For UK Students Seeking to Row in the US

By Sparks Editorial Staff | August 1, 2015

The number of students from the UK interested in rowing at an American university has been rising steadily since the government increased the maximum allowable tuition to £9,000 in 2012. After a few trips to the UK and working with a number of clients from the British Isles, we feel compelled to write a piece specifically addressing the thoughts regarding pursuing an American rowing scholarship and/or a place to row at university in the States when coming from the UK.

First and foremost, there is no such thing as an “Ivy League Rowing Scholarship.” Though Ivy League universities are sometimes (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in particular) “need-blind” insofar as students’ ability to pay and issue grant-based financial aid (i.e. not a loan so much as a tuition adjustment) based on need, athletic scholarships are not available in the Ivy League. As such, all tuition adjustments are more of a financial consideration than one of athletic talent and will continue through injury or whether a student decides to continue to pursuit rowing all four years of university.

Second, the recruiting process is very competitive where receiving free money is concerned – regardless of Ivy or not. And the competition is based on GCSEs (A Levels are too late), 2K ergometer score, national level representation experience, and one’s SATs (the American standardized collegiate admissions test) score. As much as a lot of Americans would like, simply rowing or pulling an average 2,000m score is not enough for the recruiting process if one is interested in receiving free tuition assistance. This is given admission to universities where athletic aid is not issued (see above) is extremely competitive both rowing-wise and academically and admission to universities where athletic aid is issued is still extremely competitive in both respects (potentially less so academically, but still somewhat regardless of school). As such, those who typically benefit most from American university’s athletic admissions process are top school rowers who may not have achieved Oxbridge standards – but are varying degrees away from those standards. The American rowing recruiting process’s emphasis on 2,000m ergometer scores (see the article on 2K scores) may be especially surprising for some students who have found success on the water but lack much ergo training.

Third, many students from the UK must be open to universities other than Princeton, Harvard, and Yale if they wish to take advantage of the rowing opportunities in the US. This is particularly true on the women’s side of the sport, where many top programs (with athletic scholarships) are state named universities. Moreover, some of the programs at state named institutions may be academically more intense than “better branded” institutions dependent on program. Return on investment tends to be a legitimate concern for most international students, who weigh the benefits of having a free education (though not airfare!) with top rowing and academic resources against being far from friends, home, and potential employers once they graduate. Having a plan for graduate school (if applicable) and/or speaking to other international athletes on the rowing team at these lesser known (in the UK) universities may be especially helpful as one considers whether going the university might work for them. Ultimately, some of these “never heard of in England” universities have excellent records insofar as their graduate admissions to programs that most definitely are well known around the world. We have a free rowing database that seeks to inform families of their options via various filters if you’d like to investigate the full realm of possibilities.

Fourth, the selection and search process should ideally begin in lower sixth. This is also when taking the SATs will be of most benefit (after GCSEs). We recommend taking the SATs multiple times; while test prep is expensive in person in the UK, it is not online. Some universities will extend a bit of grace to foreign students in terms of their SAT scores when compared with Americans; some will not. By fall of upper sixth, a small list should be finalized and schools may fly students across for visits. It is helpful to the schools if students group visits together and then allow one coach to coordinate splitting the expense of their flight amongst the multiple schools the student is visiting.

Fifth, students will train and race almost exclusively in 8+s. Many programs will bring out small boats for training during the course of training – however, all championship competition in the US is based around the 8+. That said, this has not stopped US recruiting coaches from pursuing scullers with solid 2,000m ergo scores. In some’s opinion, their racing experience and boat feel more than make up for their lack of sweep experience.

Sixth, the initial drinking and party culture at many American schools may come as a surprise for UK students as they adjust to life abroad. This is given the difference in drinking age and attitudes towards drinking in the UK and the US. Students from Britain sometimes find they feel more mature in regards to certain rowing and social norms – however this is just part of the adjustment. It is also one reason (beyond pure racing experience) American coaches tend to enjoy having British athletes.

Finally, students should not wait to be recruited or contacted by a recruiter. Hiring third party agents also doesn’t go over well with coaching staff – who want to be sure of students’ maturity. The collegiate rowing “market” in the US requires students to be proactive in filling out the recruiting forms and contacting coaches. Chances are if you’re from the UK and interested in the opportunities presented by a certain institution, they are already recruiting from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and western Europe. The process is not so much political as numbers driven for rowers (the process for coxswains is different, however – and is the subject for another article). Actual numbers vary widely between universities, though the resources available are sometimes awe-inspiring – so why not take a chance, reach out to a few programs and see what the possibilities might be?