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Differences Between College, Club, and Intramural Sports

a collegiate soccer team practices on a green grassy field

Colleges and universities offer a wide range of options for students looking to play sports. In theory, you can play as an up-and-coming all-star on a Division 1 team or with some friends in an intramural league.

But many students feel confused over the different levels of college sports, so we'll explain them now.


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The different levels of college sports

Colleges provide many opportunities for students to play sports while studying for a degree. The sports range from low-pressure intramural sports to super-competitive NCAA Division 1 sports. Here are the need-to-know differences between the three sporting options.

Intramural Sports

Intramural sports in college are the best option if you want to join a group of friends for casual games. They are the most casual and affordable way to participate in organized athletics and provide an excellent opportunity for recreation and socialization. 

On college campuses, you'll find a wide variety of intramural sports options. Look for anything from Quidditch to dodgeball, softball, pickleball, disc golf, and archery to flag football, ultimate frisbee, and badminton.

College intramural sports are great for students with little free time, a small budget, or the goal of having fun while staying active. They don't require attendance at every game, and you won't have to travel for away games either. The biggest out-of-pocket cost for students is usually a small fee to form a team.

Club Sports

Club sports are a step up from intramurals but a step down (in terms of competitiveness) from collegiate sports.

Club teams are more competitive and require tryouts to join. Club sports teams may be organized by different academic schools within the college, fraternities/sororities, housing units, and various interest clubs or groups. If you end up on a team, you'll work with other skilled student-athletes and a coach. Schools tend to sponsor club teams- but not always.

Suppose you want to continue your experience in organized sports after leaving high school but aren't competitive enough to play on a varsity team. In that case, university club sports are a solid choice.

Collegiate Sports

Collegiate varsity sports are the most rigorous of all undergraduate athletics. They are the most competitive and organized, plus the college or university funds them. They're also sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Varsity sporting teams represent their schools in competition with other colleges and university teams and work to achieve national rank or recognition. 

The NCAA recognizes collegiate athletes from three divisions: D1, D2, and D3. Division 1 teams feature the most skilled athletes. Their tournaments and games are broadcast on sports channels, and the best athletes often go into professional sports. These spots aren't just limited to the big ones, like football or basketball. There are even D1 esports athletes, programs, and competitions

According to the NCAA, 500,000 college athletes across the three divisions compete for more than 1,000 schools throughout the U.S., District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Canada. Each year NCAA schools award nearly $3.5 billion in athletics scholarships. These schools also provide support to help student-athletes graduate at a rate higher than their peers.  

FAQs about playing sports in college

Now that you have a good idea of how to play your sport while in college, let's walk through and answer some of the common questions we hear. 

Is it too time-consuming to join an intramural sport in college?

Most students say playing an intramural sport while still juggling their college classes is easy. You might have team practice a couple of times a week and a game a week. But, of course, it depends on the sport, your team's level of competitiveness, the season, and your course load. More competitive teams will require a more significant time investment. 

Do you have to be recruited to play collegiate-level sports?

No. You don't. You can play collegiate sports without being recruited by "walking onto a team." That process usually occurs when you can perform at a high level at a walk-on tryout.

Of course, some walk-on players were recruited but didn't receive scholarship money to play. In their case, their position on the team is much more secure. You can read about the different types of walk-on offers on the NCAA's website. 

If you're interested in walking on at your chosen school but were not recruited, contacting the coach early is recommended so you can discuss the possibility.

Is it better to play at the college club or intramural sport level?

The answer depends on your goals and opportunities at your college. How much time can you devote to the sport? How serious are you about building or maintaining your athletic skills? You'll need to answer these questions for yourself. In the end, it's a personal decision. The best we can do is remind you of the time commitment difference, as discussed above. 

Can I join a sports club at my college without being good at the sport?

Yes. Theoretically, you can work with an intramural sports team. But it's always a good idea to talk to some team members to gauge their level of competitiveness. It also helps to know the game and the team size to assess how much playing time you'll get.

If you join a big team that only requires a few players to engage at a time, you'll probably spend most of the season on the bench observing and/or in practice building your skills. And that's fine because your goal is probably to get out, meet people, and be active.

Finding colleges & sports teams

So, we covered the different ways to play sports and answered the most common questions. Now, it's time to find your dream colleges. 

To get a curated list of perfect-match schools based on what's most important to you —from budget to majors to sports, click the link below and create a free Appily account. 

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