Building a Student-Athlete College List – How to Find Your Reach, Fit, and Safety Schools

Updated on Aug 8, 2023

How to Build a College List

When creating a target list of colleges, student-athletes need to have a range of academic and athletic fit schools. Your outreach during the recruiting process will be a trial and error experience, and you need to cast a wide net initially to understand what schools are your athletic/academic reach, best fit, and safety schools. Being realistic about the academic and athletic fit of each school is the key to positive recruiting experiences and college admission outcomes.

For high school student-athletes, creating this list of colleges involves additional considerations. Many will have a list of solely academically fit colleges where they will look to play club or intramural sports and another list of athletic fit colleges where they aim to be recruited for athletics.

What is a Reach School?

Academic Reach

An academic reach school is one where your high school academic record (i.e. school GPA, test scores, and rigor of high school courses) is significantly below the average admitted student. An academic reach does not mean that a school is an impossible option, but it is very unlikely that you would be admitted solely based on the standard application. In many competitive admissions scenarios, a school is a reach for everyone, even if your academic record is a perfect match.

At an academic reach school, you will need to enter college with a new mindset and approach to your academics. Go in with confidence and a positive mindset. Some students can feel intimidated or overshadowed at an academic reach school. It’s all about how you approach your experience. If you were admitted, the school believes you can succeed, so believe in yourself and your academic abilities!

For student-athletes who are heavily recruited (athletic best fit or athletic safety), an academic reach can become a more likely opportunity. You’ll need confirmation from the college coach in the form of a “likely letter” from admissions and nothing is guaranteed until you’ve been officially admitted.

If a school is an academic reach, ensure you are also tracking your academic eligibility and that you will be an initial qualifier depending on the program’s division (ie. NCAA DI, DII, or NAIA).

Athletic Reach

An athletic reach school is a program that tends to recruit student-athletes competing and succeeding at a much higher level than your currently competing at – or will be competing at in the near future. Perhaps, you compete only regionally and the other recruits for the school are nationally ranked, or your current times, stats, or rankings are well below those for the team’s roster of student-athletes.

Keep in mind that at an athletic reach school, you are unlikely to be strongly recruited, and if they take walk-ons, they are unlikely to get playing time.

You may not know if a school is an athletic reach unless you realistically compare yourself to their current student-athlete roster and the high school students who have recently committed.

Be sure to ask yourself… are you getting seen live by coaches at that level? If you’re not getting seen, are you sending videos, connecting over social media, sending emails, and filling out questionnaires?

After doing the outreach, an athletic reach school may be non-responsive and may send a polite “no thanks,” or even a generic “thanks for your interest, come to our camps or keep us posted.” Also, keep in mind that each sport in college has a different set of rules regarding when a college coach can communicate with recruits.

What is a Best Fit School?

Academic Best Fit

An academic best-fit school matches well with your academic profile and your school GPA, course rigor, and test scores match the school’s typical academic requirements for admitted students. If you have 30 – 40 schools on your initial list of schools, strive to have at least 10 of those programs classified as an academic best-fit option. Academic best-fit schools are not a guarantee, so you should not assume your admission is a slam dunk.

Even if a school is on your academic best-fit list, don’t assume you have your NCAA or NAIA academic eligibility in the bag either!

Athletic Best Fit

An athletic best-fit school is where you are considered among the top three to five recruits for your class at that particular college program. You are likely to get a good amount of playing time off the bat (depending on the sport). The coach may offer athletic financial aid if it is available, and you have been personally invited by the coaches for an on-campus visit.

If there are a few recruits ahead of you on the coach’s list, stay in consistent communication and ensure the coach knows of your strong interest. In this scenario, the coach would likely advocate for your application in the admissions process.

Student-athletes tend to have a very positive experience when they choose to attend a school that falls within their athletic best-fit category. Oftentimes, they might feel their peers are on the same competitive level and are inspired to improve, and the competition level and schedule are where they had imagined when looking to play sports at the college level.

What is a Safety School?

Academic Safety

Schools that you would consider an academic safety are ones where your grades and test scores are well above the academic requirements for admission. You will likely get merit financial aid offered upon admission at an academic safety school. Be sure to look online when researching schools – many publicly list the academic standards required to get automatic merit financial aid.

At an academic safety school, you will likely be surrounded by students at your same level of academic rigor and you will have the opportunity to shine!

Honest Insight – Even at an academic safety school, your application must be complete and carefully reviewed before submission.

Athletic Safety

An athletic safety would be a program where you are well above the statistics, size, ability, times, and/or ratings of all current players on the roster. You would be the college coach’s number-one recruit by far and the coach will make it clear during conversations that they have a very high level of interest in you joining their program.

