A High School Student’s Guide to Running in College

10 Tips from a Walk-on Turned Pro

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I was not a highly-recruited high school athlete.

The recruiting landscape looked completely different in my day. There wasn’t social media (that was back when you needed a college email address to join Facebook and Twitter wasn’t even a thing!) and I didn’t realize that running in college was even an option until my junior year of high school. So when the time came to make my college decision, running wasn’t a major deciding factor.

I had some letters from smaller collegiate programs, mostly Division II and Division III. I did get to go on an official visit to Virginia Tech but I really didn’t know what I was looking for in a program. Afterwards, I went on a regular campus tour at the University of Virginia (UVA). The moment I stepped foot on Grounds (that’s what we call our campus), I knew I was home.

It was fate that the Virginia cross-country coach had sent me a few letters leading into that campus tour; I met with him while in town and he said I could have a spot on the team if I could get into school on my own. There was no scholarship offer, just the opportunity to earn one if I was good enough. I was a “recruited walk-on” to a Division I program.

My freshman year I qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championship in the steeple and was given a small scholarship. My second year, I won the ACC Conference meet in the steeple, returned to the NCAA Champs and was given a full scholarship.

College Recruiting in 2021

Nowadays, running in college is a much more accessible process. High school races get much more media attention and coaches can spot you via social media (there are some high schoolers with incredible followings via their Instagram, Tik Tok or YouTube channels!).

I’ve had the privilege of spending time around Furman University’s cross-country and track programs for nearly seven years. My current coach, Robert Gary, is the head coach for Furman University and has grown the team into a distance-running powerhouse.

I’ve seen a lot of recruits come and go; some are offered spots, some aren’t the right fit. Not every coach has the same criteria when looking for athletes, but Coach Gary has always had the most success with recruits who WANT to be there, rather than the ones who come looking for the flashiest facilities or coolest gear-- the ones who ask “What do I get if I come here?” aren’t the ones who end up on the team.

“There are the obvious and simple data points of times and places in our sport,” Gary says. “But I don’t think there is any greater characteristic that I look for in a prospective student-athlete than enthusiasm. It’s infectious and shows a great willingness to be coachable and committed.”

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for high schoolers to get momentum with recruiting. According to Gary, recruits have had to work even harder to get the attention of programs because the NCAA has placed restrictions, called the “dead period,” on how coaches and high schoolers can communicate.

“With the NCAA dead period in place,” Gary says, “recruits have to pay their own way for recruiting and really ask a lot of the pertinent questions as opposed to being wined and dined and enamored with facilities.”

Running at the collegiate level, be it DI, DII, DIII or NAIA, is an incredible opportunity, so if that’s a path you’re aiming toward, here are some tips on what to look for in a program and how to get your foot in the door.

1. Put academics first.

Remember, you are going to college, not to a professional team. Even if you think you have a good shot at going pro, it’s crucial to sit down and think about where you will thrive academically, socially and what type of degree and experiences you want to graduate with. Look over each school’s academic programs to see if they interest you before you fall in love with a cross country or track and field program. A lot is changing in the NCAA as far as athletes being able to earn some money for being an athlete but at the end of the day, you’re still going to college and it’s ideal to earn a degree while you’re there. So be sure to target schools where you’ll enjoy the school part as well as the team.

2. Start the recruiting process by building your “running resume.”

Keep track of your current PRs, your best accomplishments and the coolests races you’ve run in (have you run in a local road race? That’s an indicator of your range and talent!). Have your high school or club coaches give you a few quotes or even a letter of recommendation to pass along when reaching out to or responding to a college coach.

3. Find a coach you click with.

Your coach will be a big part of your life for four to five years (you have up to five years of eligibility to compete in the NCAA). Social media can make it easy to find interviews or videos of coaches from programs you’re interested in. Evaluate potential coaches as much as they evaluate you! If you don’t feel comfortable around a coach, that might be a sign that the program isn’t the right fit.

4. Gauge the team’s culture.

Many programs have Instagram and Twitter accounts. Follow them to get a feel for what they’re like. Check out the current roster and find some of your future teammates on Instagram; do they seem like a team that values the same things you do? Do you feel like you’d fit in easily with their social scene? Do you feel inspired by their workouts or races?

5. Don’t be intimidated by the PRs or school records at a program.

If you’re used to being the best on your high school team, remember that you’re bound to be challenged at the collegiate level and that’s a good thing (it’s how you get better!). Likewise, don’t dismiss a team if they’re in a “rebuilding year”-- it’s a cool opportunity to be part of a new set of athletes that gets to chase after new goals and set higher standards!

6. Remember that you’re more than just your personal bests.

There are some high schoolers who peak in high school. Others are just okay at first, then end up thriving in college (that’s what happened to me!). College coaches aren’t only looking for the fastest high school runners. They are also looking for great teammates to add to their roster; athletes who are selfless, who want the best for their team.

There are many times when I’ve heard Coach Gary praise an athlete who might not have the fastest times but who is a really supportive teammate and contributes to a healthy team culture. Don’t be afraid to talk about your other interests and academic accolades during the recruitment process! A good coach cares about your academic success and future outside of the sport.

7. Not getting any recruiting calls or letters? Don’t get discouraged.

College coaches have A LOT of athletes to pay attention to, and not just in the U.S. Many programs recruit international students too! Send an email and introduce yourself. Pass along that running resume. Ask your high school or club coach to connect you with contacts they have at the collegiate level. If your email goes unanswered, wait a week and try again. Many programs also have a recruiting questionnaire on their website that you can fill out.

8. Arrange a campus tour.

No official visit? No problem! Most college campuses are beginning to open again to visitors (make sure you check on what their COVID protocols are). Plan a road trip and go on a campus tour.

Before you arrive, reach out to the coaching staff to let them know you’ll be in town and see if they have a few minutes to meet with you in their offices (make sure you check their team schedule to make sure they’re not out of town for a race!). It won’t be as formal and fancy as an official visit but it’s probably the most authentic way to see a school and meet with a coach-- when they’re in the middle of a regular day, not when they’re on their best behavior because they’re trying to recruit you!

9. Be patient but persistent in your communication.

Remember: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Send the coach updates on your racing schedule. Share highlights and new PRs with them. Be enthusiastic but not pushy or panicked.

10. Try a club team or local running club.

If all else fails (or a program tells you that you’re not the right fit), a club team or local running club might be a good fit as you transition into college life. The first semester of college is a challenging time. Navigating a new lifestyle, new home, new level of academics and a collegiate level of training is a tough balance.

Joining a club team could help you bridge that transition with less pressure. Once you’re settled into a new routine, you can focus on your training. Jump into some local races, improve your fitness and then reach out to the coach again (this time, you’ll already be on campus to visit their office). Ask if they have any tryout periods-- and then rock their socks off!

If running at the collegiate level is your goal, there are a few ways you can reach that level. Just remember, the only way you’ll get there is if you believe in yourself more than anything!

By Stephanie Garcia. Stephanie competed in the steeplechase at the University of Virginia and now runs professionally for New Balance. She is passionate about increasing diversity in running and keeping girls in sport!

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