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Decoding US College Scholarship Paths: Direct Entry or Prep School? Hear From Current Athletes!

Even for the most prepared student athletes, enrolling at College in the United States to pursue academic and sporting ambitions is no small step. In making that step, different athletes take different routes.

Ireland Men’s international basketball CJ Fulton opted to attend College-preparatory school first before embarking on his College career. ‘Prep school’ is a private independent school aiming to prepare students for higher education. Admission to these schools is often based on athletic and academic criteria. On the other hand, Ireland Women’s international basketball player Lucy Coogan, 19, chose to go straight to Caldwell University – bypassing the intermediary prep school stage. We recently spoke to both athletes and discussed the financial, academic and social dimensions of attending prep school versus going straight to college.

Following secondary school in Belfast, Fulton, 21, went to The Winchendon School, a prep school in Connecticut.

“For students in America, a lot of them would do a prep year if their grades weren’t good enough”, says Fulton.

“For me it was more about basketball. I felt like another year of practicing on the court, and in the weight room, would benefit me before going to college. Also, it was going to be my first year away from home, so I thought I would do the year, see how I like it, and if I didn’t like it I had the option to come home.”

As preparation for adapting to the cultural and sporting side of things, Fulton certainly found prep school useful.

“Basketball wise it definitely helped me get ready for College, and then off the court, living in America for a year and experiencing the culture there definitely helped me adapt for college life. I think if I went straight to college I would have figured it out and it would have been fine, but that year of prep school definitely helped me.”

Academically, Fulton found his secondary education in Belfast equipped him well to handle his studies in America. His exam results from secondary education were also what got him into prep school in the first place.

“Up North we do the GCSEs and A Levels, and for me those were definitely a lot tougher than my year at prep school, and I would say the Leaving Cert would be the same. I just had to send my transcript from school, they [Winchendon] had to take a look at it to approve it, but it was all fine”.

Indeed, the experiences of both athletes would suggest that for students hoping to study in the US, it is vital to focus on – and perform well in – your Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate exams.

Coogan, 19, went straight from Kilkenny to Caldwell, and she too found her academic performance at school scrutinised.

“I didn’t have to take SATs for my college”, she recalls. “They’re not required, I don’t think, in most schools anymore. I just had to send them my grades from secondary school over and they said it was all OK”.

“I thought about going to prep school as well”, says Coogan, “but when the offer came from the college I thought I was ready to just go straight into college. It was a step up from the level of basketball in Ireland but it wasn’t too hard [to adjust]. “I’m happy I went straight in and that I am where I am now”, she summarises.

When it comes to funding, Fulton notes that going straight to college may have an upper hand over the prep school path.

One of the benefits of going straight to college on a full scholarship is that you don’t have to pay anything, whereas in prep school you’re going to have to pay a little bit in most places”.

Whilst both athletes acknowledge that their respective routes to college have pros and cons, both are more than happy with the road they took.

Where Coogan and Fulton do align is on the importance of connections when it comes to making that initial contact with an American university.

“It is hard to get in contact with coaches over there”, Coogan admits, “but I was lucky enough to have a contact here who got me in touch with Caldwell, so I feel like the more people you know the better.”

“The main thing is connections”, echoes Fulton. “If you have people who can help you out and vouch for you it makes a huge difference.

Fulton’s parting piece of advice to young Irish athletes facing a move to the US is that they throw themselves into it.

“If you go out there and embrace it, get to know other people and put in the work, it’s definitely beneficial. I made a lot of great memories and had a lot of really good experiences. Soak it all in and enjoy it.”

Coogan carries a similar message.

“You get out what you put into it. You’ve got to put yourself out there as much as you can, because once you make friends and like where you’re at it’s going to be easier.”


In the journey toward academic and athletic pursuits in American colleges, the experiences of CJ Fulton and Lucy Coogan highlight diverse pathways. Fulton's prep school year provided vital basketball practice and cultural adaptation, while Coogan's direct college entry underscored the value of strong academics. Financially, Fulton noted the advantages of college scholarships. Both athletes acknowledged the merits and drawbacks of their choices.

Connections emerged as pivotal, with Coogan's contact aiding her college transition. In summary, the prep school vs. direct college decision involves academic, financial, and social considerations. Fulton and Coogan's experiences stress planning, academics, and networking. As Innumeris academic advisors, we help navigate this process—contact us at for more information. Every journey is unique, but with our support, success is attainable.


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