.
That being said, one of the unique aspects of Cross Country and Track and Field is that all of these divisions typically compete against one another. There have been Olympians from every division.
You can check out the Outdoor Track & Field Lists HERE to get a better picture of what sort of talent is in each division.
This is not NCAA DI Football where basically everyone you see on the field is on a full-ride scholarship. Furthermore, there isn’t technically such a thing as a “Cross Country” scholarship: a distance runner’s financial award would typically come from Track and Field’s allotment of scholarships (you will run Cross Country, Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field).
In NCAA DI, a fully-funded Track and Field team would be able to offer 12.6 men’s scholarships and 18 women’s scholarships. With distance, sprints, hurdles, jumps, vault and throws athletes needed to make a strong Track and Field program, common sense and basic mathematical skills will tell you there are a lot of partial scholarships out there and not many full rides. Add to that, not all teams are fully funded with 12.6 & 18 scholarships.
*With regard to scholarships, temper your expectations and think of any scholarship amount as a little bonus for your years of commitment to the sport. If you make running only about extrinsic things like scholarships, it’s not going to work out for you anyway.
Not all athletes are scholarship athletes. Some students are allowed, by the college coach, to “walk-on”. I mention “allowed” because schools are limited not only by the amount of scholarships they can provide, but also by the amount of alloted roster spots for men and women, respectively.
If you’re interested in competing at a university, but think you’ll have to walk-on, make sure to contact the coach to see if running there is even an option.
Where do your times fit?
Now that you have an idea of the different levels of collegiate athletics and some limits on participation, you have to be realistic about where your track times and cross country placings at the State or big meets like the Nike Regional Cross Country Meets stand. Unless it’s a well-established cross country course, such as a Footlocker or Nike Regional course, cross country times don’t necessarily carry a lot of weight. There are a multitude of factors that college coaches will consider when deciding who to offer a scholarship or even let walk-on, but track times and places at championship cross country meets are usually decisive.
It’s incredibly easy to get perspective on the times high school kids across the country achieve simply by checking out the yearly high school rankings on Milesplit.com. You can research the performances of any high school runner on any team by using Athletic.net or MileSplit.com and this can help you see the performance level of recruits each school brings in. Furthermore, the results of every college meet and the performances of every athlete are archived on TFRRS.org.
Running is very objective, so simply do your research on the level of recruits each school typically brings in and be honest with where your times stand. Chances are, you’ll develop better when training with student-athletes who are similar to you, so keep that in mind.
FInally: Is it all worth it?
Is it difficult to be a student-athlete in college? Only if you make it out to be. There are character, commitment and competitiveness requirements, but we already work on those every day, so you will be more prepared than many of your peers. Most of the problems students run into during college are time-management problems; that is doing productive or non-productive things with their time- in all 24 hours of the day. Practice being accountable and managing your life in high school, as this will prove to be one of your more valuable skill sets that will help you succeed.
I would wager that if you ask about anyone, they will tell you that the relationships formed during running were the most memorable and rewarding aspects of the college athletic experience. I still keep in contact with nearly all of my college teammates in one way or another. You’ll make a lot of connections and friendships with runners on other teams as well.
The training and racing at the college level will push you beyond any preconceived limits. If you do all of the little things right outside of practice, the chances are pretty high that you’ll see big improvements with another 4-5 years of consistent training.
Finally, the experiences you’ll have as being part of a team can be pretty awesome; just check out the schedules of most college programs and you’ll notice right away that you’re going to be able to go places and have experiences that most college students don’t get. It can be pretty awesome.
Please feel free to reach out with any questions or comments on the story.