So You Want to Swim in College- Stuff You Need to Know

From Jessica Berkowitz Minier:  Assistant Director of Swimming, American College Connection

Jessica coached and recruited collegiately for 10 years at the D-I and D-III level. She had an exemplary swimming career at Kenyon College where she won 9 NCAA titles and is the only woman in NCAA history (Division I, II or III) to win four NCAA titles in the 1650.

The first day of your senior year of high school is a landmark event in many ways and it’s the beginning of the capstone of your high school career: your last homecoming, your last school musical, your last spirit week, last football game, your last high school meet, your last prom, etc. And of course it will be the last time you have to take a college entrance exam (that is until you start thinking about graduate school!)  It also marks the first opportunity you can make an official recruiting trip to a college campus – which is the gateway to the next leg of your journey.  As a result, September and October can be a busy time filled with official visits, college applications, and a lot of excitement, time-shortages, and sometimes pressure.

Questions from well-meaning family, friends, and high school counselors echo of, “Which schools are you looking at?”, “Which schools will you visit?”, “Which schools will you apply to?” These questions may have started popping up as early as spring semester of your junior year.  The ‘big’ question that hangs in the air is “Will you sign early?” … So, what exactly does that mean?

There are three common “Early” terms thrown around in the recruiting and admissions process: Early Decision, Early Action, and Early Signing.

Early Decision is a type of application designation used by college admissions. ED applications are binding: the student makes a commitment upon the submission of his/her application that he/she will matriculate in the term to which he/she is accepted.  And of course once accepted, the student will withdraw all other active applications and cannot submit any additional applications.  Essentially if you propose marriage to admissions and your proposal is accepted, you should be ready to set a date, change your Facebook status, and take yourself off the market.  Because an ED application is binding, a student can only submit one ED application at a time.  Since it is not legal to be married to more than one person, you should not propose to more than one person at a time.  If a student is rejected or wait-listed with that application, he/she may submit another ED application to a different school.  If you get turned down, you can jump back into the game and propose again. Generally both parents and high school counselors must sign-off on a binding application. You can’t legally get married until you are 18, right? 

There are two vague contingencies to an ED application: a student does not receive a financial aid package that would make attendance possible and the school must notify the applicant of the decision within a reasonable and clearly stated period of time after the ED deadline.  With the availability of early financial aid estimators to determine a family’s Estimated Family Contribution and posted admissions response deadlines, it would be an extreme and rare occasion that a breach of contract would be warranted.  Not only would the student who breaches the agreement lose their non-refundable deposit, the school could presumably sue the student (and parents) for damages consisting of lost tuition for the first semester!  It also would not bode well for the next applicant from your high school, so treat ED applications with much consideration.  So, if you can’t afford the wedding, don’t propose.

Deadlines: normally in early, mid, or late November, but varies by school, Check school admission sites for information

Although the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is not officially available until January 1st (make your New Year’s Eve plans now…) you can get an estimate of what it might cost you to attend college in general or at a particular school.  You can calculate your Estimated Family Contribution (the calculated representation of the amount of money your family will be expected to contribute towards college expenses before any type of merit or athletic aid awards) on every college website.  We’ll revisit this topic again in future articles.

ACC Tips:

  • Don’t make a hasty decision; make sure you have selected a school that is right for you.
  • Be sure Coach knows you are submitting an ED application.
  • Make sure you know, if you are accepted, that you will have a spot on the team roster or understand the try-out or walk-on policies
  • Know your family’s Estimated Financial Contribution and the Cost of Attendance of the school
  • Determine if your family is able and committed to pay your EFC and is willing to take on assigned loans if awarded.
  • Have a back-up plan.

Early Action is also a type of application but it does not have a binding agreement attached.  Students are notified of a decision earlier than those applying regular decision.  Some schools may have a “Single Choice” or “Restrictive” Early Action which specifies you may not submit any other EA applications if submitting one to that institution.

ACC Tips:

  • Make sure you complete your standardized testing early so it can be considered for the EA application.
  • Talk to your HS counselors early so they, or your teachers, have time to write you recommendations if needed.
  • Have a back-up plan. If this is your back-up plan for ED, make another back-up plan for your back-up plan.

Early Signing refers to the first of two windows of time that student-athletes can sign/accept an offer of athletic scholarship from a school that participates in the National Letter of Intent program.  The NCAA Eligibility Center manages the daily operations of the NLI program while the Collegiate Commissioners Association (CCA) provides governance oversight of the program.  The second signing date, or regular signing, is in April.

Fulfillment of an NLI: A student-athlete signing an NLI must attend that institution for one academic year to receive financial aid and in return the institution agrees to provide athletics financial aid for one academic year.  In other words, if you sign the marriage license and don’t go through with it, you cannot get athletic aid at any other school that recognizes the NLI program (which is almost all of them).  You must ‘stay married’ for at least 1 academic year to satisfy the NLI agreement.  

