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Playbook for athletes seeking scholarships

Times Staff Writer

Paying for college can feel like a high-wire act as a family tries to keep its budget balanced.

Katelyn Scholte, 15, could have an edge in that acrobatic endeavor. In classes at a YMCA, the Redlands teen has learned a host of circus performing skills, including how to walk a high wire and do a triple flip off a teeterboard. She’s hoping to parlay her aerial talents into a place on a college diving team with an accompanying athletic scholarship.

“Getting into college is so competitive right now that you have to have an edge to stand out,” she says. “Sports can help you get where you want to go and make sure that money isn’t so much of an issue.”

Hundreds of thousands of students compete for roughly $1.2 billion in scholarship money that is awarded each year to about 180,000 athletes in 34 sports, said Penny Hastings, author of “How to Win a Sports Scholarship.”

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Only about 10% of high school athletes win athletic scholarships for college, but you don’t have to be a superstar to get some money, Hastings said. If you’re good enough to play on a university team, your chances are excellent. Scholarship amounts vary from a few hundred dollars a year to a full ride -- including tuition, books, fees and living expenses. Dedicated, above-average athletes who are good students have a decent shot at getting at least a portion of their college bills paid -- if they approach getting a scholarship with the same skill and verve that they apply to their sport.

Athletics can provide a financial boost even at schools that don’t provide sports scholarships, said Kalman Chany, a New York-based college counselor and author of “Paying for College Without Going Broke.”

“Some people think that while their child is an athlete, he’s not good enough to get a scholarship, so they say it doesn’t matter if he participates in the athletic programs,” Chany said. “But that’s not true because while some colleges are not technically giving out scholarships, they provide preferential treatment to athletes in the financial aid process.”

There’s no way to quantify that benefit, however.

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Keep in mind that athletics can also make it easier to gain admission to a school, especially if the coach wants you on the team, Chany said.

Does that mean parents should sign up athletically inclined children for expensive “club” teams to boost their chances of getting sports scholarships?

That wouldn’t be a smart investment, Hastings said. Playing at the club level, which is often several steps above the average high school team, can improve athletic skills and the chance of getting a scholarship. But club sports are likely to cost $1,000 to $5,000 a year, depending on the sport and whether the team travels.

From a purely economic standpoint, you’re far better off putting that money in a college account. Pouring money into a club team membership in hopes of gaining a college scholarship is like using retirement savings to buy lottery tickets.

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“If your child loves the game, wants to play club sports and you want to support that, it’s wonderful,” Hastings said. “Don’t do it for a scholarship. That’s crazy.”

What are the reasonable strategies to boost an athlete’s chance of getting a college scholarship?

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Know the rules

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Many of the rules governing sports scholarships are set by one of a handful of athletic associations that have been formed to protect college athletes. The largest is the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., with more than 1,000 member institutions. An additional 300 four-year colleges are members of the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics, and about 500 community colleges are in the National Junior College Athletic Assn.

These associations often dictate the size and number of athletic awards that can be offered by member institutions. For instance, NCAA Division I colleges -- the athletic powerhouses -- last year were each allowed to offer no more than 85 “full-ride” men’s football scholarships in 2006 and a maximum of 20 full-ride women’s rowing scholarships. A full ride can pay for everything but cannot exceed the total cost of attendance.

Not every college can afford to offer the maximum number of full rides. And many choose to divvy up their scholarship dollars, spreading one full ride among a dozen students.

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Do your homework

If you’re a superstar, you might get multiple scholarship offers. If you’re not, your chances are going to depend on finding schools where you can fill a niche, Hastings said.

That requires research.

Scholte, a high school sophomore, is targeting UC Davis, which offers a winemaking major that interests her and boasts a top-notch diving team.

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She’s also been trying to call diving coaches at local colleges for advice.

That’s a great strategy, said Hastings, who interviewed 500 college coaches for her book. Among other things, you should know how your academic and athletic statistics compare with those of the players on the team you’d like to join.

It’s also smart to try to find out whether the team you’re targeting is likely to be looking for your particular skill set when you’re ready for college. If you are a water polo goalie and happen to know that the star goalie on your favorite college team is about to graduate, you might have a better chance than if the goalie is a freshman.

By accurately assessing your strengths, you can better match yourself to a team that’s likely to need you enough to be willing to provide scholarship aid to get you there.

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Market yourself

You may be the best baseball player in town, with your exploits plastered all over the hometown newspaper, but unless you’re nationally ranked, you shouldn’t expect college coaches to have heard of you. Hastings suggests that athletes put together a resume.

Such a resume should include your academic information first -- grade point average, SAT and advanced placement test results, academic awards and honors plus the clubs you’ve joined and your community involvement.

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A second section should list your athletic statistics, including your physical dimensions, the teams you’ve played for and any leadership positions on those teams, the tournaments you’ve competed in and any athletic awards or honors. Include your jersey number so the coach can spot you on the field if he or she visits. A photo and some newspaper clippings are good too.

If there are coaches or teachers who would put in a good word for you, it’s wise to list their names and contact information as well.

Make it as easy as possible for the coach, Hastings suggests. Send a brief introductory letter, your resume and possibly a sports schedule for your high school (ideally in your junior year to give the coach plenty of time to visit).

Don’t be obnoxious, but keep in touch, giving updates when you have more honors to report.

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Get it in writing

If you are fortunate enough to win a scholarship, make sure you get the details in writing before committing to attend. You should know, among other things, what will happen to the scholarship dollars if you get injured or if you struggle academically.

“Don’t just trust what somebody tells you,” said Chany, the college counselor. “Get it in writing, and make sure you know what strings are attached.”

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kathy.kristof@latimes.com


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