Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

MIT’s Wettest Test

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

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.

This story is part of the January/February 2015 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

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.”

Want to go ad free? No ad blockers needed.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.