An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Caption: Smiling students take their test in the Zesiger Center Pool Photo: MIT 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. 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.

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 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!


Bitter Hatred

Thu, 04/21/2016 3:25pm

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.

Randy Kimble

Fri, 08/22/2014 12:27am

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!


Thu, 07/30/2015 3:30pm

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!


Thu, 07/30/2015 4:27am

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


Sun, 05/21/2017 6:43pm

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.

In reply to by Bitter Hatred


Tue, 10/25/2016 10:28pm


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!

In reply to by Ramón


Thu, 07/30/2015 1:03pm

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

In reply to by Jontish


Tue, 10/25/2016 10:29pm


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!

In reply to by Randy Kimble

Dan Griffin

Wed, 05/04/2016 11:16pm

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.


Thu, 08/06/2015 5:47am


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!


John Shriver

Mon, 09/01/2014 9:17pm

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.

Mills Dyer

Sat, 08/30/2014 7:24pm

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).

Glenn Nelson

Wed, 07/16/2014 2:01pm

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!

Barbara Crane

Wed, 07/16/2014 1:54pm

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!

Clara Sanchez

Thu, 08/30/2018 11:11am

I wasn’t afraid of the swim test. Having grown up in FL I spent a lot of time swimming in the ocean and pools. As a freshman in 1990 I took the earliest opportunity to take the swim test. I dove into the pool and immediately went into shock as the water was soooo cold. I was used to only swimming in the summer in Florida so cold water was NOT my thing. But at this point I gasped for air and started swimming just to warm up. I completed the swim test easily and then was coerced to do the boating test too. I wasn’t eager to stay in that cold water but I kept going. Later on I took a few of the swimming PE courses too just so I could learn the proper strokes. I found the PE classes to be a good break from the academic rigor.

Ronald Fox

Fri, 08/23/2019 1:09pm

I agree with the reasons for the requirement that are given in the article, but there's a very practical one as well. The MIT Campus is bounded on the north by the Charles River Basin, which has an immediate drop off to deep water. If you are going to spend 4 years next to that it only makes sense to make sure that the students can swim.

Isako Hoshino

Fri, 08/23/2019 10:33pm

I'm glad they still have this requirement. it's literally a life-saving skill. my high school had it too, and still does. I had a friend at MIT who didn't know how to swim, and was afraid of the water. so spent one summer teaching her so she can pass the test and also be a little less freightened. I know at least she will be safer around large body of water. Don't understand why people think it's an archaic or outdated requirement. CPR is a good thing to learn too (but that is to save other's life, though..)

I had to take a swim test and a small boats test to join the sailing team or take the PE class (can't rememeber which). I wasn't worried, but I was sick a lot in the beginning (all those new germ exposures!) and due to some schedule thing, the last test day I could go to the alumni pool, I had a 102 fever. but had to get done if I wanted to sail the week after. So bit the bullet and went.

I remember when I showed up at the alumni pool, there was a swim team practice going on, and several students looked so excited and asked me, "Are you here to join the swim team!?" and I felt bad that I had to say no a few times...

There was another student taking the same tests as I was. so we both jumped into the pool, I did the 100yd swim and started to tread water. 3minutes in, I was still casually treading water while the other guy was struggling, almost sinking. By the 10min mark they had to help him out of the water by throwing a life preserver ring to him. not sure if that student passed the small boats test... I just waited until I got the pink paper saying I passed, and hustled out to get dry...