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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6 years ago

How are the A cut and B cut times set? What performance standards are used?

new question
9 years ago

what if hypothetically there was space for one more person… and the event with the next qualifier closest to the NCAA record is the 50 free… and there are 3 people tied for 19.50 (just a random number) and none of them are in the meet yet… what do they do in that situation?

9 years ago

If there are swimmers in the top 29 of an event that don’t plan on swimming it at NCAAs, will the 30th ranked swimmer be invited?

Reply to  SWIMMER43
9 years ago

Swimmer43 – that is highly probable, yet, based on where the cutline was last year, that the 30th ranked swimmer would get invited. Can’t say for sure until the numbers are out though.

9 years ago

Did any school hit an “A” time in a relay, but fail to qualify an individual this year?

Reply to  Peter
9 years ago

Peter – not that we noticed.

9 years ago

If there is a huge disparity (or at least was) between majors and mid-majors why don’t we look at seeing a qualifying process that has some characteristics of basketball.

Have A cuts still
Have B cuts still

Every relay and individual fastest time from the year (or conference champs) from a D1 qualifying conference gets in (we can look at the conference standards later). From there fill in all A cuts and then open slots with B cuts.

Would it make the meet “slower?” Yea maybe at the tail end. Would it make it more exciting more mid major conference meets, absolutely.

I would be in favor of reducing the B cuts then because of… Read more »

Reply to  Aqua
9 years ago

What I love about swimming is the objectivity. The top 29 fastest men and 38 fastest women make the meet, period. No weakness. No auto-bids like in basketball where the winner of a lower tier mid-major conference might bump out a better team from the B1G or SEC or ACC, etc. We can do this in swimming because our sport is objective, and we should celebrate that. We could debate basketball teams with RPI stats all day…in swimming we know who is better, and should be proud of that.

If you made the meet, you made the meet, period. You earned it, it wasn’t given to you because you happened to go to a school considered a “mid-major” in… Read more »

9 years ago

Question: if the swimmer got into the accident and could not perform at his conference to qualify the NCAA, can he enter his last year (he made NCAA last year) time?

Reply to  Swimmer12
9 years ago

Swimmer12 – no. Also, conference meets are not the only place to get an NCAA Championship qualifying time. But all entry times must be swum that season in bona fied competition.

9 years ago

Question: If a swimmer got a injured right before the championship (to qualify the ncaa) and could not swim, can he enter as the last year (he made ncaa last year) time?

Sean Justice
Reply to  gomma6971
9 years ago

I believe that there is a qualifying time period that starts in September (or another there), so you are not allowed to enter times from the previous academic year

9 years ago

Question: why 270 men and 322 women? Why not equal numbers? Title IX? I’m asking out of total ignorance. Thanks!

Reply to  Brian
9 years ago

Brian – there could be long, long debates about whether the root cause Title IX, football, athletic department budget constraints, youth participation numbers, etc. but I’ve never actually heard a specific explanation for how they came to those numbers. I will ask though.

For what it’s worth, a higher percentage of Division I male swimmers qualify for NCAA’s than Division I female swimmers.

Sean Justice
Reply to  Braden Keith
9 years ago

I thought that the numbers 270 and 322 are based on the a percentage of the total number of people in the sport. The percentage is the same for male and female, but there are more women’s teams, so they have more individuals invited.

At least that is what I was told, but it logically makes sense.

Reply to  Sean Justice
9 years ago

Sean – math doesn’t work out that way either (I assumed the same, but checked). Men are still proportionally overrepresented as compared to the number of teams. My guess is that there’s some more complex proportional justification for it based on dollars (because having 20% fewer teams or 20% fewer swimmers doesn’t mean 20% fewer dollars are being spent, necessarily). I’m waiting to bug the NCAA people until after they finish with the women’s cut lists, but hopefully we can get an answer sooner rather than later.

Reply to  Brian
9 years ago

There is speculation that that is the case. I hope to hear that Braden squeezes a truthful answer out of the committee. But expect some heavy obfuscation, as which always surrounds Title IX.

Title IX was an ingeniously crafted piece of legislation. The multi-pronged set of compliance mandates makes it nearly impossible to accurately and consistently place credit or blame where it is due: on the law itself, for its inherent merit and/or short-comings. Even the most adept law-school junkie has trouble connecting the dots between Title IX and it’s outcomes – although groups concerned with ‘equality’ are quick to credit it with any and all possible positive outcomes for women’s sports, just like groups on the other side blame… Read more »

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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