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So you want to row in college?

Nathan Walker

Rowing? College? What's that?


February 19, 2021

The first intercollegiate sporting competition in any sport occurred in 1852, when Yale’s fledgling rowing team challenged Harvard’s team to a two-mile race for bragging rights between the two rival schools, a race that became an annual tradition and predates the first intercollegiate football game (1869) and basketball game (1895). Harvard beat Yale by two boat lengths in that first race, and was awarded a pair of black walnut, silver-inscribed trophy oars for their victory by future President Franklin Pierce.

Since these illustrious early days of intercollegiate racing, rowing has grown by leaps and bounds in the United States. What began with a friendly rivalry between two of the oldest schools in America has since blossomed to include over 15,000 collegiate student-athletes annually competing on 88 D1, 16 D2, and 41 D3 NCAA Women programs, 10 IRA (Intercollegiate Rowing Association, a precursor to the NCAA) Women Lightweight programs, 15 IRA Men Lightweight programs, 80 IRA Men programs, and 90+ Club programs.



What do you want in a college?

With so many different teams and divisions within competitive collegiate rowing, the first question you must ask yourself early in your recruitment is what are you looking to achieve from this process and from your rowing experience in college?

The answer to this question can be any number of interrelated things:

  • Receiving admissions support from the athletic department
  • Gain admission into a selective school
  • Receiving a partial or full-ride athletic scholarship
  • Experiencing competitive athletic personal and team success
  • Or, simply, enjoy the sport of rowing in a supportive team environment

However, it’s incredibly important to have a clear understanding of which of these are most important to you. Because, along with your academic and your athletic profile, what you are looking for from your college experience will guide which schools and coaches you connect and communicate with.

For starters, due to the Title IX gender equity educational amendment, there are a several more collegiate varsity women’s rowing teams than there are men’s rowing teams. Women’s rowing is an effective way for athletic departments to equitably offset the large spending and roster size gender discrepancy from colleges having highly supported varsity football teams. As such, while there are certainly some scholarships available in men’s rowing, they are often divvyed up across a few student-athletes and the majority of scholarships, full or partial, are found in women’s collegiate rowing.

An important nuance to the promise of athletic scholarships is that neither the Ivy League nor Division 3 colleges give athletic scholarships to either gender in any sport. However, the Ivy League and Division 3 schools with generous endowments will often meet whatever the financial need of a student is, which can have the same financial incentive a scholarship would have given a student-athlete at another school, and is something which should be considered when a student is communicating with coaches and choosing between colleges.

Another big part of the recruitment process is the admissions support you can receive from schools recruiting you. While you might not meet the test score or GPA thresholds necessary to be competitive for admissions at a school on your own, if you’re high on a coach’s recruiting list, there’s a good chance you can still be admitted to that college with their support. This admissions’ support is highly dependent on the school and can even change from year to year, but it can be generalized as something called either ‘hard admissions’ support’ or ‘soft admissions’ support.’

Hard support is where an athletic team has a certain number of slots each year, and the admissions department will give both a mean and a minimum academic threshold they’d like the recruiting class for each sport to have. As the coach puts together their recruiting class, they will then have the admissions department do an academic pre-read, to ensure that each recruited student-athlete meets the requirements and expectations to be considered a strong candidate for admission with that coach’s help.

Once the admissions office gives their approval with hard support, there’s an approximately 95% or better chance that recruit will be admitted – providing they don’t mess up their application or have a serious case of senioritis. In the Ivy League, these admit slots are called ‘Likely Letters’ and at Stanford it is called the ‘Pink App.’ Other schools use different terms.

Soft support is entirely different and doesn’t have nearly the same pull with the admissions department. Soft support of a student-athlete’s application will help boost that athlete’s chances of admission to the school, but doesn’t guarantee it in the same way as hard support does, and a student-athlete will generally still need to be considered a competitive candidate for admissions.



Competitive environment

Another important point to consider when choosing a college is the competitive team environment you’re looking for. The most competitive teams of each gender have cuts if you don’t meet a minimum erg score threshold each year, there will be a good number of seasoned international recruits from Europe and Oceania competing on the team with you, and the rowing standards to make the top 8+ will be comparable to – if not higher than – the rowing standards to make an Olympic team.

