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For student athletes, getting an athletic scholarship can be part of the answer to the question of how to pay for college. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA®), Division I and Division II schools offer more than $3.6 billion in scholarship funding annually.

Getting an athletic scholarship can be highly competitive. Less than two percent of high school student-athletes are offered a scholarship. With those kinds of odds, knowing how to get an athletic scholarship requires a solid game plan. These tips can help students and parents develop a strategy for getting athletic scholarships.

1. Start Early

In scouting out athletic scholarship opportunities, the early bird gets the worm. But just how soon do you need to begin your search?

High school is the time to hone in and focus on the sport of choice that you can really excel in.

It affords an opportunity to be seen by college scouts as you progress through your athletic career from freshman to senior year. College recruiters routinely make the rounds at high schools to canvas for fresh talent. If you join a travel team that participates in regional or national tournaments, then you'll have even more chances to showcase your skills to a recruiter.

2. Make Coaching Connections

Being an all-star on the court or the field won't matter much if coaches aren't aware of you. Getting on a coach’s radar can be one of the first key steps to recruitment. Before you begin contacting any college coaches, you may want to read up on the full NCAA recruiting rules. They are complicated but important to understand. You may also want to reach out to your high school coach for guidance.

3. Don't Slack Off Academically

Getting an athletic scholarship isn't solely based on athletics; academics also matter. The NCAA requires incoming Division I athletes to have a minimum 2.3 GPA to play their freshman year. After that, you need to maintain a minimum GPA each year, based on the number of credit hours you've earned, for continued eligibility to play.

Evaluate where you are academically and how that aligns with what the schools on your short list expect from student athletes. This can give you some valuable perspective on how likely you are to qualify for athletic scholarship funding, as well as academic scholarships.

4. Choose the Right Program

Where you play can be just as important as how well you play when it comes to getting an athletic scholarship. Align yourself with programs, either school or travel, that have placed kids on college sports teams in the past. Those programs may already have coaching connections that can give you a leg up on recruitment.

5. Focus on Fit, Not Numbers

The amount of scholarship money you qualify for matters, but it's not the only thing that's important. Make sure the school, team, location, campus and academics are all a fit for you as well.

NCAA® is a trademark of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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