Imagine this scenario: You're sitting in a cafe in Switzerland watching Euro 2008. You don't speak any French, German or Italian, but you are handed the thickest menu you have ever seen. This thing is like 50 pages long. You open it and start flipping through. You have no idea what you're looking at. To boot, you're a picky eater. The waiter comes and you point to a random item and hope ...
Amazingly, the pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey method is how a lot of young soccer players choose a college. They make a decision with little information other than hearsay or some indication that they might be able to play soccer there. Unfortunately, the result is that a lot of people end up transferring.
If you want to have a successful college soccer career, you have to work for it - and not just in the sense of going out on the field and practicing a lot. Finding the right college requires research. The good news is that there are a number of excellent resources at your disposal:
Relatives and family friends. It's always good to start with the people you know. Ask them what schools they think might be a good fit for you. Often, these recommendations can be the most powerful because your relatives and family friends know you and the college.
College guidance tools. Web sites like Destination-U.com suggest a list of colleges based on the criteria you input. Books such as those offered by The Princeton Review can be very useful as well. Go to the bookstore, sit in a big cushy chair with a hot chocolate and flip through some guidance books.
College counselors. If your school has a college counselor, schedule an appointment. Otherwise, talk to your teachers. They are often familiar with many colleges. Talk to you club and high school coaches as well.
Don't be overwhelmed. Spend a couple hours each week doing some research and before long you'll have a great list of colleges. You'll notice that the resources above focus not on soccer, but on academics and social life. That is by design. Once you have found a group of 20 or so schools that are right for you academically and socially, then it's time to focus on soccer:
College team Web sites. You can learn a lot about teams by checking out their Web sites. Read about the coach, the most recent results, and check out the schedule to see who they play. Have a look at the roster to learn about the players, where they're from, and what types of clubs they played for. Use Facebook to send messages to some of the players and ask them about their experience.
Visits. Once you've narrowed your list down to five to 10 colleges, visits are essential. Don't wait around for coaches to offer you official visits. Instead, take the initiative to visit on your own and try to stay overnight with one of the players. This will show the coach that you're seriously interested and give you an opportunity to really assess the place. If you love it, great. If you don't, cross it off your list.
Finding the right school is one of the most challenging aspects of college recruiting. But a little homework goes a long way. First find a group of colleges that are right for you as a student and socially. There are so many colleges out there that, if you are fairly thorough, your pool will end up including a handful that are right for you as a player.
If you can find the college that's right for you on these three dimensions, you'll be setting yourself up for a great college experience and a great college soccer career. So as you start sifting through all the colleges out there, heed the following: Fit is infinitely more important than prestige. Find the right place, not the fanciest.
Avi Stopper coached at the University of Chicago and was the captain at Wesleyan University. He is the founder of CaptainU, a software company that helps soccer players manage the recruiting process.