At an athletic safety school, you often have the ability to change the trajectory of a program. If your ability continues to improve, you may end up being a four-year starter and team leader.

If you are heavily sought after, you will likely receive financial aid (depending on the program/division) and coach advocacy in the admissions process.

Student-athletes who choose to attend an athletic safety school often have a very positive college experience. They receive a ton of support resources, athletic department and coach attention, and potential career networking in the future. Leadership opportunities abound, as do campus-wide recognition.

How Do Athletic Fit and Academic Fit Go Together? Real-Life Scenarios to Consider

An athletic reach candidate applying to an academic reach school is the least desirable option. This is a situation where most student-athletes won’t receive athletic financial or merit aid or admissions assistance and they have the least probability to compete. If a student-athlete ends up at one of these schools, it is best to look for club sports and intramural options to ensure they can balance their academic requirements.

An athletic reach candidate applying to an academic best-fit school is an interesting possibility, where they can be admitted to the school based on their academic accomplishments and have the opportunity to join the team as a walk-on or during a tryout. This is a common situation where very few candidates in this category will end up making the varsity team, but there is still the possibility of being part of the team and if they do not make the varsity team, most end up enjoying the club or intramural sports experience.

An athletic reach candidate applying to an academic safety school is another option where one would likely be admitted to the school on their own, and would contact the coach to inquire about tryouts or walk-ons options. This is a common situation where very few in this boat will make the varsity team, and most end up enjoying the club sport or intramural experience.

An athletic best-fit candidate applying to an academic-reach school may have a better chance of being accepted to the school with the help of the college coach and their advocacy through the admission process. This opportunity will depend on each college, as some competitive admission offices will not weigh athletics much in their admissions decisions, while other programs will weigh athletics heavily in the admissions process. Some athletic best-fit students may struggle with the academic rigor at an academic reach school, however, programs will usually have support services for students to ensure academic success.

An athletic best-fit candidate applying to an academic best-fit school will be a bonus for the coach, who will not have much difficulty advocating for them during the admissions process. Student-athletes in this position will likely have a very positive experience with balanced academic rigor and a positive athletic experience.

An athletic best-fit candidate applying to an academic safety school will also be a bonus for the coach, who will receive praise from admissions for recruiting academically strong candidates. In certain conferences like the Ivy League, coaches are required to find student-athletes who meet very high academic standards. Students in this scenario will shine both academically and athletically and will likely have a well-balanced college student experience.

An athletic safety candidate applying to an academic reach school will have the most likelihood of admission for an academic reach applicant. The coach may put all their eggs in this one applicant’s basket and strongly advocate to the admissions department for acceptance to the school. Athletic financial aid is definitely a possibility depending on what’s available or allowed. Student-athletes at an academic reach school will need to ensure they are prepared for the academic rigor and expectations and should take advantage of the academic support provided to student-athletes. There may also be high expectations for their athletic performance, so they should be prepared for the added pressure.

An athletic safety candidate applying to an academic best-fit school will have a high likelihood of admission. The coach will often advocate for this applicant with the admissions department as someone who already matches the academic requirements. Athletic financial aid and merit aid are definitely a possibility, depending on the program.

Students in this scenario have the strong possibility to shine both academically and athletically, and will likely have a well-balanced college student experience. There may also be high expectations for athletic performance, so they should prepare for the extra pressure.

An athletic safety candidate applying to an academic safety school will be as close as it gets to a slam dunk in admissions. This student is at the top of the coach’s recruit list and would have likely been admitted even without their athletic resume. Academic and athletic aid could both be options depending on the school, but they should be prepared to ask the correct questions when it comes to financial aid and taking scholarship funds.

Whether the goal is to earn an athletic scholarship to your best athletic fit school or gain entrance into an academic fit school, narrowing down the list of schools to find the best college fit will help you make the best-informed choice as you navigate the process. Ultimately, this careful attention will help to make sure you are 100% confident in your school choice when committing to a school!

Have more questions about the college commitment process? Honest Game counselors are available to provide one-on-one assistance to support student-athletes in navigating post-secondary opportunities athletically and academically. Schedule a time to meet virtually with our experts.

Joyce Anderson, Honest Game CoFounder and COOBy Joyce Anderson, Honest Game Co-founder and COO
Having served on the NCAA Eligibility Center High School Advisory Board and as the College Bound Student-Athlete Advisor at Evanston Township High School (Evanston, IL), Joyce has advised more than 2,000 high school student-athletes and families on academic eligibility and recruiting.