If you are intrigued by the world of college sports but are wondering how it all actually works, read on. Here’s our handy guide to playing sports while studying for your degree. It will help you decide if you have what it takes to become a student athlete yourself.

What is a Student-Athlete?

When you participate in an organized competitive sport at your American college or university, you are considered a student-athlete. This means you will have to balance your academic and social life with about 40-50 hours of sports per week. Occasionally you will also need to travel to games or competitions both near and far. One of the main perks of being a student-athlete is the chance to get scholarships that cover your tuition fees, either fully or partially. In the USA, there are more than 150,000 student-athletes receiving $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships each year from NCAA member colleges and universities, according to the statistics of the NCAA.

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What is NCAA?

NCAA stands for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. It is the biggest entity in the USA that oversees student-athletes. Altogether the NCAA (pronounced N-C-double A) works with about 450,000 students from more than 1,200 schools, institutions, conferences and associations. The organization also regulates many annual games and funds 90 championships.

Schools belonging to the NCAA are divided into three levels: Divisions I, II and III. The first two divisions are the most demanding athletically and are the ones offering scholarships to student athletes. Division III schools may also grant scholarships to athletes, but they need to be based on academic success.

Large public universities usually belong to Division I or II, like the College of Charleston whose teams are called the Cougars and play in Division I. Smaller private colleges are more likely to belong to Division III. One example of this is Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts whose Bulldogs compete in Division III.

Division I schools often feature major sports such as basketball, football and ice hockey. Division II schools may compete in things like tennis, water polo and golf. Division III schools have all kinds of sports, but these are balanced mostly with academics.

Are There Alternatives to NCAA?

Besides NCAA, there are some smaller organizations that govern college sports. One is NAIA, which stands for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. It includes about 250 schools, which are mostly smaller colleges. NAIA includes two Divisions I and II. The athletic level of NAIA’s Division II is comparable to the Division I level of the NCAA. Sports scholarships are a bit easier to get via NAIA compared to the NCAA, so the NAIA schools are a good option for foreign students.

Another governing organization for college sports is the NJCAA, the National Junior College Athletic Association. The NJCAA includes about 500 two-year community or junior colleges, divided into three divisions. Similarly to the NCAA schools, the Division I colleges of the NJCAA offer full athletic scholarships while the Division II schools offer just partial scholarships. The Division II schools generally don’t give out sports scholarships. While the NJCAA schools are not as prestigious as the others, many international students use the NJCAA schools as a stepping-stone into the world of US college sports.

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Why Should You Become a Student Athlete?

There are several reasons why it’s great to be a student-athlete - for example, you can get full or partial scholarships to help pay for your education, there is support available for your sports and academic success, and you’ll have access to special training facilities. In addition, playing sports guarantees you an instant group of friends at college in the form of other athletes and teammates. There will also be plenty of networking opportunities, since student-athletes get to attend many events and out-of-state games.

Who can Become a Student Athlete?

You might be under the impression that becoming a college athlete is only possible if you are super accomplished in sports. But that’s not true, says Emil Kumlin, a recruitment manager for College Scholarships USA, part of the Pursue Group.

“All players from elite level down to recreational level can play college sports, since the athletic levels at college are so diverse,” Kumlin says.

The academic criteria you need to meet as a student-athlete differs a bit depending on the school division you are aiming to play for. For Division I and II of NCAA, there’s an age requirement: You need to enroll straight after high school or at the latest, a year after high school. There are no age requirements for Division III schools.

Generally, you also need to have a high school diploma from your home country and to pass the SAT test as well as the TOEFL if you are a non-native English speaker.

About the Writer: Mirva Lempiäinen is a US-educated freelance journalist from Finland. After calling New York City home for about a decade, she now resides on the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.