Im coming up to 4 years since graduating this year so maybe I can add to some of the points Cam has already made.
I attended Villanova University for 5 years on Athletics Scholarship for both XC and track. I was a 1500m runner heading over and was solid in XC. Nova is based just outside Philadelphia and boasts awesome academic standing (top 10 ranked business, nursing and engineering schools) and athletic history. I ran well while I was there and made friends that I will have for the rest of my life. It was definitely the best years of my life and I would recommend it to anyone who is weighing it up.
Having chatted with a few people in the oast about my experiemces I always start by recommending that you start your search by writing out the key things you want in a school. For me it was:
Academic standing - I wanted to do business and exercise science (random combo). Nova ticked the box on a business front and I had to decide if I truly wanted to do the ex sci side if things, which I decided against.
Athletic history and the quality of the current team
Location to a major city (Im a music fan so this one was a biggie for me) and NYC was also 2 hours train ride from Philly.
Does the team travel? I wanted to see the country and what better way than by racing around it.
I needed to go over on a full ride/ full scholarship (class fees, books, room and board)
Size of the class rooms - having been in a University setting in NZ I wanted smaller class rooms so I could get to know my professors and other students, which is alot harder in a 300 person lecture theater.
Approach of the coach - did it align with my current philosophies and training?
Did I feel comfortable that I could trust the coach - key for buying into their way of doing things. Does the school place focus on the conference meet? And will that mean they will have you race 5 times in a weekend? I wasnt that interested in that idea as I was always looking to be ready for the championship end of the season and not burn out a month before that.
What are the weather conditions like - I wasnt an early riser so wasnt keen on the thought of 6am training sessions like alot of the southern schools had to do during the fall and spring. Vice versa I didnt want to have to battle -20 degree weather in the winter… Do you want altitude or are you cool to be at sea level?
With all this, I’ll dive into your questions:
What’s the difference between Division I, II, and III schools? In addition, is there a difference in funding?
Im not 100% sure of the exact reason for the classification between D1, 2 and 3. I think it has to do with size of the school and the course offerings potentially. In terms of competition, as Cam has mentioned D1 is generally considered top level. Also this does not mean that the other two divisions are alot weaker than D1 - with D2 schools like Adams State and Western State putting D1 schools to shame on a regular basis. Both these schools have had great success with foriegn athletes (especially Kiwis and Australians) so are worth checking out.
Otherwise alot of times the D3 schools tend to be more academically focused with alot of them being liberal arts schools. These D3 schools also dont offer athletic scholarships from what I understand. We had a classic example of an awesome running school from D3 just 5km down the road - Haverford College. This was one of the top liberal arts schools in the country and they were national champs in XC for D3. No athletic scholarships though.
What I would do is look at the performance lists that can be found online. Look at your events for all three divisions and look for patterns in the schools that are popping up a lot or look at the times they are running (will give you a good idea of the level of competition).
I think re: competition think about where you fit best at your current level and where you feasibly think youll get to. Might be cool if you are aiming for a national D2 championship by your 4/5th year verus needing to run 13.40s in the 5km to even make the D1 national meet.
This also applies for the team that you are going into. If you are going to be the number 1 guy will you have people to push you? Will that mean there will be a lot of added pressure? Will you make the top 6 or will you be fighting to get on the racing squad? All these questions you need to ask yourself. Find the school that fits you best. Id also say to look at the conference results for the schools you are interested in and assess whether youll be able to get top 8. Schools will tend to give money to the guys and girls who can help them score at conference so do a little research around that to see if you will be valuable to the team.
What’s the competition like: How fierce is it? What’s the season structure like?
Kind of dived into this a bit above. However the key thing about this question is that the competition can be as fierce as you want it. When I was at Villanova we had 2 guys who woukd end up as Olympians and at least 4 additional sub 4minute milers - and that was on one team. I regularly raced across the country and against top ranked teams most weekends. That definitely had its ups but also downs. A school like Norther Arizona University (current national team champions in XC and have 2 kiwis on the team) on the other have a smaller conference and so they can have less intense competition at these meets. This means they often train through or have a mental break during these meets, allowing them to focus on the big meets at the start (i.e. Stanford) or end of the year.
