What’s The Difference Between A Walk-On And A Preferred Walk-On?

As a high school athlete serious about playing your sport in college, or a parent of a high school athlete being recruited, you are probably curious what exactly the difference is between walk-ons and preferred walk-ons.

Preferred walk-ons arrive to college with a roster spot guaranteed for them. Walk-ons, however, arrive to college without a guaranteed roster spot. Neither preferred walk-ons nor walk-ons receive a scholarship their first year on campus. They both have the opportunity to compete for them in later years, but preferred walk-ons are often first in line for available scholarships.

Recruits and their families must often make decision between accepting scholarship offers from D2 and D3 schools or becoming a walk-on at a D1 school - a path NFL stars like JJ Watt, Clay Matthews, and Jordy Nelson chose. Understanding the difference between walk-ons and preferred walk-ons is important in making this decision. Below you will find more information about each and what makes them different.

Preferred Walk-Ons vs. Walk-Ons

Preferred Walk-On: These recruits are guaranteed a spot on the roster by the college’s coach. The coach wants the recruit on their team, but didn’t have a scholarship available for them. While they do not receive any financial assistance, they receive the same attention from the coaching staff and benefits that the scholarship athletes do. This means that they need to continue to treat every practice as if it were a tryout so that they can keep their place on the team and compete for future scholarships and playing time.

Recruited Walk-On: Recruited walk-ons received recruiting interest from the team’s coach, but were not given the “preferred” designation. They are on the coach’s radar upon arriving to campus, but do not have their roster spot guaranteed. They have to compete in a tryout or training camp to win their place on the team, but are more likely to do so than unrecruited walk-ons. Once they’ve won their place on the team, they can begin to compete for playing time and scholarships

Unrecruited Walk-On: Unrecruited walk-ons decide to attend a school, despite not receiving any recruiting interest from the team’s coach. Once on campus, they are responsible for contacting the coach and attending an open tryout or training camp. Despite their path to a roster spot being more difficult than that of recruited walk-ons, they still have a fair shot of making the team and competing for playing time and scholarships once they do. Because most recruits have at least talked to a coach before enrolling to ensure they can try-out, this path is less common than that of the recruited walk-on or the preferred walk-on.

Walking On - A Risk Worth Taking?

It’s A Common Path: For Division 1 programs, the number of athletes they can give a scholarship are limited for certain sports. Popular sports like football, volleyball, tennis, and basketball fall into this camp. For this reason, there are thousands of walk-ons around the country in many different sports. For example, an average Division 1 college football program has a roster of 118 athletes. However, they are generally under a scholarship limit of 85. This means that the average Division 1 college football program has 33 walk-ons on the roster at any given moment. Multiply this by the 130 programs in the country and you’ll realize there are roughly 4,000 walk-ons in D1 college football. Being a college walk-on, while not as glitzy as signing a scholarship, is a time-proven and respected path.

Places The Ball In Your Court: Your work ethic and motivation will partially determine whether walking-on, often times at the expense of a scholarship from a different program, is a risk worth taking. If you are committed to treating every practice and meeting like a tryout, the coach will gain respect for you and be much more likely to consider you for a scholarship in the future. After all, coaches love hard workers. On the other hand, if you arrive to campus as a walk-on and act as though you have already earned your spot on the roster, the coach is much less likely to recognize your potential and consider you for open scholarships in the future. The personality and work ethic of walk-ons plays a huge role in determining their success.

Financial Burden: There’s really no way to get around this one; walking-on, regardless of whether you are a preferred, recruited, or unrecruited walk-on, is a huge risk financially. Walk-ons do not receive any financial aid upon arrival to the program. Additionally, many walk-ons have the option of going to a different, potentially smaller programs on a scholarship. Is walking-on at your preferred program worth giving up a scholarship to a different one? This is a question that every recruit and their family must answer.

Team Coach’s Advice: Oftentimes the coach of the program you intend to walk-on to is the best resource when deciding if it’s a risk worth taking. No one knows the program better than their coaching staff, so no one is better positioned to discuss the likelihood of you receiving playing time or financial aid in the future.

School Fit: Meeting with the program’s coaches can also be a great way to assess whether the program would be a good fit for you as a walk-on. Does it seem like the coaches value walk-ons? How many walk-ons are there? Questions like these will help you determine how well you and the program fit each other.

What Is Life Like As A Walk-On College Athlete?

Harder Path to Playing Time: Scholarship players generally have a much easier path to playing time than walk-ons. A scholarship is a significant investment, and coaches hate to waste scholarships on players who aren’t good enough to play. This often makes them biased towards scholarship players. For this reason, scholarship athletes usually receive the first crack at playing time, even if a walk-on is at a similar skill level.

Occasional Lack Of Support: Some walk-ons don’t have access to the same resources, both athletic and academic, that scholarship athletes do. Preferred and recruited walk-ons typically don’t experience this, but it is common for unrecruited walk-ons to not have access to the same resources as the rest of the team. This would be a great topic to discuss with your desired program’s coach.

Unfair Treatment Is Possible: While no coaching staff purposefully encourages the unfair treatment of walk-ons, programs around the country have very different cultures surrounding walk-ons. Walk-ons occasionally feel as though the coaches and other athletes don’t consider them a real member of the team. This is another topic to ask your desired program’s coach. Their culture will play a huge role in your experience as a walk-on at the program.

Success Feels Amazing: While success is harder to come by as a walk-on, it sure is sweet when you find it. Receiving playing time or financial aid will feel like a validation of the risk you took committing to a school without a scholarship. Walking on is certainly challenging, but when you find success, it is an amazing experience.

Things to Keep in Mind

Do Walk-Ons Travel With The Team? Walk-ons are typically are initially placed on the scout team, meaning they participate in practice but do not receive any playing time. Whether they travel with the team depends on the program size. The program’s coach can very easily explain their policy on traveling for walk-ons.

What If It Doesn’t Work Out? As a walk-on, you are obviously allowed to transfer schools if you decide it’s the best decision for your future. However, some sports require you to sit for a certain amount of time before you can play for or receive travel expenses from a new school. Preferred and recruited walk-ons must observe this rule, but it does not apply to unrecruited walk-ons.

Do Walk-Ons Sign A NLI? Walk-ons do not sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI). For this reason, there is no specific date by which they are required to commit.

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