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Each year, Cornellians race to the Helen Newman Pool and dive into one of the University's longest-standing traditions — the swim test.

August 20, 2023

Everything You Need to Know About the Cornell Swim Test

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Cornellians, like most college students, have many requirements to graduate, including reaching a certain number of credit hours, completing different distribution subjects and — if they are Arts and Sciences students — taking a foreign language. However, unlike students at most universities, Cornellians must also pass a swim test to earn their degree.

This semester, some students completed the swim test on Wednesday, Aug. 16 to Friday, Aug. 18. The test will also be offered on Monday, Aug. 21 to Thursday, Aug. 24. Women-only swim tests will be held on Thursday, Aug. 24 and Friday, Aug. 25.

To pass the swim test, students must jump feet first into the deep end of the pool and swim 75 yards — which is three lengths of a standard pool in the United States. There is no time or stroke requirement to pass the test. Students who cannot pass the test must enroll in Physical Education 1100: Beginning Swimming.

The requirement dates back to 1905, when the University Faculty Committee on Physical Education set a swimming proficiency test that all incoming first-year undergraduate students must meet to ensure students’ safety in drowning situations. Although all matriculating first-years must participate in the swim test, transfer students and students who graduated between the years of 2020 to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic are exempt

The swim test’s history differs for men and women. Colonel Frank Barton 1891 — who served as an early leader of Cornell’s student cadet corps — made the swim test a requirement for students to receive a passing grade in the standard military drill. This made completing the swim test a graduation requirement since the military drill was required for all male students completing a four-year degree.

“In view of the fact that recent wars have conclusively demonstrated that a soldier who cannot swim is so much dead timber in the command, and the United States now refuses to graduate from West Point or Annapolis cadets who are unable to swim, no student will be credited with a passing mark for spring term’s drill who has not previously passed an examination in swimming satisfactory to the Professor of Physical Culture,” Barton stated upon the swim test’s initiation.

In 1920, Dorothy Bateman, the first Cornell director of sports and physical education, decided to extend the requirement to women because she believed that women should also have a well-rounded physical education.

Although Cornell was the first non-military college to require a swim test, many more schools decided to add the swim test as a graduation requirement. In 1977, about 42 percent of universities required students to pass a swim test, but by 2006, that number had dropped to 8 percent.

Different schools have removed the swim test requirement for various reasons, such as budget constraints, changing attitudes towards physical education and legal concerns. In 2012, the University of Chicago made the decision to eliminate its swim test requirement because they wanted to give students a choice of how they wanted to exercise.

In contrast, Massachusetts Institute of Technology is among the few universities that have kept the swim test requirement. In a Slice of MIT article, Carrie Moore, director of physical education for MIT, described that the swim test is an important requirement for students because it teaches them a valuable life skill and opens up opportunities for students to participate in water activities.

At Cornell, Jennifer Gudaz, Senior Associate Director of Athletics, stated that the swim test is an important requirement for students because it teaches them a lifesaving skill, particularly with the unique dangers of Ithaca’s natural water sources. The swim test ensures that students who want to enjoy swimming in these natural bodies of water are able to do so safely.  

“The Ithaca and the surrounding area are home to numerous lakes, gorges and streams that can pose risks for all swimmers, but especially for those unable to swim,” Gudaz wrote in an email to The Sun. “Cornell University has long valued swimming as an important life skill to prevent fatal unintentional drowning.” 

Additionally, Gudaz stated that knowing how to swim is important to help develop student’s physical and mental health.

However, Cornellians have varying perspectives on the swim test requirement.

Adrian Elmest ’27 believes that the swim test is important to have at Cornell due to the prevalence of gorges and other natural bodies of water which can pose a risk to students who cannot swim. Similarly, Ben Carrick ’27 believes a required swim test is valuable to students at all colleges. 

“I think that it should be necessary for all schools,” Carrick said. “Swimming is a basic task that could save your life in the future.”

On the other hand, Anushka Singh ’26, who did not know how to swim coming into Cornell, believes that the swim test should be optional for students. 

While Lucy Nelson ’26 believes the swim test is a necessary requirement for university students across the country, she did not personally enjoy the experience of taking the test. 

“Taking the swim test was harder than I expected even though I already knew how to swim,” Nelson said. “I was so tired afterwards.” 

On the contrary, Swati Sheth ’26 enjoyed the swim test. She liked how waiting in line for the swim test gave her a chance to talk to new people during freshman orientation week. After taking the test and joining thousands of other Cornellians who have taken part in this test, Sheth felt closer to the Cornell community. 

While opinions on the swim test are divided, most students are united in the belief that it remains an important aspect of the University’s tradition and identity.

“I really enjoy watching students learn to swim and be excited about swimming,” Gudaz wrote in an email to The Sun. “Class evaluations are always flooded with comments about how happy they are that they learned how to swim.”

Anushka Shorewala is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].