Many college swimmers are recruited athletes while others are walk-on athletes.

The difference can be confusing, especially in sports like swimming where there is not a lot of scholarship money available for recruits.

The NCAA definition of a Walk-on is:

Someone who is not typically recruited by a school to participate in sports and does not receive a scholarship from the school, but who becomes a member of one of the school’s athletics teams.

To further muddy the waters, there are two categories of walk-ons.

  • Recruited or “preferred” walk-ons are athletes who have been talking to the coach before college, got help from the coach through the admissions process and show up at the school knowing they are already on the team.
  • Unrecruited walk-ons are athletes who get into school on their own and make the team either through an open tryout or by talking to the coach after they have been admitted to the school.

Being an unrecruited walk-on should only be attempted when your swimmer knows he wants to attend this school, regardless of whether or not he swims, as there’s no guarantee he will be on the team. Most swimmers in this situation have at least spoken to the coach to confirm that they can try out once school begins. It’s very rare to show up on campus, find the pool and end up on the swim team!

Everyone on the swim team gets the same benefits and the same experience whether they earn a scholarship, are a preferred walk-on or join the team as an unrecruited walk-on. They get the same gear and the same academic support. For example, if athletes register for classes before the rest of the student body, all athletes will do so regardless of their scholarship or walk-on status.

If a swimmer performs well as a freshman and if the college offers swimming scholarships, there is the chance to earn scholarship money in subsequent years. The possibility of this is a good question to ask a coach when speaking to him before beginning school.

A prospect is considered a recruited athlete when:

There is a fine line because a coach can have frequent e-mail conversations with a prospective athlete but he won’t be considered a “recruited athlete” if none of the items listed above occur.

Coaches may invite walk-on athletes to join the team if they have used up all of their scholarship money or if their school doesn’t offer swimming scholarships.

Most college coaches don’t show preference between a scholarship athlete and a walk-on athlete. The coach wants to win meets and to score at Conference Championships so they will put the fastest swimmers in the meet line-up whether they are on scholarship or not. Coaches are looking for athletes who will contribute to the team through swim times and good character.

Due to the limited availability of swimming scholarships, the majority of college athletes are actually walk-ons, not scholarship athletes, by strict definition. However, there are many types of scholarships, not all athletic, so it’s possible to attend and even swim at a school on a non-athletic scholarship. It’s important to keep grades up and to participate in extracurricular activities to qualify for a wide range of scholarships.

Taking unofficial visits allows your swimmer to get a feel for a campus and possibly to meet the coach. This can be beneficial when discussing being a walk-on athlete down the road. It’s very important to show interest to a college coach as they will spend more time recruiting a swimmer who is interested and is likely to join their program.

I know swimmers who were recruited to swim in college programs but declined because the school wasn’t the right fit for them. They smartly also applied to schools where they didn’t expect to swim to cover all their bases. They accepted an admissions offer at schools where they didn’t expect to swim, contacted the coach and inquired about being a walk-on athlete – in several cases, the coach was happy to have them join the team.


Michelle Lombana is committed to helping parents like her whose children want to swim in college.  When she’s not researching college swim programs, she can be found at

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