Student Athlete Guide to Getting a Job

Expert Tips to Go from College Sports to Career Professional

Nearly half a million students compete as NCAA athletes, yet far fewer actually go on to professional sports after college. Some of these student athletes have goals unrelated to sports after they finish school while others do not get the opportunity to go pro. A 2018 study by the NCAA found that only about 3.5 percent of student athletes who played baseball, football, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s ice hockey and soccer went on to play professionally.

Even if professional sports aren’t in the cards, student athletes have valuable skills that can lead to success in the workplace. A 2018 study by LinkedIn found that the largest skill gap in the American workforce is in the area of soft skills, such as interpersonal communication and teamwork. This may make former athletes more desirable in the workplace, thanks to their years of training in teamwork, coaching and even public speaking.

It can feel difficult for some student athletes to make the leap from this role — which many have held for most of their lives — to the workforce. Some may feel overwhelmed by long-term goals after spending so many years focused on immediate goals, while others may need time to establish their identities outside of sports. This guide can help student athletes overcome those hurdles and provides the tools and information needed to sell their skills to prospective employers and land jobs after graduation.

Setting Yourself Up for a Career

Like any big game or competition, finding a job requires effort and a solid game plan. Student athletes who go in with a plan for getting hired or establishing their careers see much better chances of success than those who haven’t stopped to consider their goals and how to reach them. Below are suggested steps to help student athletes set themselves up for a career.

How Athletic Skills Translate to Career Skills

Student athletes possess many skills that employers value and that can give them a competitive advantage over non-athletes. But they first must learn how to sell these skills and articulate how their athletic experiences relate to the workplace. This section can help student athletes better understand how their athletic skills can apply to just about any profession.

Teamwork

Whether playing an individual or team sport, every student athlete understands the value of working together toward a greater goal. Finding employees who work well with diverse personalities and leadership styles can be difficult, but student athletes possess years of experience in this area. They also know how and when to be leaders and followers, depending on the task at hand.

Perseverance

Student athletes who make it to college level sports have more than likely received their fair share of disappointment over time. Whether not winning a big game or being rejected from a top college athletic program, those disappointments teach student athletes how to be resilient. This skill goes a long way in the workforce in general, but can be essential for certain roles or industries.

Ability to learn from failures quickly

To become great athletes, students must learn early how to recognize mistakes, receive coaching, and learn from their losses. This ability to quickly bounce back from disappointment is highly valued in professional settings, as these types of employees can receive constructive criticism and run with it. They are also able to quickly adapt or course-correct when business needs call for it.

Motivation to be the best

Student athletes never settle for good -- they are always in search of greatness, an attitude most, if not all, employers want. This drive to keep learning, growing, and ultimately be the best of the best goes a long way in professional environments and can help create or further a company culture of innovation and excellence.

Time management

It’s no secret that student athletes juggle hectic schedules while in school. Conditioning sessions, classes, training, practice, tutoring, and study groups -- not to mention homework, meals, and socializing -- teach these busy individuals how to manage their time so they can accomplish all their required tasks each day. Knowing how to effectively set time boundaries is a great skill to have in a professional setting, and one that won’t go unnoticed by supervisors.

Ability to not take things personal

Student athletes receive a lot of tough criticism over the course of their sports careers, but the best recognize that it’s not personal. Rather than getting upset over feedback, student athletes use this information to better themselves and their abilities. Being coachable and knowing how to take impersonal, professional criticism can be a tough skill to learn but student athletes already have it down.

Discipline

Being able to juggle a busy schedule, keep up with classes and practices, and still have time for friends requires a lot of discipline. Many new college graduates may not be in the habit of getting up early and maintaining a strict schedule, but student athletes excel at this. Moving directly from school into the workforce can be a difficult transition for graduates, but student athletes are already used to getting up early and maintaining a strict schedule to pursue their athletic goals.

Later in this guide, Dr. Sneed offers tips on how to sell these and other valuable skills when interviewing with potential employers.

Career Spotlight: 5 Jobs Student Athletes Should Consider

Former student athletes can use many of the skills gained during their time playing sports in professional settings. Below are five potential careers that can be excellent for student athletes and their skills.

