NCAA Refresher: How to qualify for the NCAA Division I championships

The NCAA Division I championships are rapidly approaching. Women’s invites to the national championship meet go out this week, and so, now seems like a good time for a brief refresher on the sometimes-complex process of obtaining NCAA invites.

Off the top, we should note that the current setup might be different than longtime swimming fans are familiar with. The NCAA changed its selection process last season to focus more on individuals qualifying based on individual events and less on individuals qualifying as part of a relay team.

You can read our coverage of the selection process change here, but here’s a brief refresher:

Relay Qualifiers

Athletes can only get official invites based on their individual swims. In essence, the top roughly 38 women and 29 men (to use last year’s numbers) in each event will get an invite. Any athlete invited in one event can also enter any other event that he or she has a “B” cut in. (We’ll go into the individual invite process more below).

For relays: if a team hits an “A” cut in any of the 5 relays, they are qualified to swim that relay at NCAAs. In addition, that school can enter in any of the other relays that they’ve hit “B” cuts in. The catch is this: to swim those relays, you also have to qualify one individual for the meet. That can be a swimmer, a diver, a member of the relay or someone who won’t swim relays.

If you get that one individual in, you can also bring 4 uninvited relay-only swimmers. These are athletes who didn’t get individual invites, but can come with to swim relays only – they cannot enter in individual events as they could under the old selection process.

(One other tidbit is that these relay-only swimmers do not get travel reimbursement or per diem money from the NCAA; their expenses have to be paid by the school. This isn’t a major problem for most schools, but is still a consideration in deciding whether to take four relay-only swimmers or only one or two.)

So a school needs at least one individual to qualify for the NCAA championships in order to be represented at all – relays cannot make it on their own standing without an individual invite. So how then do individuals get invited? Hold onto your hats, because this process can occasionally get confusing:

Individual Qualifiers

The NCAA invites the same number of overall swimmers every year. 270 men and 322 women make the meet every year. Depending on how many of those 270/322 athletes qualify in multiple events, the numbers can range some as to how many entries in each event get invited. Last year, the first year under this selection system, roughly 29 men and 38 women were invited in each event.

The simple part: “A” qualifiers get in automatically. Hit an “A” cut, and you’re set. Then the NCAA fills in the remaining spots with the next-fastest “B” cuts.

Here’s a step-by-step process for how the NCAA selects the 270 men and 322 women for each year’s invite list:

1. 35 of the men’s spots and 41 of the women’s spots are set aside for divers, who qualify for the meet at zone competitions closer the NCAA Championships. That leaves 235 men’s spots and 281 for the women.

2. Every “A” cut put up this season is added.

3. The next fastest swimmers in each event are added until every event has the same number of entries. For example, if the 50 free were to have the most “A” cuts of any event with 10, then every other event would get swimmers with the top 10 fastest times in.

4. Finally, one entry is added to each event to keep the entries per event even. This process is repeated until all of the swimming spots (235 for men, 281 for women) are filled. Keep in mind that as more rows are added, swimmers will start to double and triple up. The #1 seed in the 200 back might be the #15 seed in the 100 back – as the 15th row of swimmers is added to each event, she’ll be added to the 100 back list, but won’t take up another one of the 281 invite spots, as she already has her official invite.

5. The final row of swimmers added won’t come out exactly even. In the final row, the swimmers with entry times closest to the NCAA record will get added first, and when the 235th man or 281st woman is added, the process stops. So the 100 fly could have 38 women and the 200 fly 39 women – that would mean the 39th 200 flyer was closer to the NCAA record than the 39th 100 flyer and therefore won the ‘tie-breaker’ for the final spot.

Update 2020: New NCAA rules have changed the fifth step here – times are now compared to the NCAA “A” cut, rather than the NCAA record, with the times closest to the A cut earning invites first.

You can find the official wording of the selection process in the NCAA manual here, starting on page 16.

The last bit to note is that once you are officially invited, you can also swim other races in which you’ve hit a “B” cut, even if you weren’t invited in that race. For example, someone invited in the 100 breast but not the 200 breast could still enter and swim that 200 breast at NCAAs, provided he or she has a “B” cut. What’s needed is the official invite itself.

Last year, we compiled a list of what it took to get an NCAA invite in any given event, putting together a chart of the last time invited in every event. You can find that chart here, and as these things typically go, expect the last invite time this year to be slightly faster in every event.

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7 years ago

What happen to the old adage – “Keep it Simple, Stupid!”

7 years ago

Can someone explain the practical difference between the Qualifying and Provisional standard for relays?

7 years ago

Will they eventually make these same changes for division 3?

Reply to  Katy
7 years ago

Katy – we haven’t heard anything about the same for D3. The justification on these rules in D1 was to correct for the huge disparities between majors and mid-majors, which doesn’t seem to be as big of a concern in D3.

Reply to  Braden Keith
7 years ago

So Braden, after all the back and forth a few years ago… Do you think these changes were for the better?

Reply to  The Screaming Viking!
7 years ago

Viking! – I like it, mostly because I hated the system where schools with big powerful relays could skate in, and not have to rest their individual swimmers as much to hit qualifying times as other schools did. Swimming in college has a dual nature – individual and team performances, and this emphasizes equity on both of those.

Reply to  Braden Keith
7 years ago

Why not just change the roster limit size to 15 or something? I feel like NCAAs as a meet suffers from the fact that at least half of the swimmers need to rest/shave just to make the meet. And this might just slow down the meet, or am I way off base?

Reply to  Peterdavis
7 years ago

Peterdavis, see also: the Olympic Games.

Reply to  Braden Keith
7 years ago

Fair enough.

ole 99
Reply to  Braden Keith
7 years ago

The revised D3 selection process seems to have worked out pretty well this year, especially for the men’s side with cut off at line 18/19 if I remember correctly. Of course it helped that the number of schools qualifying relays was down, thus leaving more individual spots.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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