High performance student-athletes across Canada often set their sights on the most prestigious athletic division available to them: the National Collegiate Athletics Association, or the NCAA. Your top athletes will come to you with an entire host of questions above and beyond the students applying to the United States for academics only. The goal of this article is to provide you a breakdown of what the NCAA is, how the recruitment process and scholarships work, and how students go about making their final decision.
What is the NCAA?
The NCAA is the largest governing body for collegiate athletics. It is not the only post-secondary athletic organization in the United States. Two additional athletic leagues, the NAIA and the NJCAA (for 2-year colleges) provide financial aid opportunities through athletic scholarships, but as they are smaller and their eligibility requirements are less complicated, we will not focus on these organizations in this article.
The Three Divisions
The NCAA is divided into three divisions that are demarcated with roman numerals. A common myth is that the athletic division of the school is also a grading of the university’s academics. This is false! The divisions are based solely the amount of funding the school puts towards sports. Division I schools spend the most money on sports and are the most competitive, Division II schools spend a little less on sports and are still quite competitive, while Division III schools place more emphasis on academics and tend to play in more regional competitions.
Most importantly, when looking into scholarships, Divisions I and II give athletic talent-based scholarships, while Division III only gives academic and needs-based funding. This does not mean that a student-athlete cannot get good funding at a Division III school. For a highly academically motivated student who is also good at their sport, Division III can be a great way to have a more balanced student-athlete experience with funding that is not attached to their sport.
What Is the NCAA’s Role?
The main goal of the NCAA is to govern fairness in the athletic recruiting process and within collegiate competitions. With very high-stakes, especially in sports like football and basketball, the NCAA strives to make sure that athletes are not taken advantage of by coaches and that athletes are meeting minimum academic requirements so that they can succeed at their universities.
During the recruiting process, a student needs to use the NCAA website (ncaa.org) as a guide to help them with the following:
- Register for the Eligibility Center
- Understand eligibility requirements
- Discover which classes will count towards your Core Courses in your province
- Research teams in your sport (including their division, news updates, rankings)
- Download the recruitment calendar and amateurism requirements specific to your sport
- Download the NCAA “Guide for the College-Bound Athlete”
The NCAA, as a governing body, only checks for student eligibility. They do not match students with universities or assist in the recruitment process in any way. Students, parents, and coaches will need to work hard to communicate with potential university matches.
The Eligibility Center
Any athlete that is interested in participating in NCAA sports will need to go to ncaa.org and create an account in the NCAA Eligibility Center. Once in high school, there is no time too early to register. Highly sought after athletes will begin being recruited as early as Grade 9! Students should expect to complete basic demographic information, as well as information about the sport(s) they are interested in being recruited for. The cost to register is around $80 USD.
There are two major components of eligibility: amateurism and academics. Most high school athletes will have no problem meeting amateurism requirements. However, each student should understand what amateurism means and how it pertains to their sport. For example, hockey players will have very specific restrictions regarding at which level they are able to play and how they can interact with tryouts in professional leagues. Additionally, in sports like golf and tennis where there is prize money involved, there are very specific limitations and rules. Students need to make sure they remain an amateur. Once this is breached, the student is no longer eligible to compete in the NCAA.
The area where Guidance Counsellors are most concerned is supporting students with their academic requirements. These are:
- Maintaining a minimum Grade Point Average (GPA) of 2.3 (for Division I) or 2.0 (for Division II)
- Completing 16 Core Courses
- Taking the SAT or ACT and submitting official scores
- Submitting official transcripts
Let’s break down what each category means.
Grade Point Average
A student’s grade point average is calculated in the following way:
A = 4 points
B = 3 points
C = 2 points
D = 1 point
F = 0 points
Please use your province’s grading scale when calculating your grades. For example, in Alberta, 86-100 is an A, so anything in this range is given 4 points. To find a student’s overall GPA, you would calculate an average (out of 4.0) of all grades since Grade 9. For the purposes of the NCAA, they will want the GPA of the 16 Core Courses.
The 16 Core Courses
For most provinces, the 16 Core Courses will line up well with a student’s expected coursework for graduation. For counsellors in Ontario, the biggest issue you will run into is students who begin high school on the Applied track, rather than the Academic track. Even if a student switches to Academic track by Grade 11 for Ontario university eligibility, the student will not be on track to meet Core Course requirements and likely will not be eligible to compete in the NCAA.
The 16 Core Courses vary slightly between Division I and II. Division III does not have a Core Course requirement, as a student is expected to meet the universities internal academic requirements only. Additionally, please remember that these requirements are solely the minimums needed to be eligible to play NCAA athletics. Each university will have their own requirements on their websites that students need to make sure that they are also meeting. Often the requirements are similar, but this is not always the case.
The exact courses that can be used toward Core Courses requirements can be found at ncaa.org/courselist. To find your list, only select your province in the dropdown menu and click search. From here you will be able to easily see which courses your student-athletes can use to be NCAA eligible.
In addition to the 16 Core Courses, there are also some very significant timing requirements.
- Students must complete 10 Core Courses, including 7 in English, Math, or Science before their 7th semester. Once students begin their 7th semester, they cannot repeat or replace any of those 10 courses to improve their Core Course GPA
- Once beginning high school, graduate in 4 years
- Students must have completed 15 out of 16 Core Courses by their graduation. Only 1 Core Course can be taken after their graduation (i.e. summer school).