  1. Physical Therapist: As all athletes likely know, physical therapists, or PTs, help injured individuals recover from accidents, regain their abilities, and handle pain. They may also suggest preventive measures in order to help people avoid getting hurt again. Student athletes frequently see PTs to handle injuries sustained on the field or court, giving them unique insights into the importance of this role and typical responsibilities. This career, however, requires a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree so student athletes at the undergraduate level can start by gaining work experience as physical therapist assistants before enrolling in a professional degree program.

  2. Fitness Trainer/Instructor: These individuals work with their clients to tone muscles, build strength and stamina, and regain strength after injuries. They may work one-on-one with clients or teach group exercise classes. A student athlete understands how the body moves and functions as well as the the motivation and dedication required to be physically fit, which makes them a great fit for helping others who want to get in shape.

  3. Human Resources Specialist: HR specialists work within their companies to recruit, interview, hire, and train employees. They must be able to identify talent that fits the needs of an organization while balancing budgetary and other constraints. Former student athletes naturally fit into these roles, as they often work with their teammates to encourage the best from them and identify strengths and weaknesses in themselves and others.

  4. Sales Manager: These professionals sell products and/or services created by their companies. They work with marketing teams to devise strategies before calling and/or meeting with potential clients. They often work at least partially on commission, making a can-do attitude crucial. During their time playing sports, student athletes face various challenges but must still be able to keep going and be a reliable teammate, which are qualities that can lead to a successful career in sales.

  5. Athlete Agent/Business Manager: Agents help athletes with scouting teams, negotiating contracts, publicity and sponsorships, and creating opportunities for getting their names in the media. Even if a student athlete doesn’t make it to the big leagues, this profession allows that athlete to continue to take part in many of the exciting aspects of professional sports.

6 Resume Writing Tips for Student Athletes

As mentioned before, student athletes have several skills that can lead to success in a variety of professions. However, to land one of those jobs students must be able to demonstrate how their sports-related skills translate to workplace settings. Below are six tips to help student athletes put together a strong and eye-catching resume:

  • Leverage your student athlete experience as relevant work experience. “When talking to many different employers over the course of my career, I learned companies love to hire student athletes,” says Dr. Sneed. Employers recognize traits such as self-motivation, a competitive nature, the ability to multitask, familiarity with pressure, and a willingness to be coached. “Many of these traits are inherent to most student athletes, and companies love this because it allows them to focus more on business development,” explains Dr. Sneed. Many athletes underestimate -- or don’t recognize -- these skills so end up not highlighting them in their resumes, which is a big mistake. “These transferable skills need to be spelled out on your resume with concrete examples,” says Sneed. “An example would be, ‘Voted team captain during my senior year and led the team to an undefeated season that led to capturing a conference championship.’”

  • Talk to experts in your chosen field and have them look over your resume. “No one can better tell you how your resume should be formatted for a particular field than someone who is in said field,” says Sneed. Students can sometimes feel shy about reaching out to accomplished individuals who hold what seem like dream jobs, but these individuals often want to help if they have the time. “Find a former student athlete in your field of interest,” recommends Sneed. This provides an immediate shared connection for the student and can also lead to a positive networking experience.

  • Find time to obtain some work experience. “Although companies understand you are a student athlete, that still does not excuse you from trying to gain some relevant work experience while in college,” Sneed says. Students who use their time wisely can build up meaningful experience, even if it’s only gained a couple hours each week -- over a four-year degree program, that time adds up. “If you cannot find something off campus, look closer. I’m always proud of student athletes who work in the athletic department, between classes, and at other teams’ sporting events to earn some work experience,” he says.

  • Do not overlook any experience you might have had as a student athlete. Far too many student athletes don’t know how to properly translate and leverage activities they took part in or skills they gained as a result of their involvement in sports. “For example, if you like working with children but don’t think you have any relevant experience, think again,” says Sneed. “On your resume, you can talk about your experience working with children during your countless service projects and/or when your team hosted youth camps or clinics.” It may not always be obvious, but oftentimes a connection can be made. Carefully assess prior experiences for skills that might relate to your desired career or work setting.

