One Final Lap: Exploring the Swim Test at Dartmouth

by Yuna Kim | 5/1/19 2:10am

by Grace Qu / The Dartmouth

When I tell my friends from home that Dartmouth requires its students to pass a swim test in order to graduate, I’m usually met with several common responses: disbelief, laughter, pity and pure confusion being a few. Most people will respond with something like, “What’s the point of having a swim test at a college? You’re there to gain academic skill and knowledge, not to learn how to get from one end of a pool to the other!” At least, my parents definitely said something along those lines. 

Despite these comments, Dartmouth’s swimming requirement seems to make sense, at least compared to those mandated at other colleges far removed from swimmable water like Columbia University. Given that our institution lies just adjacent to the Connecticut River and has a rep for being “outdoorsy,” being confident in one’s swimming skills might be a smart move for a student here, as we have many different opportunities to partake in water-related activities. While the basic requirement is the same for all Dartmouth students — a 50-yard swim completed without letting one’s feet touch the bottom of the pool — when and how students engage with this requirement ranges across a wide spectrum of experiences. Some may even choose to fulfill their requirement before the start of their freshman year, like Ashley Francisco ’21, who prepared for the swim test in anticipation of First-Year Trips. 

Francisco, who went on the whitewater kayaking trip, shared that the mandatory swim test for her trip was concerning for her because she did not have a lot of swimming experience before coming to Dartmouth. She and her parents decided that taking swim lessons before coming to college would ease some of her worries. 

“Everyone kept asking me, ‘Why would you pick a trip that has to do with swimming if you don’t know how to swim?’”

“My mom was definitely a little hesitant to send me on the whitewater kayaking trip, given the fact that I hadn’t actually swum in a really long time, and we’d be in a river the whole time,” Francisco said. “Everyone kept asking me, ‘Why would you pick a trip that has to do with swimming if you don’t know how to swim?’”

Francisco ended up taking several swimming lessons before departing to Dartmouth and ultimately had both a successful swim test and positive Trips experience. In hindsight, she is glad that she was able to take the swim test when she did, as it eliminated any further frustration or planning she would have to do during her time at Dartmouth. 

Not all students approach the swim test the same way Francisco did, however. Some seniors, in the home stretch of their time at Dartmouth, have still not taken the swim test, even though graduation is only a little over a month away.  

For Erika Cabrera ’19, putting off the physical exam was not entirely an intentional decision. Cabrera shared that due to an unexpected situation, she and others on her trip did not end up taking the swim test when many of her peers did. 

“During [Trips], there was one person who was trying to take the swim test but didn’t know how to swim,” Cabrera said. “He was traumatized by the water afterwards, and it became this whole big thing, and in trying to help and console him, I just didn’t end up taking my own test.”

If she could go back, Cabrera said that she would have made passing the swim test a priority before going on Trips, as it would have become one less thing to worry about as she nears the end of her time at Dartmouth. 

Curious as to how those who have not yet taken their swim test plan their examination, I spoke to Joann Brislin, Dartmouth’s senior associate athletic director for physical education and recreation. According to Brislin, the pool in the Alumni Gymnasium has open recreation swimming hours every day, during which Dartmouth students — seniors or otherwise — can come to take their swim test. 

While I had anticipated that not many seniors would be in the same boat as Cabrera is now, Brislin shared that undergraduate deans specifically send out the recreational swimming schedule to all seniors periodically throughout the year, as there are many who leave taking the swim test to the last minute. Cabrera confirmed this, saying that the number of seniors she knows who have not yet taken the swim test is actually quite substantial. 

“I remember last year, at least a few hundred seniors indicated that they hadn’t yet completed the swimming requirement,” Cabrera said. “Also, just in my sorority alone, someone recently [messaged] out asking how many of us hadn’t taken our swim tests yet, and there were at least 20 likes on that message.”

As spring term quickly nears its end, I anticipate many seniors will look to take one final lap — quite literally — before graduation. After learning of the inconvenience — and potential trauma — the swim test poses for many people, especially seniors who are just trying to complete graduation requirements, one wonders whether this part of Dartmouth is explicitly necessary or if it is just another of the institution’s holdovers from past years of tradition. Regardless of its necessity, the swim test is a memory that all students will have by the time they complete their time at the College — whether they did an awkward breast stroke before Trips while trying not to get their hair wet or a rushed free-style on a random afternoon their senior spring.