School Went Online This Year, Including MIT’s Swimming Test

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology swim test—a 100-yard paddle required to graduate—hung over

Megan Ochalek

for four long years.

“I procrastinated taking it for seven semesters, despite many, many angry texts from my mom,” said Ms. Ochalek, 22 years old, a mechanical engineering major.

100 yards to graduation

She was about to dive in last spring—her last semester before graduating—when the pandemic struck. Other schools with swim requirements such as Cornell, Dartmouth and Columbia waived their tests. MIT took another approach: It decided to go virtual with an online “conceptual swim class” to test student buoyancy.

In normal times, the swim test acts as a rite of passage for new MIT recruits, ensuring students better known for their brains can also ace aquatics. The requirement began in 1948 in response to drowning casualties during World War II.

The virtual class, which is just for seniors, tests students with a quiz and has five essay questions on subjects such as how they would react to trouble in different types of water. Students have to cite texts from the American Red Cross. Questions include: What are three ways to ensure safe diving? (Answer: Water at least 9-feet-deep, care with funnel-shaped home pools, and never drink and dive.) Or, How do you self-rescue after falling through ice? (As a final step, once back on the surface, roll away from the break.)

An educational element in the conceptual swim class.


McGraw Hill

“We owe it to our students to teach them how to swim,” said

Carrie Sampson Moore,

director of physical education and wellness. “For those who were very familiar with the activity” beforehand, she said she hoped they’d see the benefit of conceptual learning on technique, safety or the “history of swimming.”

Some students found the class, which stretches around four hours in one session, grueling—especially since swimming in the actual test would normally take less than 10 minutes.

“I wouldn’t call it exciting, honestly,” said biological engineering student

Tooba Shahid,

21. Like most of her classmates, she said she knew how to swim already.

When she took the virtual class in November, Ms. Shahid was asked to design a swimming routine to be completed later at a local pool that she was required to identify. “I just googled ‘swimming pools near me’ and I just put the first one there,” she said. She promised to sharpen her butterfly stroke, flutter kick and jellyfish float as soon as Covid subsided.

Ms. Shahid procrastinated the conceptual class so long she had to request an extension—there was studying to do. “MIT is a little hard, I don’t know what you heard,” she said.

After completing her exam,

Aleena Shabbir,

a 22-year-old math and computer science student, who took swimming lessons when she was younger, was unconvinced you can learn to swim online. She joked with friends, “I’m going to push you in the Charles!” she said. “If you drown? You failed class.”

Ms. Sampson Moore said the conceptual swim class wasn’t designed to teach people to swim, which would be difficult without the physical experience, but to “keep students safe and inspire them to learn to swim.”

Before Covid, most took the test at the end of fall orientation week, when hundreds of freshmen descend on the Olympic-size pool.

MIT students took the real swim test in 2012.


Thomas Gearty/MIT

Typically, they must swim four lengths without stopping or, if they aren’t confident swimmers, take a six-week swimming course to complete the requirement.

In the real test, students hop in toes first—no diving—to mimic falling off a boat. “We try to make it as realistic as possible,” said Ms. Sampson Moore.

Swimmers can pick any front- or sidestroke, with backstroke allowed for the final length, and choose slow, medium or fast lanes.

This being MIT—with a sharp-elbowed acceptance rate of just 7{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}—many felt competitive pressure to perform. “The person in front of you is sprinting, and there’s a person behind you also right on your toes,” said 22-year-old

Kyle Morgenstein.

“And everyone’s going faster and faster before you realize, I’m not a good swimmer! I can’t swim this fast!”

The aerospace engineering and planetary science double-major bolted at the beginning in freestyle at maximum pace before burning out. He had to coast the final stretch in backstroke, panting his way just over the line.

Sarah Dohadwala,

a biological engineering major in her senior year, attempted the real test in orientation several years ago, but she was exhausted from a day walking roughly 15 miles exploring Cambridge and Boston.

“Around the third lap I was starting to get really nauseous,” she said. She bobbed to the side and climbed out. “Throwing up in the pool would have been extremely embarrassing,” she said.

Ms. Dohadwala, 22, took the online class instead. “It was such a pain in the butt,” she said. “It takes like four hours. Why? Just cancel the requirement!”

Finishing school remotely at home in Wisconsin last spring, the clock was ticking down on Ms. Ochalek’s graduation. She was nervous awaiting conceptual swim class instructions. She bagged a Ph.D. offer from Stanford University but worried the swim requirement could scupper it.

She has known how to swim since kindergarten but could never find the time in between studies, her work as an undergraduate researcher at MIT’s International Design Center, and preparing for her internships at NASA in summer 2018 and 2019.

“There was definitely a period where I thought I was not graduating,” she said. “With all the things going on in 2020, I was just like…if I don’t graduate because of the swim test that’s just kind of on par with everything else.”

Before instructions arrived, she wasn’t quite sure what a “conceptual swim class” would mean. “My brother was going to pull me on the wagon and my dad was going to spray me with a hose” while she practiced her stroke, she joked.

The reality of the class was less physical and more academic. She joined forces with classmate

Srimayi Tenali,

21, who was home in Melbourne, Fla. Before the pandemic struck in March, the duo had bought goggles and swimsuits together in preparation for the real test.

Ms. Ochalek, in inset, and Srimayi Tenali, in background, tried to get into an aquatic mood on their video call during the conceptual swim class.


Megan Ochalek and Srimayi Tenali

They donned the swimwear and video chatted while taking the conceptual class together in May. “We decided together, we might be doing this virtually but we did not buy these swimsuits for nothing,” said Ms. Tenali.

In Wisconsin, Ms. Ochalek sat in front of a maritime painting to heighten the aquatic vibes. In Florida, Ms. Tenali sat outside, goggles on her head, with the sea breeze from the Atlantic fanning over her.

Ms. Tenali celebrated afterward on Instagram: Excited to say “we did not conceptually drown.”

Write to Jem Bartholomew at [email protected]

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