Less competitive teams in the 2nd and 3rd level finals at NCAAs and IRAs are still competitive, but the erg standards aren’t quite as high, the teams are often a bit smaller, and the training demands become slightly less overwhelming.

As you then transition down the competitive hierarchy to D2 and D3 schools, you begin to have mandated breaks from rowing built into the training schedule, which allows for a little better athletic/academic/social life balance, if that’s important to the overall college environment you’re interested in.

Additionally, there are collegiate club rowing teams to consider. Although collegiate club rowing teams don’t have athletic scholarships or admissions’ support, and compete at their own national championship, they do run the whole gamut of team size and competitiveness, with some having multimillion dollar endowments, full-time coaches, and impressive boathouses to train out of. 



How do I get started?

Rowing recruitment usually begins in earnest the second half of an athlete’s junior year and proceeds throughout the fall and sometimes even spring of their senior year. You should begin this process mid/late junior year by reaching out to the coaches of the programs you’re interested in by filling out the recruit questionnaires on their websites, and emailing them to introduce yourself and succinctly explain your athletic accomplishments, academic stats (transcript/test scores), and why you’re interested in their program and college or university.

From there, you’ll want to continue updating these coaches with any noteworthy accomplishments of yours via email, whether it’s a personal best erg time, impressive racing results, or an even higher standardized testing score. If coaches are interested in your potential as a recruit, they will email back and forth with you to begin the next steps of the recruiting process, which usually includes a phone call.

To further enhance your chances of catching the attention of rowing coaches, rowers will want to have recent closeup video rowing on the water showing body positioning and bladework as well as video rowing on the erg, while coxswains will want to have recent audio clips coxing a practice on the water, possibly coxing a practice on land (if applicable), and coxing a race. You’ll also want to create an NCAA eligibility account and have your school upload your transcript to the NCAA and submit your standardized test scores there as well.

If you have an opportunity to compete for a spot on the USRowing U19 National Team, you 100% should try for it. This team is selected from the athletes invited to ‘selection camp’, invitations which are offered due to impressive 2k scores submitted through the website, impressive race results noted by U19 national team coaches, or impressive showings at one of the many Identification Camps offered early winter each year – which you should strongly consider attending if you’re able.

Additionally, if younger athletes have the opportunity to compete for a spot at CanAmMex camp or even the younger Olympic Development Camp, they should consider doing so, as it will both give them an opportunity to further grow and develop in the sport, but is also often a touching point with some college coaches.

Another option for further training and exposure for rowers and coxswains are the USRowing Youth Regional Challenge and specific college summer rowing camps. The benefit of the USRowing Youth Regional Challenge is that it’s a fun change of pace late each fall that occurs between top rowers from different regions competing against one another in regional boats, and gives athletes greater exposure to different coaching and other athletes from around the country (though it’s not nearly as beneficial as the national team options listed in the prior paragraph). The benefit of a summer college rowing camp is that it gives exposure to a college’s campus and rowing facilities, and sometimes (though not always) the coaches of that college’s rowing team.

Additional things to consider during the recruitment process is that you have five official visits to schools interested in that offer it to you. However, you have unlimited unofficial visits to take to schools. If you are offered an official visit to a school it means a school is strongly interested in you as a student-athlete recruit, and would like to get to know you as a person on campus, and also give you an opportunity to learn if their school and program are a good fit for you.

Official visits are usually paid for by the school, but not all schools offer official visits to their top recruits, so not receiving one doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t in consideration for admission’s support or athletic scholarships to a school. Also, if you’re interested in a school and its rowing team but aren’t being recruited, whether it’s because it’s a super competitive team with limited admission slots or just a club team, don’t fret! Talk to the coaches of your interest in the team and school, as there’s a strong chance you can walk on the team if you gain acceptance into the school, even if you weren’t ‘recruited.’

Final Thoughts

The most important part of this process is doing your best to keep a healthy perspective through it all. Remember: rowing is fun! But it can sometimes be an emotional roller coaster. Training, racing, and even recruiting is rarely linear and doesn’t always take the direct path you’d like. Enjoy the ride with your teammates and coaches, as you’ll joyfully reflect back on these times as some of the best in your life!

Nathan Walker is the head rowing coach at Culver Academies. He is also a college admissions counselor at Culver. Walker coaches the CMA rowing team and Peter Miller coaches the CGA rowing team.

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