Interested in playing sports in college? Then pay attention, young blood. It's true that your on-field performance is what will catch your next coach's eye, but it's your academic acumen that will get your foot in the door of your favorite college or university. And the best way to illustrate your chops in the classroom is through the NCAA Eligibility Center (formerly the NCAA Clearinghouse), an online portal that allows you to input academic information, to ensure your eligibility to play at the Division I or Division II level. If you're interested in playing Division III sports, no need to worry about the Eligibility Center. You just need to connect with the athletic department at your institution.
If you register early with the Eligibility Center, keep your academic information up to date and enroll in the right courses, you'll breeze through the recruiting process. Neglect it and you'll scramble to load up on difficult courses late in your high school career. And if you totally forget about it, odds are you'll miss out on competition during your freshman year (and the valuable financial aid that goes with it).
How the NCAA Eligibility Center Works: A Quick Glance
According to the 2013-2014 Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete, the Eligibility Center "certifies the academic and amateur credentials of all college-bound student-athletes who wish to compete in NCAA Division I or II athletics." For most American high school athletes, the only thing they need to worry about is their academic eligibility. Issues of amateurism more often involve student-athletes coming from outside the U.S.
You can access the center online. Create an account and fill in some basic details about yourself, including the high schools you've attended, the courses you've taken, and the sports you're interested in playing in college. You'll have to pay a $70 processing fee ($120 if you're an international student). Do this at the beginning of your sophomore year.
What Your High School Classes Should Look Like
To ensure their eligibility for D-I and D-II athletics, students must show an academic progression in core classes from their freshman to senior years. The NCAA requires you to take core courses "at or above your school's regular academic level" that are four-year college preparatory courses. This means you can't load up on easy classes and coast through high school. The core courses are not the only ones you should take, but they should form the foundation upon which your high school education is built.
D-I athletic programs require students to take 16 courses in high school: 4 years of English; 3 years of mathematics (Algebra I or higher); 2 years of natural/physical science (1 year of lab if offered by high school); 1 year of additional English, mathematics or natural/physical science; 2 years of social science, and 4 years of additional core courses. D-II programs also require 16 courses: 3 years of English; 2 years of mathematics (Algebra I or higher); 2 years of natural/physical science (1 year of lab if offered by high school); 2 years of additional English, mathematics or natural/physical science; 2 years of social science; and 3 years of additional core courses.
You need to plan your high school academics as early as possible, ideally during the summer before your freshman year. Most high schools require these core courses, but it never hurts to check with the NCAA to ensure that your classes meet its requirements.
"Kids used to really skate through early in their high school career and then load up at the end on their core courses," says George White, owner of Recruiting Sports Network. "In an effort to attack that, the NCAA has required kids to make a progression, and they've limited how much they can load up on the back end."
Your Most Important Steps
"The reality is that the NCAA sets out these [rules] but they don't really hold kids' hands through the process," explains White. "Kids have to be proactive and monitor the process throughout high school."
Let's be straight up: the Eligibility Center might seem like just another thing you have to keep track of. But don't fret. If you take small steps every year instead of scrambling as high school ends, you'll get through the process relatively stress-free. Here's what you should do each year.
- To get a jump on your academics, make sure the classes you take are NCAA required courses.
- Train hard and study harder!
- Your final high school GPA is a measure of your performance in all the courses you took during your eight semesters. No matter how skilled you are as an athlete, to be eligible for competition, your cumulative GPA must exceed 2.3.
- Register for the Eligibility Center at the beginning of the school year.
- Register for the SAT and ACT. When you sign up for either test, enter the code "9999" to have your scores sent to the Eligibility Center for review. If your GPA falls under 3.5, you'll need to achieve a minimum SAT or ACT score to be eligible (check out the sliding scale here). Plan to take the tests multiple times, since your highest scores are the ones that count.
- Once you've completed your Junior year, make sure your guidance counselor sends your official transcripts to the Eligibility Center. These have to come from your counselor; you cannot send them yourself.
- After graduation, ask your guidance counselor to send your final transcripts, along with proof of graduation, to the Eligibility Center.
A Few Inside Tips
Maintain a close relationship with your guidance counselor. He or she probably has several students to keep track of, and it's not unheard of for documents to slip through the cracks. Don't pester your counselor, but don't be afraid to follow up to ensure your documents have been submitted to the right people at the right time.
File away confirmation of everything you submit to the NCAA. "It's important that you keep records and save confirmations of everything [your counselor] sends in," says White. "[If the NCAA cannot find the document], they'll usually acknowledge [your confirmation document], which is important because the NCAA is dealing with thousands of kids."
The Bottom Line
Yes, the Eligibility Center is just another thing to keep track of. But it's imperative if you want to compete at a high level in college. Start early, check often, and don't be afraid to prod your counselors for information. If you tackle each year a bit at a time, it doesn't have to be a mad dash to the finish.
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