MIT’s Wettest Test

by Nicole Morell on July 16, 2014 · 14 comments

in Alumni Life, Athletics, Campus Culture, Remember When...

Next month members of MIT’s Class of 2018 will descend upon campus to get their feet wet—literally.

To meet  MIT’s General Institute Requirements, many students attending first-year orientation will hop in the Zesiger Center pool for a swim test. The test is a 100-yard swim with no time requirement. Most students will pass, some will sign up for a swim course in place of the test, and some will put off the requirement as long as they can.

Swim-Test-Shot-Edit

Smiling students take their test in the Zesiger Center Pool Photo: MIT Student Life

Though it has been Institute requirement since the 1940s, the swim test, which students must complete to graduate, seems to sneak 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.

“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.

“It was swimming that almost kept me from graduating. I had never learned to swim. MIT’s wonderful physical education teacher, Doc Smith got me swimming and diving,” Larry Constantine ’67 shares.

Success! Photo: MIT Student Life

Why does MIT have a swim test?

Carrie Moore, director of physical education for MIT, says the test has a purpose outside of worrying would-be graduates.

“It’s 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.”

MIT’s large international student population is one reason the test is still relevant today.

“MIT has an international population that generally has not had access to the swim courses like many in the United States. It’s an important skill for students to acquire,” Moore explains.

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

While the reception for the requirement can be mixed, at least one alumnus is glad that a new batch of first-year students will be attempting the swim soon.

“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.”

Do you remember your swim test? Tell us about it in the comments!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara Crane July 16, 2014 at 5:54 pm

The swim test was fun for me, since I could swim well. Even better, having also passed the small boats test, I was able to learn to sail in Phys Ed classes, and to row/scull. I really enjoyed being on the water sailing and sculling during summers there!

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Glenn Nelson July 16, 2014 at 6:01 pm

My roommate and I both took the swim class. We were not looking forward to being berated by an ex-Navy instructor. Imagine our good fortune – the instructor was a friendly and fit young woman who had been an Olympic swimmer, and the lunch-time class was full of secretaries (women). Hey, it was the early 70s, no criticism of sexism please!

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Randy Kimble August 22, 2014 at 4:27 am

Took the swim test on arrival at MIT in 1970 — swam the 100 yards, got out of the pool, and threw up. The instructor said, “well you passed, but I would recommend that you take swimming anyway”. So I did — at the end of the course, did the 100 yard test again, got out of the pool, felt like crap, but did NOT throw up. Progress!

Now, 44 years later and with somewhat greater buoyancy, I find swimming is easier!

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Tori October 25, 2016 at 10:29 pm

Randy,

I’m working on a piece about the history of the MIT swim test for WGBH News. Please contact me, I’d love to feature your story! v.e.bedford@gmail.com

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Mills Dyer August 30, 2014 at 11:24 pm

Thought I could pass the test since I had been in water from an early age, but did not have the endurance to finish 100 yards. So I had to take swimming for the first half semester of physical education. (Class of 61).

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John Shriver September 2, 2014 at 1:17 am

I took the test in 1976 as a freshman, and failed. Took the swimming PE class in first quarter, and as Glenn noted, it was excellent! This was the first time I’d been taught swimming intelligently, starting from the physics of it. All the swim “teaching” I’d had at summer camps had totally stunk!

When I decided to become a “real swimmer” for fitness reasons 37 years later, I knew MIT would be the place to do it. I’ve spent 16 months taking swim lessons and practicing, and now I’m joining the MIT Master’s swimming club, which does 2500 to 3000 yard coached workouts. They’re a bit of a stretch, but I feel great for doing it, and it’s really cool to have a “physical skill.” Being in the water is now a lot of fun.

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Jontish July 30, 2015 at 4:27 am

What about students with severe aquaphobia? Are they not allowed to graduate?

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Maon July 30, 2015 at 1:03 pm

I’m sure folks with a documented medical reason for being unable to complete it, would be given a pass. Aquaphobia can be documented.

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Ramón July 30, 2015 at 3:30 pm

I almost didn’t graduate because of this, despite having been on the swim team as a freshman. And they also told me I was a quarter short on the phys. ed. requirement. My last weeks as an undergraduate were spent taking “basic swimming”. IHTFP!

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Tori October 25, 2016 at 10:28 pm

Ramon,

I’m working on a piece about the history of the MIT swim test for WGBH News. Please contact me, I’d love to feature your story! v.e.bedford@gmail.com

Reply

Angela August 6, 2015 at 5:47 am

Angela

Should we not have this as an MPhil entry requirement as well? It’ll give us some space in the papers – wow for free advertising!

H

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Bitter Hatred April 21, 2016 at 3:25 pm

This is an outdated requirement from an olden day. I get really tired of the senior citizens replying to this article with the attitude of a senior frat boy about to perform a hazing ritual “Well I had to do it, so they should too!!!”

Sure it only takes 5 mins if you know how to swim well, but to someone who doesn’t it takes 12 classes of 1 hour each. That’s 12 hours you fall behind your fellow students, 2 hours lost every week to some misguided paternalistic inclination from the administration.

This isn’t 1950’s gym class. MIT should move into the 21st century.

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AM May 21, 2017 at 6:43 pm

I’m glad my college didn’t require a swim test in order to graduate. With 30,000 students, it would have been impossible to implement and accommodate all the non-swimmers. I wasn’t planning on enlisting with the navy anyways.

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Dan Griffin May 4, 2016 at 11:16 pm

Completed did the swimming test as soon as possible my freshman year. No problem as I practically lived in a lake when growing up. Given all the flooding that happens in urban areas these days, the skill required to graduate my well save a life.

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