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“When I learned how much going to college in the U.S. could cost, I was a little discouraged,” says Ade Otegbeye, of Nigeria, an engineering student at Indiana University. “Then I realized that even if you’re not a superstar, you can still get an athletic scholarship in many cases.”  With good grades and better-than-average athletic skills, Ade Otegbeye* got a full scholarship as a member of the school’s soccer team. The team provided an instant group of friends, and the scholarship allowed him to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an engineer.

More than 125,000 college scholarships are awarded to athletes every year. While 1% of these scholarships go to superstars, the majority – the remaining 99% — go to athletes who are good, but not great. Follow these tips and you can cash in on more than $376 million in athletic scholarships available to men and women every year.

According to college coaches, a student doesn’t need to be an all-star to earn a scholarship. Other qualities, including motivation and persistence, are more important. A student-athlete should be willing to try hard, to give 100% in their sport. A good athlete needs to be willing to work hard in the classroom as well as on the playing field. He or she should be a team player, and be open to suggestions and criticism from coaches. Often, these qualities combined are more valuable to a coach than athletic ability alone.

First, you need to establish your goals. Is competing at the college level the next step in your athletic career? Or is college the next step in your career plan, and athletics a way to accomplish that?

Be honest with yourself about your abilities. Are you currently setting records for your country? Are you among the top 10 athletes in the sport, in your age group? If so, you are what’s known as a “blue chip” athlete. Within the U.S., these athletes are courted by top universities who offer them full scholarships that include tuition, room and board, and books. If you’re a superstar, and you contact U.S. coaches early, there’s a good chance you’ll receive several competitive offers. If your next step is becoming a professional athlete or competing in the Olympics, you’ll want to compete at the highest level at a Division I school.

What if you’re a good athlete, but not the best in the world?

You still have an excellent chance of winning an athletic scholarship. Even the most competitive schools only sign one or two “superstars” each year. The remaining scholarships, more than 120,000 every year, go to athletes who are talented but not phenomenal.  Don’t be afraid to apply to the top tier universities. Different coaches look for different qualities in players, to round out the team. Your teamwork, speed or ball-handling skills may be exactly what that coach is looking for. Coaches respond to dedication in students. Competing on the college level requires a commitment in time and effort. Many international students are highly dedicated, on and off the field.

No matter what your level of ability, apply at smaller schools as well as the more famous universities. Virtually every school has a college athletic program and scholarships. A number of smaller schools have athletic scholarships that go unused, every year. By contacting smaller schools and community colleges, even an average athlete may easily land a full scholarship. A strong work ethic and a positive attitude are usually important to every coach. Many students with scholarships to community college are awarded full scholarships to four-year schools after two years.

Be proactive. No matter how good you are, you need to make the first contact. Even the biggest U.S. colleges with the most competitive programs can’t scout every school in the U.S., much less international schools. You need to take the initiative to contact coaches. One thing that all successful student-athletes have in common: they captured the coach’s attention. Athletes who contact coaches several times have a better chance of succeeding.

Consider changing sports. Many athletes have been successful in winning a scholarship by switching sports. At Washington State University, the women’s rowing crew has more than 60 team members. Just six of them were in rowing prior to college. All of the others were high school athletes, in other sports ranging from volleyball to swimming. As an athlete, you probably have skills that will work in a number of sports. If you’re fast, consider transferring from soccer to track. If you’re a great kicker, consider American football.

Don’t ignore your grades. In the past, the stereotype of a student-athlete was someone who was a big, dumb idiot – always male – who was failing all his classes. If that picture was ever true, it’s not any longer. Student-athletes are expected to have good grades, just to get into a competitive college. When a coach sees that a high school student has poor grades, they question the athlete’s commitment and ability to manage their time.

By the way, the stereotype of the male athlete has also changed. Since 1972, by law, every American college that receives any type of federal funding must offer as many scholarships for female athletes as for men. That means that every school that has $1 million in football scholarships, also has at least $1 million in scholarships for female athletes.

Don’t turn down a partial scholarship. Often, other loans and grants are available to international students who win a partial athletic scholarship. If your athletic scholarship covers 50% of your education, another program may cover the rest. Many schools offer special scholarships for international students. You may receive an academic scholarship or grant based on your grades.

Ade Otegbeye plans to return to his native Africa after he graduates in May. “I’m really grateful that I had this opportunity to attend college in the U.S., and help my people,” he says. “I would recommend an athletic scholarship to anyone. “


*Student names have been changed to protect their identities.


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