How To Prepare for A College Soccer Scholarship?

All young soccer enthusiasts have been there: dreaming of playing at a professional level, scoring a goal in front of home fans, winning a major trophy. I believe a reality check is necessary to contain these dreams. A lot (and I mean a lot) of things have to go your way for you to play at a professional level in the top tiers of soccer. In addition to being talented, you need to work incredibly hard, start very early, be at the right place at the right time, have the appropriate connections, and the list goes on. 

The odds of making it into top tier soccer are terrible but hey, a guy/gal can (and should) dream. There is a “lesser” and arguably more attainable dream that young players can look up to: get a soccer scholarship. Soccer scholarships provide an opportunity for high school students to obtain a college education while playing competitive soccer for their school. It is a great 2-in-1 option! How to get a soccer scholarship, one may ask. Let’s dive right into it.

Kick-Off Early

This is a common factor in the majority of collegial or professional athletes. Very rarely do you see an athlete start playing competitively later on in their careers. Some pro players get scouted as early as 12 (David Beckham, for example). Similarly, if you want to edge out the competition for a lucrative soccer scholarship, you need to start playing early. 

Recruiters tend to look for a few years experience in High School varsity soccer in the candidate pool. This means that the earlier you start, the better. This advice needs to be heard by parents in most cases, as young students may not have the foresight to apply themselves until it’s too late. So parents, if you are reading this, and your child is exhibiting a knack for, or an interest in soccer, start early!

“Suspend” Other Sports

As much as young-you wants to believe that you can excel in soccer, basketball, tennis, and football, it is unrealistic. This is why most athletes only ever play one professional sport at a time. This is no less true for playing at a college level. You can maintain a recreational interest in other sports, but your primary focus should be soccer. 

If you feel like you belong in a pair of cleats on a pitch, ditch the other sports and focus on soccer. The additional time and resources you might spend on the sport can give you that extra edge when applying for a scholarship.

Build a “Net” work

Most people don’t fully appreciate the importance of networking until they search for their first job. The adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” rings true in many circles. For students aspiring to attain soccer scholarships, they need to develop relationships with their high school coaches and actively reach out to college coaches. High school coaches can help you improve your game, making you more competitive when applying. 

When you’ve narrowed down a list of colleges to apply to, you need to reach out to college coaches. Of course, your soccer ability is of paramount importance to a college coach. However, they also want to assess you as a team player and personality. You can think of this process as similar to job searching and present yourself as the right person for the job.

Referee your Academics

Don’t forget these are soccer “scholarships”. Yes, the critical component of these opportunities is to play soccer at a competitive level. However, there is a fundamental level of academic success you must achieve to qualify for and to maintain a soccer scholarship. For admission, this means achieving at least the minimum level of test scores and GPA required by your potential school. 

For maintenance, your college might require a minimum GPA each semester for you to continue receiving your scholarship funding. While soccer can be your primary focus, one has to keep an eye on their academic performance. Moreover, it never hurts to have a plan B. You may be better off picking a lucrative field study (despite the hard work juggling with soccer demands) rather than picking an easy major to reduce the academic stress. In case you cannot earn a living by playing soccer, you’ll have a fall-back option.

Review your Options

To apply for the right scholarship, you need to assess your athletic, academic, and financial ability. For athletics and academics, the best place to start would be to review the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) guidelines and criteria for playing college sports competitively. You will also need to look up your school’s criteria for admission, particularly concerning academics.

Finally, you’ll also need to evaluate your financial situation. Soccer is classified as an equivalency sport (i.e., one that generates lower revenues). The implication of this is that coaches are granted a fixed amount of scholarship awards, which they can then distribute as they see fit. You need to balance your financial expectations with your athletic and academic ability and make your choice of school or division based on all those factors.

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Colleges that offer Soccer Scholarships

After undergoing the appropriate preparation, you’ll ultimately need to make a choice on the college you want to attend. There are three NCAA soccer divisions (Division I, II, and III), and a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) division for smaller schools and universities. As stated above, you need to assess your abilities across athletics, academics, and finance to identify the right programs you can apply to. The NCAA Division I, for example, demands the most of students. 

Division I players have a loaded training schedule and are barely given any room for extracurriculars or other academic interests. Division II players have a more balanced round-up while maintaining a high level of athleticism. Division III players have a close-to-normal college experience while playing competitive soccer. So depending on your abilities and preferences, you should make an informed decision about what programs you want to apply to.

In any case, the below tables summarise the top scholarship-offering programs for Men’s and Women’s soccer across the different divisions. These rankings were compiled by NCSA (Next College Student Athlete).

Top NCAA D1 Schools

Institution Best For
Stanford University Men, Women
Princeton University Men, Women
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Men, Women
Harvard University Men, Women
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Men, Women
University of California Men, Women
University of Michigan Men, Women
Yale University Men, Women
University of Virginia Men
University of California, Irvine Men
University of Florida Women
University of Georgia Women

Top NCAA D2 Schools

Institution Best For
University of California, San Diego Men, Women
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona Men, Women
Colorado School of Mines Men, Women
Bentley University Men, Women
Western Washington University Men, Women
Rollins College Men, Women
California State University, Chico Men, Women
Truman State University Men, Women
Point Loma Nazarene University Men, Women
Cedarville University Men
Grand Valley State University Women

Top NCAA D3 Schools

Institution Best For
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Men, Women
Johns Hopkins University Men, Women
University of Chicago Men, Women
Emory University Men, Women
Amherst College Men, Women
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Men
Tufts University Men, Women
Pomona-Pitzer Colleges Men, Women
Washington Univesity in St Louis Men, Women
Williams College Men, Women
Carnegie Mellon University Women

Top NAIA Schools

Institution Best For
Soka University of America Men, Women
University of California – Merced Men, Women
Indiana Wesleyan University Men, Women
University of Michigan – Dearborn Men, Women
Asbury University Men, Women
University of Saint Francis – Indiana Men
Bethel University – Indiana Men
Taylor University Men, Women
John Brown University Men, Women
Madonna University Men, Women
Columbia College – South Carolina Women
Vanguard University of Southern California Women

The Final Whistle

Soccer scholarships are a great route to explore for soccer enthusiasts who want to play competitively without compromising an undergraduate education. The level of competition for these scholarships is intense, with a large number of candidates competing for a limited amount of funding available (driven by soccer’s status as an equivalency sport). This requires eligible candidates to prepare well in advance to make themselves stand out from the competition. This includes taking steps as starting off earlier, forgoing competitive interest in other sports, strengthening your academic profile, and network with coaches at the high school and college level.

Aspiring applicants must also evaluate their athletic, academic, and financial abilities before applying to programs. An honest assessment of these three factors must be made before making a list of potential programs to apply to. Once an evaluation has been made, the process of narrowing down a list of schools/programs to apply to becomes much more manageable. This, in turn, improves one’s odds of securing such a lucrative scholarship. So if you’re an aspiring soccer player (or a parent of one), the time to get started is now!

James Cunningham
James Cunningham
James lives in Chicago with his wife and three daughters. Originally from the UK, soccer has allowed him to travel the world. Now a youth coach, he fully enjoys teaching others about the game that he loves so much. His favorite team is Manchester United.