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MIT’s wettest test

Next month, members of MIT’s Class of 2018 will descend upon campus to get their feet wet — literally.
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MIT students hold evidence of swim-test success.
MIT students hold evidence of swim-test success.
Courtesy of the Division of Student Life

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: 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 for as long as they can.

While it has been an Institute requirement since the 1940s, the swim test, which students must complete to graduate, seems every year to sneak up on some seniors.

“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,” Dan Lufkin ’52, SM ’58 remembers.

“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,” Glenn Nelson ’73 says.

“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 adds.

Why does MIT have a swim test?

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

“It’s 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.”

The Institute’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, the University of Notre Dame, Columbia University, Williams College, Bryn Mawr College, and Hamilton College all require students to pass a swim test to be eligible for graduation.

While current students' attitudes toward the requirement may 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,” Hank Valcour ’56 says. “It is just one of those things that is still there while the Institute has changed in so many ways.”

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