New students at MIT can look forward to a lot of exams, from chemistry and biology to math and physics. The first test for most freshmen, however, doesn’t take place in a lab or lecture hall — it happens in the swimming pool.
Completing a swim test or taking a swim course is a requirement for graduation. And so, in an annual Orientation ritual each September, hundreds of first-year students huddle on the decks of the Zesiger Center pool, waiting for their turn to take the plunge.
To pass the test, students just jump in the water and swim 100 yards continuously. Style and speed don’t matter. Whether a student chooses the breaststroke, backstroke, dog paddle or crawl, the only thing that counts is traversing the width of the pool four times without stopping.
According to Carrie Sampson Moore, the director of physical education, 775 students splashed their way through the test across two sessions this year. Another 100 signed up for an introductory swimming class — an alternative for those who do not know how to swim or are otherwise unable to take the test.
“We work really hard to make any accommodations for someone to take the test or a class,” Moore says. “If someone has an injury and cannot take it now, they can sign up for next quarter. If someone prefers a women-only environment, we can make alternative arrangements.”
Nearly everyone who takes the test passes. But if a student is not able to complete it, no problem, according to Moore — students can re-test or sign up to take a swim course. “I think the swim test is important,” Moore says. “MIT values personal safety, and it’s a great, lifelong skill as well.”