Cease and Desist: Once you sign an NLI, NCAA rules forbid other coaches from recruiting you.  These restrictions aim to add certainty to the recruiting process for both athletes (who are certain to receive aid) and coaches (who are certain that a recruit will attend their school).  By contrast, verbal commitments are nonbinding.  Recruits may change or revoke a verbal commitment at any time and coaches may continue to recruit a verbally committed student-athlete.  However, that is a two way street – coaches are not bound to honor verbal commitments and can change or revoke a verbal commitment or offer.  In our sport this is not common practice but there are enough anecdotal situations to give some pause.  Athletes may receive multiple NLIs but can only accept or sign one.  NLIs can be issued prior to the signing date but cannot be executed before that time.  In many ways Early Signing is like ED – both parties are contracted to “fulfill” their part of the contract and the union is overseen by the CCA by the power vested in them by the NCAA.  However, the repercussions for breaking an NLI without an ‘annulment’ make a much larger impact on athletics eligibility.

Deadlines: Starts: Cannot be signed before November 14, Ends: Cannot be signed after November 21

The basic penalty for not satisfying an NLI is that a student-athlete has to serve one year in residence (full-time) at the next NLI member institution and will lose one season of competition in all sports.  Also, intercollegiate athletics departments are not required to provide financial aid in cases where a student-athlete is not admitted for academic reasons – so it is very important to keep your grades up and comply with all admissions requests!  In short, you will lose one of your 4 seasons of competition and your ability to receive athletics aid will be severely restricted if you do not finish 1 academic year at the school with which you signed.

ACC Tips:

  • Understand the terms of your scholarship (1 year or Multi-Year)
  • Have a clear description of what your the scholarship will cover and not cover.
  • Understand the terms of an NLI and all of the FAQs involved.
  • Know what is expected of you to have your scholarship renewed each year.
  • Note: an NLI is a promise of scholarship, not a guarantee to participate or a spot on the Roster.  So, keep up your end of the bargain during the school year and summer and follow your club Coach’s training prescription and meet the expectations set forth by your new college coach.

What if I want to “Sign” or “Commit” but I am not getting a scholarship?

An NLI can only be issued if a school offers you an athletic scholarship.  So if you happen to choose a school that does not offer athletic aid or you will be accepting a recruited athlete or preferred walk-on position, how do you make that final commitment? Can you also participate in  signing-day activities at your school without an NLI? Often prospects who do not have NLIs will sign their housing agreement, deposit papers, or acceptance reservation as a formal commitment to the school and program.  Some programs will issue their own “Letter of Commitment” or a “Letter of Intent”. These are institutional creations that have merit, but no legal standing with the NCAA.  The purpose is to state clear terms of and understanding between coach and athlete; having something in writing can assist in reinforcing mutual respect, honesty and responsibility.

To Sign or Not to Sign?

Make sure you understand all of the pros and cons of accepting a scholarship via NLI before signing.  In some ways an NLI is like Private Mortgage Insurance.  PMI is an insurance policy that bank/lender can require the house buyer/borrower to purchase.  The catch is that it protects the lender/bank – not the borrower/buyer!  So while an NLI does offer legal assurance that a school will hold your scholarship, it offers more protection to the institution than to the student-athlete.

ACC Tips:

  • Understand all of the language of and rules on the actual NLI.
  • Be sure that you a ready to make your final decision.
  • Be comfortable with the terms of the agreement (your cost to attend).

We know this is a lot of information to digest, but do your homework and get your questions answered and know that you will only have to go through this once in your life.

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10 years ago

I also recommend deciding on which schools you are interested in, check out their programs, see if you are an impact player, a depth player, a walk on type, or someone that has no shot at all of getting on the team. Make sure you know where you fit before you contact a coach. FILL OUT THE ONLINE QUESTIONNAIRES that every team has – that is super important. Once you have done that, then you are on the coaches radar if they are interested (and if you already aren’t on their radar). I also recommend putting your contact info on the database. I do not recommend subscribing to any of the recruiting companies b/c it really is a waste… Read more »

10 years ago

questionnaire*, sorry.

10 years ago

Do not forget about going through the clearing house/eligibility center! You can’t go on a trip until you are cleared by the NCAA.

***The next ACC article should be on navigating that cryptic question. Some of my athletes have asked me the questions and they couldn’t be more general and confusing to a kid.***

Rick Paine
Reply to  coacherik
10 years ago

Thanks for the suggestion Erik. We will include some info the Clearinghouse/Eligibility Center in our next article coming out around the October 15th. Have your swim families look for it in the Lifestyle section.

PV Swimmer
10 years ago

Great Article indeed! Question … How do you get to go on a training trip? Do you call the coach and say you would like to visit and then he has to decide to pay for it or do you wait and see who contacts you?

Reply to  PV Swimmer
10 years ago

You mean recruiting visit, not training trip. When communicating with a coach you can express interest in visiting, and they’ll take it from there. They also may invite you before you ask, but never be afraid to be proactive with a school/team you are interested in. Some schools will pay for your travel, others will expect you to cover travel costs while they provide housing and food once you are on campus.

PV Swimmer
Reply to  NONA
10 years ago

Yes sorry about that. Recruiting visit. Thanks for answering. It is all so confusing, but your info is helpful to us first timers.

Nigel Tufnel
10 years ago

Well done Jessica. Thoughtful & sage advice.

10 years ago

Great article, wish I would have read this while I was looking for schools.

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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