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How to Cheer in College: 10 things a cheerleader must do

College Cheerleading game-day illustration with Cheermoji art

An actionable to-do list for making a college cheerleading team.

Getting into college and making the cheer team is a dream for many, but it can be a long confusing road, so I’m here to help! How do I know? In addition to head coaching KU’s cheer squad for 11 years, I also designed KU’s admissions, scholarships, and financial aid web sites, which taught me all about that stuff!

You’ll usually want to start this stuff your Junior year of high school, but starting earlier or later is okay too.

This is a loooong post, so if you’d like, click here to get this article in 10 daily emails with a bonus printable worksheet.

1. To start your college search, write down your priorities

As much as we all want to cheer in college, college prepares us for our future career that’ll pay our bills and put food on the table, so it’s important to keep that big picture in mind when choosing a college. That said, it’ll probably be the most fun 4 years of your life! Also, remember that for the rest of your life, you’ll be a “_______ University” alumni, so make sure you pick a school you can be proud of. Start the process by answering these (and it’ll help to use the printable worksheet at the link above):

a) What do you want to major in? Note that it’s okay to be undecided. And fyi, the degree you get in your first 4 years of college is generally called an “undergraduate” or “Bachelor’s” degree. Becoming a lawyer, doctor, physical therapist or some other jobs require a “graduate / master’s” or “doctoral” degree that takes several more years of school AFTER your 4-year degree, and many people go to a different school for their graduate program.

b) How important is it to you that the school be well respected or highly ranked in your major? If you’ll be entering a competitive career or grad school, it’s more important.

c) How much can you afford to pay? Note that a school’s “list price” is often not what you end up paying due to scholarships and financial aid. As for cheer scholarships, few big schools give large cheer scholarships — they’re more common at smaller schools and community colleges. Also, private schools usually have higher tuition than public (“state”) schools, but private schools usually give out more scholarship money which may result in a similar total cost. Loans are an option, but you don’t want to graduate with tons of debt.

d) Will you consider community colleges (aka Jucos)? These are 2-year colleges that are cheaper than a 4-year university, but you won’t get the ‘full college experience’ (ie, big games, traditional college campus, usually more experience professors, etc) like you would at a bigger school. If so, plan ahead with your juco advisor to make sure your credits will transfer to a university.

e) How far away do you want to go? Some of this is logistics – are you willing to fly to and from college? That adds cost too. How often will you want to go home over a weekend, or have your parents come see you cheer at a game?

f) What type of town do you want to live in your next 4 years? A big city? A smaller town that revolves around a traditional college campus?

g) How important is the game-day atmosphere to you? At some schools, you’ll be cheering on ESPN at crazy packed stadiums, Final Fours, or bowl games., whereas other schools’ games will be similar to your high school’s games.

h) How important is competing? Do you want college UCA? NCA? USA? STUNT? Also be on a Level 6 open team?

i) What type of coach do you like, and what type of squad do you want to be a part of? Ultra serious? Fun but focused? Partying-focused? It varies a lot, but it’s important because you’ll be spending 4 years with them.

2. Honestly assess your cheer skills

Sometimes I’d get emails from kids who weren’t very skilled, and they’d say their top schools were Kentucky, Kansas, and Alabama. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying “Honey, you ain’t going to make ANY of those squads.” LOL. So it’s important for you to be real with yourself about a few things like:

a) What tumbling can you do reliably unspotted on a non-spring mat floor? (Remember that college teams compete on dead mat and cheer games on wood and grass. And “almost” having a skill doesn’t really help at a tryout.)

b) What’s your stunt position? I’ve seen many bases try out for coed flyer positions in college, and it almost never works out, especially on a more competitive college squad. My advice: if your body type is best suited for basing or backing, then OWN that and be the best college base or back ever! Many colleges have all-girl and small coed squads, so go that route if it suits you best.

3. Narrow down your college choices.

Now that you know what factors are important to you, it’s time to do some research. For school info, check university web sites (Google them) and comparison sites like collegescorecard.ed.govnoodle.com, or chegg.com. To research cheer squads, see the Cheermoji Colleges page. You can list rankings and notes on the printable College Cheer Decision worksheet linked after step 10 at the end of this post.

At some point, you should definitely visit your top choices to see the campus and town, meet the cheer coach and squad, and ideally stunt around with them at an open gym or practice (some coaches will allow that and some won’t — it may also depend on their schedule, so plan ahead and contact them a few weeks in advance).

4. Get a real email address, then use it.

I know kids use email less and less, but the problem is, you’re about to start getting “official” important emails from college admissions, scholarship, and financial aid offices, and possibly college coaches. (I’ve emailed kids to invite them on a recruit trip with free entry to a KU basketball game, and they never saw the email! Grrr.) And when it’s time to apply for “real” jobs, that’ll be email too. So what you need is a life-long email address that is:

  • Professional (not “divaqueen@aol.com” 🙂
  • Permanent (not tied to a school, ISP, or employer, like @usd497 or @cox.net)
  • Hack-resistant (avoid yahoo, live, aol, and hotmail)

So do this:

  1. Go to gmail.com and get something like coreywstone@gmail.com that uses your name and/or initials. If they’re all taken, include a number in it (but not a year).
  2. Set up the email account on your phone and computer, with notifications ON.
  3. Check your email at least every other day.

