Rowing in College

Updated Tuesday April 24, 2018 by MLRC.

For those interested or just plain curious about the subject, I am going to provide a basic outline of the college admissions process from the aspiring rower's perspective.  The process can be intimidating but can certainly be navigated with proper preparation.
To begin, I'll briefly describe the college rowing world.  Rowing is a large part of the collegiate athletic scene and rowing teams are present on the majority of campuses.  They run the spectrum from the recreational rowing club to the super-competitive, multimillion dollar armada and everything in between.  There are literally hundreds of college rowing programs, making it more popular than all but a handful of sports. 

Many of these programs recruit from junior teams to fill their ranks.  Some, like public universities from major athletic conferences (ie. major state schools) offer athletic scholarships.  Others, like the ivy league, offer help with admissions.  Before you read further, think long and hard about whether the college recruiting process is for you.  Be warned, college teams, even small ones, practice 6 days per week from the first day of classes to weeks after the spring semester has ended.  Many practice twice per day.  Coaches will have little tolerance for your absences, poor performance, and various other excuses.  They expect a level of commitment that far exceeds anything you have experienced at the junior level.  There are a lot of new things to experience in college... some good, some not-so-good.  But you will not have time for many of these activities if you are rowing.  If rowing is something you are unsure about, do not feign commitment and enthusiasm.  Your uncertainty is perfectly understandable.  Apply to college normally and if you later wish to give your all to crew, trust me, your college team will give you a good and fair look.  There is always a seat available for someone willing to work hard.  
If you know crew is your thing, you will want to do the following.
1. Keep the following in mind: College teams care about 3 things in the following order:

Height:  Nothing you can really do about this.  Choose your parents wisely, I guess.  But fair or not, college coaches prefer kids with the most potential who they can "coach up."  For open weight females, 5'7'' and up is preferred.  For heavyweight men, 6'2'' and up is desired.  Lightweights for both genders can be more varied based on individual coaching preferences.  This does not mean that if you don't meet such standards you should give up on ever rowing for college.  Plenty of rowers shorter than this are walking around with olympic medals.  But you better be prepared to compensate in the other categories.   

Erg score:  The 2000m erg test is the SAT score of rowing.  No matter where you are, how good your team is, etc., the erg is the same everywhere.  No matter your current technique or experience, most college coaches plan to convert you to their rowing style anyway.  But the erg is an objective measure not only of your power and fitness level but also your commitment to the sport.  If you're willing to endure the practice, pain, and preparation that goes into pulling a top 2k erg score, they feel more inclined to trust you to give that effort once you arrive on campus.

Grades: Many top college rowing teams are also academically selective. College admissions will take your rowing credentials into consideration to one degree or another depending on how hard that coach is fighting for you but they will not completely deviate from their normal academic standards.  Rowing is not a revenue-generating sport. As such, coaches love promoting someone who is likely to succeed at the school anyway. Furthermore, for better or worse rowing is generally centered around more affluent communities. Such competition is generally well-prepared academically anyway and you need to keep pace with students from top schools in other parts of the state and the nation.
2. Start early.
You generally want to come up with a preliminary list of colleges by the summer after your junior year. Don't put this off. Once you've completed it, visit the schools.  Go to the athletic dept.'s rowing webpage and fill out the prospective athlete questionnaire. NCAA regulations will often prohibit college coaches from contacting you until August before senior year. However, that doesn't mean they don't want you to contact them!!!  No college rowing team has the budget of Alabama football or Duke basketball. If you do not approach them, they do not have the means to find you themselves!  This is especially the case since we are somewhat isolated from the Boston to D.C. corridor where so much rowing take place.  Contact them. Be proactive. Ask them questions. Demonstrate your interest.  Don't have your parents do it. Don't have me do it. Colleges want to see you putting in the time and effort to showcase your enthusiasm. And don't just leave a message and hope for the best. Call back.  Call again.  Then send another email, just in case.     

If any interest is returned, you will want to take official visits to the college in the fall of your senior year. Show up, spend a day or a weekend there, meet the coaches, watch a practice, etc.  And don't forget to conduct yourself appropriately at all times.  I've seen many a promising recruit blow their chance because they "enjoyed" themselves too much on such a visit. It doesn't matter that current students were also having a rowdy time.  They are already admitted. You are not. And everything you do and don't do during your trip will be a topic of discussion after you leave. And be absolutely certain your facebook page and any other online presence you may have will stand up to scrutiny. They'll check. It's standard protocol for college recruiters. Just making it "private" will not suffice. The recruiters have too much on the line to risk something like this and there are ways around that stuff anyway.      

If you believe you have found a good match, you should strongly consider applying early. There is nothing that coaches hate more than putting forth lots of time and effort and clout on behalf of someone only to have them choose another school. Applying early makes a strong statement of your commitment to them and their program. They are more likely to go to bat for you if they know you are fully committed to them. That being said, early admission policies have changed dramatically in the past two years and you should be very careful you fully understand exactly what the policy is and what your chances might be for a specific school.
And yes, they will contact me and ask about you. Don't worry about it. As a coach for MLRC, I consider it part of my job to portray you in the best possible light to colleges. However, be aware I will not lie for anyone. That means, I won't tell a college coach you went 6:20 on your last 2k when you actually went 7:20. If you show up on campus as a different person than how you represented yourself and/or shortly quit rowing thereafter, it tarnishes my reputation and the credibility of this program. What’s more, it could damage the chances of future applicants from MLRC who are genuinely interested in rowing for that team. Always conduct yourself with integrity and things will work out.  There is nothing wrong with never picking up an oar in college. Before I ever arrived at MLRC I've had students recruited to Princeton, Cornell, Georgetown, Penn, Cal, Wisconsin, Yale, USC, URI and Temple and the 2 best kids I had ever coached never rowed after their senior year of high school. It's a big world out there.   
And finally, try to have some fun with the whole experience and not take the process too seriously. You never know where your rowing and college experiences will take you. There were no Harvard or Yale grads in the USA gold medal 8+ in Athens or bronze medalists in Beijing. There were, however, rowers from Temple, Oregon St., Ohio St., Northeastern, UT-Chat., and Wisconsin. Great rowers come from unlikely places all the time. Don't fall in love with one program too early. And finally, keep in mind that we are all one busted knee or broken shoulder away from an abrupt end to your athletic career. Pick a school that you think will make you happy and suit your career needs regardless of rowing. No matter how glorious, the athletic shelf-life is short. Someday you'll be turning pro in something else for a very, very long time.  So enjoy these days. Hard to believe, but you'll miss them when they're gone. So after all this info, if you still want to run the gauntlet, read on and good luck!
        - Rob Welsh, Head Coach, Mountain Lakes Rowing