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MIT Technology Review

MIT’s Wettest Test

Other requirements may come and go, but you still can’t graduate without knowing how to swim.

December 18, 2014

Each year, at the end of the summer, MIT’s new students descend upon campus to get their feet wet—literally.

swimmers in MIT pool
Students hit the pool at the Z Center for a 2014 swim test.

To meet one of MIT’s General Institute Requirements before their first semester even starts, many first-year students attending orientation hop into the Zesiger Center pool for a swim test. To pass, they must swim 100 yards; there’s no time limit. Most students do pass, some sign up for a swim course in place of the test, and some procrastinate as long as they can.

Though it has been an Institute requirement since the 1940s, the swim test, which students must complete to graduate, sneaks up on some seniors year after year.

“Two days before graduation in 1952, I received a note from the registrar’s office that there was no record of my having passed the swimming certification. My diploma would be held until I passed it,” remembers Dan Lufkin ’52, SM ’58. “I rushed over to the pool and jumped in. The instructor signed the proper form and I hot-footed it to the registrar. All was okay, and I graduated right on schedule.”

“At MIT I tried to ignore the swimming requirement and at the start of my last semester, they informed me I still had to pass the swim test!” says Glenn Nelson ’73. “Well, my housemate and I were in the same sinking boat and took the swimming class. Passed with flying colors and enjoyed it!”

Why does MIT have a swim test? ­Carrie Moore, director of physical education, says it has a purpose beyond worrying would-be graduates. “It is a self-survival skill. Research shows that most drownings occur in families where parents don’t know how to swim,” she explains. “Swimming also opens up several opportunities for students to take advantage of other water sports at MIT.”

For the Institute’s many international students, the test is especially relevant. “MIT has an international population that generally has not had access to swim courses. It’s an important skill for students to acquire,” Moore says.

Origins of the swim test remain somewhat murky, but Moore believes they are tied to MIT’s long-standing physical education requirement.

“MIT had the physical education requirement from the beginning, so it just made sense to add swim sometime around World War II,” she says.

MIT isn’t alone in its swim requirement. Dartmouth, Cornell, Notre Dame, Columbia, Williams, Bryn Mawr, and Hamilton, among others, require students to pass a swim test to be eligible for graduation.

Many Class of 2018 students who elected to take the test at orientation weren’t fazed by the requirement and seemed to appreciate it. “It was pretty easy. I think it’s a kind of quirky tradition. I met some people here [at the pool], so it was nice to do it during my first year,” says student Cynthia Fang.

“I’m happy they still have the test,” says Hank Valcour ’56. “It is just one of those things that is still there while the Institute has changed in so many ways.”