5. Clean up your social media.

When a coach discovers a new prospect, what do you think the first thing they do is? Many coaches will skim through the prospect’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. to get a first impression of what type of person they are based on their photos and comments: Positive or negative attitude? High drama? Parties a lot? Seems to care about school? Swears like a sailor? The same thing happens when you apply for jobs, too, so now is a good time to delete anything that makes you look bad, and start considering what you post from now on.

6. Apply to schools early.

Many school’s scholarship application deadline is earlier than you’d expect, some as early as October of your senior year. So plan ahead and apply early, such as in the summer when you’re not as busy.

7. Contact the coach at the schools you’re interested in.

Some people assume that cheer recruiting is like basketball or football recruiting, where coaches know who all the talented kids are. Nope! Many cheer coaches are really busy, often working another job in addition to coaching, so they don’t always have the time or resources to find talented kids.

So if you want the chance to be recruited, email the coach to introduce yourself. The quick easy way to email a ton of college coaches is by using the form on our Colleges page.

If making the squad is essential to your college choice, you can straight-up ask the coach what your chances are if you give them enough info, but you have to convince the coach that you want their brutally honest assessment since most coaches don’t want to give people bad news. But it’s in your best interest to know which squads you have a high or low chance of making so you don’t have an “I didn’t make it!” panic moment in May after you’ve already paid a school deposit and found a roommate and everything.

Here’s an email template you can edit for your situation. For the photo, attach a full-body photo of yourself in uniform (preferably game uniform):

Hi Coach Smith,

How are you? My name is Jane Doe and I’m very interested in cheering at XYZ University. I know your tryouts are competitive so I was hoping you could give me a completely honest assessment of my chance of making your squad. Here’s my info, and a photo is attached.

I’ll graduate in May 2016 from Washington High School in Chicago, IL. My cumulative GPA is a 3.4, 24 ACT, and I’m planning to major in Elementary Education.

I’m 5’4, 120 pounds and my all-girl stunt position is back base. [Also include your coed stunt experience if you’re emailing about a coed squad.] On non-spring mat, my best unspotted standing and pass tumbling is: Standing back tuck; standing 2 back-handspring full; Round-off BHS full.

I’ve cheered games for my school team for 4 years, and competed with Acme All-Stars for 8 years (currently on their Level 5 team).

Thanks again for your candid assessment, and let me know if you need anything else.

Sincerely,
Jane
[Insert your full mailing address here. You could also include cell number and social media and/or video links if you want.]

That should be enough info for a coach to give a pretty good assessment. I’d get emails where kids listed all the championships they won with their all-star squad, but that doesn’t really matter much in a college tryout, which is ultimately about what individual skills and attributes you would bring to the college squad.

Anyway, if the coach emails back with something like “Your skills sound great – I’d like you to visit,” that’s good — it means the coach probably wants you on his or her team. If the reply is sorta middle-of-the-road, it probably means you have a chance but you’d need to improve some things or get lucky to make it. If the reply is something like “Your chances aren’t too good” or “our tryouts are very competitive but you never know…” that’s the polite way of saying you probably won’t make the team. 🙁

8. Apply for federal financial aid by March 1.

Financial Aid is free money from the government to help pay for college, and you don’t have to pay it back! (ie, it’s not a loan.) In general, the less money your family makes and the more siblings you have, the more financial aid you get. You can usually apply at the school’s web site (search for “FAFSA”), or at FAFSA.gov. Apply after your parents do their taxes but before the March 1 “priority” deadline (which is when they divvy out the money. You can still apply after March 1, but you’ll get MUCH less money, if any).

9. Make sure you understand the tryout format and what you’ll be asked to do.

Every school’s tryout format is different, so for each school you plan to try out for (and yes, some people do tryout at multiple schools, which I as a coach never had a problem with, but some coaches do), investigate their tryout process as best you can. How? First, check their web site – some schools clearly explain their tryout process. If not, email the coach to ask. If you know any current squad members or people who tried out there recently, ask them too.

10. Prepare for the tryout in advance.

Now that you know what you’ll be asked to do at the tryout, you know exactly what you need to work on and be ready for. I could write a whole post on tryout prep, but here are some quick tips:

  • For tumbling, remember to prepare for the surface you’ll be tumbling on (Dead mat? Wood? Spring floor? Turf?). If you don’t have a dead mat available to practice on, wrestling mats are similar.
  • For coed stunting, you can get practice at open gyms or private lessons. Open gyms are the cheaper route if there are any in your area, but sometimes it’s hard to get much air time at them since no one’s obligated to work with you. Private lessons are fine, but make sure you’ve stunted with multiple guys so that you’re comfortable stunting with whomever they make you stunt with at the tryout.
  • For hair and makeup at tryouts, do a Google image search (images.google.com) to see how that squad does their hair and bow (if any) at games, and do yours in a similar way. (You’ll typically not want an all-star look.)
  • Be in the best shape of your life. It not only helps with every skill, it also helps any “Overall image” scores that some schools have.

Conclusion and Worksheet

That’s all – I hope it helps! If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. And remember you can go here to grab the printable worksheet to help you compare colleges during your search. Good luck!

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