Deciding how to handle the “college conflict”, as aptly phrased by Alayna Sonnesyn, is a daunting and somewhat mysterious prospect, particularly for athletes and families who are unfamiliar with the process. How does a junior athlete know that they are cut out for a collegiate program? NCAA or USCSA? What about a gap year? In this series, FasterSkier spoke with collegiate and junior coaches and athletes who have chosen different pathways to create a resource for the athlete or parent amidst this conundrum. In the first part of the series, Anna Schulz of Craftsbury shared a look into the early conversations between a junior coach and athlete. Next, FasterSkier spoke with Cami Thompson-Graves, head nordic coach at Dartmouth College to learn how to get the most out of the college visit to determine whether skiing NCAA and the school are a good fit.
After over 30 years of leading the program, Cami Thompson-Graves’ name has become synonymous with the Dartmouth Ski Team. During her tenure, she has fostered a thriving program capable of developing athletes whose goals extend far beyond the reaches of NCAA. Three out of the eleven members of the U.S. Ski Team A and B teams (Caldwell, Brennan, and Kern) raced for the Dartmouth Program and in total, ten of Thompson-Graves’ athletes have become Olympians. She also helped guide Katherine Ogden to become the first Dartmouth skier to earn double titles in both the classic and freestyle race at NCAA’s and has mentored numerous All-Americans over the years.
While not all athletes perusing their collegiate options are setting goals to race at Dartmouth, Thompson-Graves’ years of experience with the college application and acceptance process qualify her to offer insight to juniors applying to any NCAA program.
Starting with the initial contact, because the legacy of the Dartmouth program is renowned, Thompson-Graves explained that her recruiting process does not involve a significant amount of reaching out to athletes, however, she is attentive to the results at key junior events throughout the year.
“I am generally paying attention to where people are in their junior winter,” Thompson-Graves said in a call. “I’m looking to see who’s doing well and who’s going to [REG and NTG] camps. I know a lot of people in a lot of places, so then I might reach out to their coach sometime later in the year and try to start a dialogue with [the athlete] spring of their Junior year. That’s for the top athletes.”
She continued that she begins to hear from athletes expressing interest and asking questions about the Dartmouth program most frequently during their junior year and into the fall of their senior year. In total, she communicates with 20 to 30 prospective athletes each year and has two to three openings for each gender on her team.
For juniors committed to making an NCAA team, she recommends beginning the process of identifying schools of interest and initiating dialogue early.
“I think to some degree, people need to be thinking ahead and thinking about what kinds of things are important to them in a program because we’re not all created equally even though we all compete against each other on some level.”
Once an athlete has determined what colleges and universities are appealing in a broad sense, Thompson-Graves recommends scheduling a campus visit if possible. Typically, this should happen during the spring of junior year or the following summer to allow time to narrow focus on a subset of universities for applications. Thompson-Graves expressed that this visit can help a student decide whether a program suits them beyond the on-paper appeal.
“I’m a big believer in people finding the right fit because if they find the right fit, they’re going to be happier and more successful. So I don’t put on a hard sell, I just say ‘This is what we offer. This is what we have.’ And I try to guide people to be asking the right questions and finding a place that suits them.”
What are the questions that will aptly inform a visiting athlete whether a program jives with their personal, academic, and athletic goals? Thompson-Graves recommends starting with a few key prompts.
“Get thinking: What is it I’m looking for? What’s important to me? Where do I see myself?”
Focusing on the last question, she recommends widening the lens to look beyond the specific school or location an athlete is imagining. It is important to ensure that the program an athlete chooses is equipped to support the athlete’s trajectory and goals long-term.
“It is important that people have some idea where they see themselves in skiing over the next four years. Are they someone who is coming in and just trying to make the carnival team? Are they someone who is coming in and hoping to go on and make a World Juniors or a U-23 Championships? What kind of races do they want to be racing in and what are the goals that they see for themselves? Because some programs are going to make sure that they get to all the races that they need to get to and that they’re supported, and other programs they are basically just going to the carnivals with six people.”