  • Research and tailor your resume to individual employers. “When crafting a resume, it’s important student athletes use similar language as the employer,” reminds Sneed. “If the job description states a need for someone with strong leadership and communication skills, student athletes should make sure these words are used multiple times in their resumes, with clear examples to back it all up,” says Sneed. Because employers frequently receive many resumes, they now use software that searches documents for specific keywords in order to narrow applicant pools. Tailoring your resume can help ensure you show up in the searches.

  • Neutralize any stereotypes. Unfortunately, some hiring managers may incorrectly assume that student athletes devote more of their time to playing sports than studying and earning good grades. To combat these misconceptions, find ways to make your academic accomplishments shine. For example, if you earned a GPA of 3.0 or higher, make sure that’s easily noticeable on your resume. Or if you made it on the Dean’s List, make sure that accomplishment stands out, as well as any other awards achieved. Lastly, make sure there are zero typos and grammatical errors, as these could reinforce stereotypes.

6 Interview Tips for Student Athletes

Interviews often feel nerve-racking to even the most seasoned professional, but this can be where student athletes have a competitive edge over non-athletes. According to Dr. Sneed, student athletes possess many of the skills and competencies needed to ace an interview. “According to the National Center of Colleges and Employers, after completing extensive research, eight core competencies exist that companies always want,” says Sneed. “I believe student athletes can demonstrate how their experiences can help them succeed in a particular job by giving tangible evidence that they possess these core competencies.” Below, Sneed explains how student athletes can demonstrate their skills when meeting with prospective employers:

1. Demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving

“Sports are competitions of inches and seconds, which means student athletes have to think critically and problem solve in a matter of moments to achieve their end goals,” says Sneed. If a student is asked about a time they’ve had to make a hard decision, they can talk about the split-second decision-making required in every game they’ve ever played. “Due to high pressure, students have to exercise sound reasoning to analyze issues, make decisions, and overcome problems -- hiring managers want to see and hear about this type of experience.”

2. Talk about your ability to collaborate and work on a team

“Whether it’s a team sport or individual sport, college-level athletic programs require teamwork and collaboration,” says Sneed. Many hiring panels ask candidates about their ability to work with others and contribute to team projects, and student athletes can use their experiences to their advantage. “Being able to work as part of a team requires structure, which then requires the ability to negotiate and manage conflict -- these are traits that employers seek in their employees.”

3. Emphasize your intercultural fluency

“Within the framework of teamwork and collaboration, student athletes learn how to negotiate and manage conflict with many different types of people,” notes Steed. This is an underutilized skill that many employers will likely see as unique among candidates. “Student athletes learn the value of inclusivity, have the ability to interact respectfully with different people, and appreciate individuals’ differences because they understand the concept of being a single unit when working with their teammates.”

4. Show your work ethic

“A typical student athlete’s schedule begins with an early breakfast, followed by training, classes, lunch, team meetings, practice, study hall, dinner, studying, and completing assignments -- very few people can handle this type of schedule, which is why very few people have the opportunity to compete in sports at the college level,” Sneed says. Experiences demonstrating discipline and focus can be used to answer questions about work ethic and working in high-pressure, fast-paced environments. “Being a student athlete requires effective work habits and punctuality, which are evidence of a strong work ethic.”

5. Demonstrate professionalism

While some may think that student athletes’ main responsibility is to keep their bodies in top physical shape and play well enough in their sport to stay on their teams, they have many other responsibilities. When not on the court or field, student athletes might be interacting with others at volunteer events, giving interviews for the school newspaper, or talking with local press representatives about a big win. These experiences require the cultivation of professional behavior, another skill that benefits companies greatly. “Given that student athletes are always in the spotlight, they must learn how to carry themselves with a sense of decorum and professionalism.”

6. Let your leadership qualities shine

“Student athletes understand the concept of leadership better than most because effective leadership requires leveraging the strengths of others to achieve common goals (e.g. winning) and using interpersonal skills to coach others (e.g. developing teammates),” says Sneed. Many professional roles, especially those with managerial responsibilities, require these same skills, so show them off in your interview. “Due to these experiences, student athletes have high levels of emotional intelligence, which they are able to use to assess, manage, and positively alter their own emotions and those of others.”