If a student takes all 16 Core Courses, but falls short on their GPA, they can still be recruited as an Academic Redshirt. An Academic Redshirt student is unable to compete during their first year of university, but can practice with the team. They must use this time to improve their grades to become eligible to compete.
Standardized Test (SAT or ACT)
The NCAA requires the submission of official SAT or ACT scores. Even if the university that you are planning to go to does not require submission of these scores, you must submit them to the NCAA to receive scholarship funding for Division I or II sports. The SAT and ACT exams are not very different from each other and it does not matter which one you take. Neither test is preferred over the other. To find local testing centers and dates, visit the test-makers websites:
- SAT: collegeboard.org
- ACT: actstudent.org
When a student-athlete takes their standardized test, they are able to send their scores for free to four institutions. One of these should be the NCAA, using the code 9999. If a student does this, their score is officially sent to the NCAA, and they have met this requirement. If a student did not do this, then they need to follow-up with the testing organization to pay to send over the official score.
Guidance Counsellors need to mail in official transcripts from your office to the NCAA in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, there is no way to submit this information online. You will need to submit transcripts for students when they are in the recruiting process, so that they have this information available to coaches, and so that the NCAA can deem the student on-track with eligibility. Guidance Counsellors also need to make sure to send in the final transcript once the student has graduated. Graduating on time, with the required minimum GPA and 16 Core Courses is essential to a student-athletes eligibility to compete in the NCAA.
So, How Do I Get an Athletic Scholarship?
Besides meeting (and hopefully exceeding) academic minimums, to be recruited for an athletic scholarship you must be a strong, competitive athlete. As mentioned in Table 1, in the United States, only 2% of high school athletes will receive an athletic scholarship in the NCAA. Bear in mind, that athletic scholarships can vary from a full scholarship all the way down to ~$1000. Receiving a full athletic scholarship is reserved for the truly elite athletes, typically competing at the provincial level or higher.
For students who are contacted early on by coaches, this is a great sign that your talents are in demand. Speak to all interested coaches, learn about their programs, and ask what they have to offer. Plan unofficial visits to their universities and athletic facilities if possible. Even with attention from some universities, do not just sit back and wait for them all to come to you. Make sure to reach out directly to any university that you would be especially keen to play for, and keep a spreadsheet tracking contacts and any promises made. As you get into Grade 11, offers will get more serious. You need to be clear with coaches on asking exactly what they are offering. As previously mentioned, not all scholarships are equal. The best scholarships will cover not only tuition, but also living costs.
For students who are not being actively recruited by coaches, or if you want to widen your recruitment, you will need to begin promoting yourself and getting yourself on coaches’ radars. The ways you can do this include:
- Research programs using the
- Complete a Recruiting Questionnaire (if available)
- Retrieve the coach’s name, email, and phone number and contact them
- Keep a spreadsheet with program information and all contact made (with dates)
- Create an online athletic resume or profile
- Post game tape and highlight videos on YouTube
- When emailing coaches, share your game tape and athletic resume/profile
- Attend showcase tournaments and/or elite sports camps in the United States
Making Your Choice
As you are being recruited, you will have to weigh choices carefully. Here are some questions you should consider as you make your choice:
- Does the school have the academic major that you are looking for?
- What is the overall reputation of the department of your major and what opportunities do they have for internships, co-ops, and job placements?
- Did you get along with the team during your unofficial or official visit? What was your impression?
- How do you like the coach? Their coaching style? Their interactions with you?
- What types of financial aid are being offered to you? Value of scholarships vs cost of the institution?
Once you have enthusiastically made your choice, a coach may ask you to make a “Verbal commitment” to their school during Grade 11 (or maybe even earlier). If you have indeed made your choice, you can move ahead with a verbal commitment. Just bear in mind that this is not a legally binding commitment and either party can back out. As such, you should still plan on applying to multiple interested institutions.
All recruitment ceases when you sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI) with a university. This is the legally binding document when a student commits to attending the university for one full academic year and the school commits to the scholarship dollars as recorded in the NLI. The first NLI signing date is in early November, when many schools also have early admissions. If you are able to apply for and get to early admissions and sign an NLI in November, than you do not need to apply to any other universities. Your recruitment is complete!
There is a second NLI signing session in April, after acceptance letters are received for regular admissions. If you didn’t sign during the November NLI period, make sure you apply to all schools that are interested in you that you would like to pursue during the regular admissions period. As mentioned previously, U.S. university admissions are different than NCAA eligibility. University admissions may require the following (all universities are slightly different):
- An application (+fee)
- Official SAT or ACT scores (sent from the test-maker)
- Official transcripts (directly from the high school or ministry)
- Up to three letters of recommendation
- An essay and writing supplements
- An optional resume
- Links to your website, YouTube channel, or other media you would like to share
For Guidance Counsellors, remember to attach your School Profile to the student’s transcripts. Especially for highly selective U.S. schools, it is important for them to understand the context and rigor of the student’s high school education.
The NCAA, besides having a lot of resources on their website ncaa.org, also has a help line where you can call and ask general questions. Students who have specific questions need to call with their NCAA ID number for the best support. NCAA Help: 317-917-6222.
As always, you can contact EducationUSA for advice on the overall admissions process to the United States. We are happy to clarify anything you read in this article. We know it can be daunting! Email your advisor at firstname.lastname@example.org.