Though not all athletes entering college might be on track to make the race team during their time in college, particularly at a program like Dartmouth, Thompson-Graves encourages seeing the value of developing over four years of working with a team that challenges an athlete to reach. However, if a prospective athlete identifies traveling and racing weekly as one of the qualities that aligns with their goals, it might be wise to choose a program where that is more easily achievable.
“I’m in a lucky position that I have been attracting some of the top athletes and we’ve had some success over time, so I think it’s somewhat easier to attract some of the top athletes, but I maybe scare away that next level because they are like, ‘Oh my god, I’ll never make the Carnival Team if I race there.’ Of course, if you ask someone who is on the team, they would say, ‘It’s worth it, I wouldn’t go anywhere else.’ But there are other people who would say, ‘I’d rather go somewhere where I know I will make the Carnival Team every week.’”
Apart from the more whimsical questions about goals and opportunities, it is important for an athlete to ensure that the program is within the financial means of the family. While scholarships are available to help with the inherent costs of attending the school, being on a team incurs additional costs that need to be factored in. These costs include travel, equipment, and race entry. These real costs vary depending on the resources of the school and the goals of the athletes.
“What is the program supporting for athletes? What are the out of pocket costs? For some people, that’s really important. There are obviously some people that are hoping for a scholarship, but not all ski schools offer scholarship, so everyone is thrown into the pile of need-based financial aid. That aside, what are the other expenses that each individual athlete might have to be a skier? It’s not cheap and depending on where they are on a team or what level they’re skiing at, it might make a difference in how much they have to pay out of pocket.”
It is also important for an athlete to ask about the balance of academics and athletics. At some schools, students may be able to arrange their class schedule to keep the academic demands light during the winter race season or take classes over the summer to meet credit requirements. It can also be helpful to identify the support resources offered by academic institutions when athletes are missing classes due to racing or training camps.
Thompson-Graves also encourages asking about the intangible aspects of a program that are highly impactful in creating a positive experience.
“How does the team get along? What kind of group is it?”
She also recommends asking the coach about their style and what their expectations are of athletes as part of the team.
“It should be a two-way interview and not a one-way interview.”
Per NCAA rules, a prospective athlete is not able to attend practice as part of the campus visit, however, it is possible to observe. Thompson-Graves explained that observation is not always a meaningful way to evaluate the intangibles of the team dynamic, but a coach can facilitate alternative opportunities to meet with the team.
“Generally, if they want to meet the team, I’m happy to set up a lunch or meet-up. They often reach out to friends they might have on campus if they know people. With social media, there’s a lot more of that going on than there used to.”
Meeting with the team is not an essential component of the campus visit, particularly in the primary stages of the college process.
“It also depends if it is a first-time visit versus someone who might be coming for an official visit or an overnight later on in the process. It also depends on where kids live, whether that is the first time they are coming to campus or whether they’ve been through another time then are coming back for an overnight. Sometimes they might just come into the office and I might show them a little bit of what we have for facilities to offer, then another time they might stay overnight with someone on the team, eat some meals in the dining hall, go to a few classes. Generally, those are all options, but if it’s your first time to campus and it’s still early in the process, I don’t think that it’s necessary.”
Ultimately, a sound evaluation about the fit of the school is one of the key takeaways Thompson-Graves hopes that an athlete leaves the visit with.
“I hope they get an idea what the program is all about, what the expectations are, what we have to offer, and to some degree who I am. I have said to people at times in the past, ‘If talking to me makes your skin crawl, then you might want to think about whether you want to be here because you’re going to see a lot of me,’” she said with a laugh. “That’s part of that good fit aspect. I want them to get a sense of the school, the place, the team, me, and what it’s all about.”
It is also valuable to have a sense of the qualities and results that a coach looks for in the athletes they recruit. For the Dartmouth program specifically, Thompson-Graves explained how she evaluates whether the prospective athlete is in turn a good fit for her program.