How should I go about obtaining a Scholarship?
From my own experience I figured out, according to my list of must haves, what schools fit my criteria then I reached out to the coaches via email. I attached my resume with times and performances, my academics and other interests. There was also a few youtube clips floating around of my races from high school which I included in my email. Wanted to give the coaches the best picture of me.
How do I get in contact with coaches or get them to notice me?
As I mentioned above I took the first step and got infront of the schools I wanted. A lot of coaches are reaching out over facebook these days. If you have a coach touch base with you over FB make sure you research them just to make sure they are being up front about where they are from.
What are the perks of being an athlete? Is it like the movies?
Being a student athlete is an awesome experience and it can be like the movies if you want. The student life is alot of fun. But you also have to weight that up with your goals on the track as there are a lot of distractions in and around campus that arent condusive to running well. Outside of the party life, you have everything you need to run well, and for many it will be the closest thing most people will get to being a pro. You have all the food you need a card swipe away, the athletics department will do your laundry for you, all your mates and training partners live in one place, and you dont have to worry about kit with a few new pairs of shoes every season. Its a great life but you can be sucked in to the drinking and partying very easily you just have to know what your goals and know as an athlete there is a time and place for that stuff, mainly at the end of the season. Uni is a place where youre challenged and need to find your own way. Go out and meet as many people as you can, have fun, but know what you want to get out of the experience, especially on the track.
What sort of academics do I need?
Youll definitely need to do your SAT exam (which you can have a few cracks at) and graduate High School here in NZ with recognised courses. A mate of mine had issues becasue he did a couple subjects in NZ (i.e. photography, art and PE) that arent academically recognized subjects in US high schools. According to the NCAA that meant he didnt graduate high school. He was all good in the end as he just needed to pass a certain score in the SAT to get that waived.
The level of academics youll need really depends on the school. Nova is a very academic school so had a minimum SAT score to be accepted. However this was much lower for athletes who had been recruited than those who are applying on their academic merits. To find out what you need in the SAT just chat to the coach, they will know. It may also depend on whether they are tying in some academic scholarship money into you over all scholarship, which will probably bump up the SAT score you require.
In terms of academics in Uni there are minimum standards you need to achieve to be eligible to compete. So make sure you keep your head above water with that. However you are probably going to want to get a little more out of your academics than the minimum standards. To help with this the student athlete academic support team are a great resourse and if you are struggling, need help finding a tutor or are having trouble in a class they can help. Every school has easy classes floating around that are GPA boosters but also do reading on the school and where they stand academically. This will help determine what standards are like in the class room. Getting an A at Harvard will obvious be a bit tougher than getting an A at another school. So factor that in.
When is it too late to head over, as I know there is this thing called NCAA Eligibility (but I’m not really sure how it works?)… Do I have to go straight after high school.
I went over when I was 19 and had all 5 years at my disposal. However I hear eligibility rules have changed since I was there. I went over after a year and a half at Auckland Uni where I did a part time course load so that didnt start my 5 year eligibility clock. I am not sure if that still stands but I have heard that some rules have changed.
One thing I recommend everyone looking to head over is to push to start in August. I know this can be an issue for some given we finish our high school year in December but also because the coach may not have scholarship money free up till mid year. However I always push for an August start because thats when everyone is new and looking to mix and mingle. What I found was that when I got there in August the school had orientation activities and plenty of opportunities to meet other freshman. After the first month when everyone was well into their routines at school and the XC guys and girls are pumping out miles it was a lot harder to meet people in general. So when the odd person started second semester in January they also struggled. So go in August enjoy the orientation and meet as many people as possible.
Hope that helps.