11 Steps to Create Your 20 School Universe

When searching for college athletics programs, one common error I've seen is that potential student-athletes feel the need to maximize their options. Any school will do or any school in FILL IN THE BLANK division in an option. The result is a lot of bad introductory emails that go unread or commitments that lacked any consideration for personal, academic, and athletic preferences.

How can you maximize your chances of playing college soccer and enjoying the experience?

Start by narrowing your search with the 20 School Universe.

What does that entail?

11 Ways to Narrow Your College Search

Committing to a university isn’t simply a matter of soccer program prestige. Your decision should check multiple boxes. Though you won’t know if you’ve found a good fit until you get on campus and experience life as a college student, there are some ways to make a more informed decision.

  1. Finances – Sitting down with your parents to determine the family budget is a great starting place. If there is a definitive limit to spending, that will likely narrow your list of potential schools.
  2. Major Find schools with your desired major. Statistically, you’ll change your major at least once in college, but attending a school with your intended course of study (especially if it’s a less common major) puts you in the right environment to gauge your academic and career interests.
  3. Location – Do you hate cold weather? Then you probably want to stick to the southern half of the country. Want snow? How much? Do you care about the distance to the beach or mountains? Do you need the entertainment options of a large city or do you prefer a more rural setting? Location and environmental preferences are often the easiest ways to narrow your list.
  4. Distance from Home – If you want your family at games, local options will dominate your list. Many high schoolers decide to attend college within three hours of their homes. If that’s your preference, your list is much more manageable. For those of you who are ready to travel the country and distance is not a hindrance, have at it.
  5. School Size – Do you love a big campus with a crazy college football or basketball scene? A big school might be best for you. Do you like the idea of knowing most of the students on campus and finding your friend groups a little easier? A small to mid-size college offers that campus environment.
  6. Class Size – At a big school, you could have a class with 600 students. At schools smaller schools, the student-to-teacher ratio can be as low as 12:1. Some like the idea of a top research school, others like the thought of building relationships with professors and having a voice in class. Learning styles also influence this decision.
  7. Academic Prestige – Top students can easily narrow their search credentials by selecting a minimum level of institutional academic prestige. If attending one of the nation’s top academic universities is a priority, this is a great place to filter your search.
  8. Faith Traditions – If you want to attend a school of your faith tradition, that’s an easy way to narrow your list. Keep in mind you may have to deemphasize other categories, like location or distance from home.
  9. Soccer Program Status – Finally, our first soccer consideration. Do you want to join a traditional powerhouse or help rebuild? Does program prestige matter to you or are other considerations (like the ones below) more important?
  10. Playing Time – If playing time is important to you, the best question to ask yourself is, “do I make this team better?” If you can honestly say “yes” (hopefully club coaches can offer honest feedback), odds are you’ll be in the mix for regular playing time right away. If the answer is “no”, are you okay with sitting on the bench or playing on the reserve squad for 1-3 seasons? Former University of Washington player Ryan Sailor is one example of a player who battled through limited playing time as an underclassman before claiming a prominent role as an upperclassman. How would you respond if you never claimed a first-team role? The transfer portal has made it easier to leave a disappointing situation, but if playing time is a top priority, find programs where you’re valued and improve the team.
  11. Team Culture – This can be a tough thing to uncover. Attending the school’s camps will give you an idea of the coaching staff’s approach to the game and training methods. You can even participate in D2 practices (unfortunately, that option is only available at D2). Campus visits will often allow you to meet players and an overnight stay will give you direct exposure to the team. Determine what’s best for you and your family. You can learn a lot by spending time with the players and attending a practice or game.

Research Time

Once you’ve made a list of your preferences, it’s time to do the research.

If playing college soccer is a priority, it’s best to build out your 20 School Universe. With your research complete, identify four or five schools at each division of play. Yes, that means even the “D1 or Bust” crowd should have options across multiple divisions. Unless you’re a nationally recognized prospect with top D1 schools banging on your door for a commitment, the worst thing you can do is limit your search to a specific division.

Ultimately, the 20 School Universe is a way to refine your search and target schools that better align with your personal, academic, and athletic preferences.

List your top four or five D1s, D2s, D3s, NAIAs, and JuCos preferences that check all/most of the boxes. That’s where your college athletics search begins.

You will find that some areas are more important than others. For example, location or distance from home might not matter as much as other categories.

You’ll receive feedback as you email coaches, either indirectly or directly. Some may not return emails, others may say they’re looking in a different direction. Contact with coaches will give you a good idea of how they see you fitting into their program. Spanning your search across multiple divisions is the best way to investigate your options while maximizing your chances of playing soccer (or any sport) in college.

A Big Decision, But One You Can Revisit

There is some work to be done and you may pick a school that loses its appeal after a year or two. Transfers happen.

Don’t put the weight of the world on this decision (because you can course-correct later if need be), but certainly give college selection the consideration it deserves. If you need help with refining your search or connecting with coaches, there are recruitment agencies available. Do your DD and thoroughly vet them, ensuring they're skilled at helping you make educated decisions in the recruitment process.

You may attend a school that doesn’t initially appear on your radar. Maybe a coach finds you and works hard to bring you to their program. That’s fine too, even preferable. The 20 School Universe is designed to help you take a massive pool of schools and reduce it to more manageable numbers with a higher likelihood of finding a university and soccer program that fit your academic, athletic, and personal preferences. Once you arrive on campus, new experiences will give you feedback on your decision.

Take a measured approach, actively reach out to coaches, and occasionally remind yourself to enjoy the journey. Be selective, find schools that check your boxes, and take charge of your college recruitment with the 20 School Universe.


Want the week's best soccer content delivered to your inbox each Friday? Sign up for The Sweeper-Keeper Newsletter below.