“I’m looking for someone who has solid results, and that can be at the very least Junior National Championships. If someone is finishing in the top ten at Junior Nationals then I’m going to be even more interested. But mostly what I’m looking for is someone who is engaged and curious and thinks for themselves and is starting to get a handle on what they’re looking for and is starting to consider skiing for Dartmouth.”
She shared that she recently had the experience of visiting and touring colleges with her daughter. Though her daughter was not interviewing as an athlete, Thompson-Graves recalled that this process was eye-opening.
“You can get a pretty good sense on those early campus visit. Does the place feel right? Do these people feel like my people? Do the programs that are offered here interest me? Can I see myself living here for four years, even if it’s raining some of the time or everything isn’t perfect? So I hope that when someone leaves after the campus visit that they are getting a sense of what it’s all about.”
She continued that particularly in places like the Northeast where schools with NCAA skiing programs are relatively close together, these visits can offer a template to compare and contrast offerings.
“A lot of people visit a number of schools within a week or two, and I think you want to sort of compare the strengths and weaknesses of the different schools and the different programs and then come back and ask more questions. I often will ask someone, ‘Am I your first visit?’ because they often don’t know what to ask, particularly if they are the oldest child in the family. They don’t have any idea where to start or what to ask, so I can babble on for 20 minutes and they just listen and don’t even know where to start. So I think then, following up with questions is important too because the more schools you visit the more you see and the more questions you have.”
Though it can be tough for a parent to sit back, Thompson-Graves recommends that the athlete take the initiative in leading the dialogue during a visit rather than the parent. She explained that parents attend her meeting with prospective skiers about half the time depending on the preference of the family.
“I leave it up to them. The one thing I prefer not to have happen is the parent ask all the questions and the kid doesn’t say anything. I prefer to be talking to the kid and not the parent, but I’m happy to have parents along and if the student is happy to have them there then it works fine for me.”
She continued that in her experience, there are times when younger athletes who are very early in the process come to the visit unsure of what to ask or what they are looking for. In these cases, she feels it is appropriate for a parent to attend and help facilitate the conversation. Once the athlete has determined that they are interested in her program, she expects the parents to step back and to pass the reins to be passed to the athlete.
“Further down the road, my expectation is that all my communication will be with the student and not with the parents. I’m happy to answer questions that parents may have, but I’m not recruiting the parent, I’m recruiting the kid. At a certain point, if they can’t ask questions and reach out and follow through with things, then they aren’t going to be successful at Dartmouth, so that is kind of telling for me.”
Thompson-Graves also noted that communication at all phases of the decision process is beneficial, regardless of how eagerly the athlete is pursuing the program.
“I would just encourage people to communicate because even the ones who come and do a tour and I meet with them, they may go home and they’re ready to apply early decision, but if I never hear from them again, I don’t know that. I even appreciate it when someone says, ‘Thank you for meeting with me. I’ve decided I’d rather go to UVM.’ It’s just nice to know what they are thinking, and they don’t have to make me happy.”
A recent article in The Atlantic exposed the effect of meritocracy on the opportunity for college athletics. Though the cost of junior programs varies geographically, the article illuminates that lower-income families are being priced out of the hyper-specialized and competitive programs that are setting youth up to make a Division I team.
In line with this trend, not all families may have the financial means to schedule a visit at all of the programs of interest for a prospective athlete, particularly schools that require transcontinental travel. Thompson-Graves reassured that the inability to connect face-to-face is not a detriment to the admission process and does not impact which athletes she recruits.
“From my perspective, the in-person visit is going to be the most beneficial for them, more so than for us. So if they can’t make the visit, it is not by any means mandatory, it just gives people a better sense of what it’s like to be on that campus. Certainly now, there are all kinds of virtual tours and people can Skype and talk to people they know on campus. It’s a small world, so they are going to see someone who skis or has skied for Dartmouth at some race that they go to during the season. Our athletes aren’t recruiting for us, but they are a pretty open and friendly bunch, so they are more than happy to answer questions and talk to people when they’re traveling or at other races.”