Undergraduates Under Water


Ready to graduate?

Most universities require their students to pass (complete successfully) certain courses (classes) in order to graduate. Usually, these are what we call general education classes, classes on topics that the university thinks everyone should know about to be considered an educated college graduate, such as literature, history, math, foreign language, and science.  During the early part of the 20th century (remember the 20th century?), Cornell University (in Ithica, New York) began requiring student to pass a swim test, thinking that knowing how to swim was part of a “complete education.”  Other universities followed suit (did the same thing), and by the 1940s, tests and classes related to one’s physical abilities (such as swimming) became more common at American universities.

By the mid-1990s, however, only five percent of U.S. colleges required students to take a swim test, and the vast (large) majority required no physical education (sports, exercise) courses at all.   My alma mater (university from which I graduated, literally from the Latin meaning “nourishing (one who feeds) mother,” because universities “feed” you knowledge), the University of Minnesota, did not require any physical education classes, for example, which is a good thing for me, since I have zero talent for sports.  The few universities that still require a swim test today include some quite famous ones, including Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), and Notre Dame.

The tests vary (are different) from university to university.  At Columbia, you must swim 75 yards (that’s 68.58 meters for the rest of the world), using any style or method (except with a surfboard, I guess).  For Dartmouth, it’s 50 yards (45.72 meters), and for Notre Dame, 100 yards (91.44 meters).  Most students pass the test, but those who don’t have to take a swimming class in order to (to be able to) graduate.

Is it fair to ask college students to know how to swim in order to get their degree?  I’m not sure, although growing up in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” (Minnesota), I can see how it would be a useful skill to have.  Could I have passed such a test had it existed when I was in college?  Well, let’s just say I have never been, and never will be, confused with Michael Phelps (the swimmer who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics).


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21 Responses to Undergraduates Under Water

  1. emiliano says:

    A funny thing:

    We say here “In the blind´s country the one eyed person is a king” and it is just what I am here just in this moment as I am teaching English to a friend´s daughter who is travelling to Finland next February.
    She needs to talk in English and she is coming home to talk and be teached by me, isn´t it funny?.

    Thank you Jeff, the real King are you with your full sight, not me with only a not so good eye……., but this is the needs
    of so many students who are always trying to learn English without ever speaking a single phrase.

    We have just listened to the ESL 548 “working for an impossible boss”…..and it´s so real that it seems to me a very good
    and interesting matter to write about, we have enjoyed the lesson very very much.

    Thanks again Lucy for the scrip. you are always so accurate and funny, that makes the lessons easy and amusing of
    listen to.

  2. emiliano says:

    Again THANK YOU JEFF, your good information about yards and meters is incredible nice to me “and the rest of the world” who doesn´t live in the Anglo World of measurements.
    For sure that you are the best teacher, the nicer, and you have an incredible good memory for the little things wichever silly student may suggest.

    Yes, you are my hero despite you don´t have any sports talent.
    Me just the same, I haven´t any, the only sport talent that I had was…………….incredible “swiming ability” so it would be a nice text to “swim” if I ever would had the posiblity of going to these universities in the past, now I am afraid is too late for me.

    Thank you Jeff, my mouth is open thinking in you good ability to remember …….or it has been my dear teacher Lucy?.
    Ja, Ja, I have to tell Cuca about this post that make me laugh a lot.

  3. mano says:

    Hey , Emiliano, we have this idiom, too:)
    We say literally: “among the blinds the half-eyed is the king”

    mano from Hungary

  4. emiliano says:

    Nice to know it Mano, that in Hungary it´s the same idiom. More or less humans are the same everywhere, different language but the same mind or feelings.
    As much older I am the more certain for me is that good men and women are similar all round the world and by the contrary too, but I prefer to think about goodness than evilness, don´t you agree?
    I would like to be in Hungary and Budapest again, a nice country and a very beautiful city with so much History and Music.
    Many years ago I bought lots of cd. from Hungaraton, and incredible best label of classic music that was absoverd by other great west music label……a pity because all the musicians were Hungarian and the cd. were good and cheaper, a national treasure that was lost.

    Just a pleasure to greet you.
    emiliano from Madrid….Spain.

  5. Peter says:

    Interestingly enough , passing an interview you do need some kind of physical activities. I am dead serious , here ,In north america , no matter what job you are applying for, in the interview ,the interviewer always asks the interviewee about his/her hobbies. If you wanna pass the interview with flying colors ,it is better to line up different kinds of sports that you do regularly,and swimming comes on the top. I am serious not joking. Don’t believe me Ask Jeff ,or Lucy.

    it is even more strranger than wghat Jeff Say above.

  6. dongsung says:

    Requiring student to pass a swim test is not common in my country. Maybe none of the universities have this kind of test as far as I know. But, it is very interesting and looks good to have this kind of system.

  7. Tania says:

    Hi ! I am skating…I am dancing… I am flying on the ice … I am a little little lady bird . A lady bird in winter ?

  8. dini says:

    i think it shouldn’t be obligatory at an university to graduate with sports only in the case if it is related with it’s specialization …

    i want to mention about the blog and the people who writes in it that half of the things you write it is to praise our teachers and i think that it is too much despite the fact that sometimes they need some praise too … maybe you will write more about somethings else too in the future … or we can comment more on the english cafe and eslpodcast topics

    i listen the podcasts almost every other day and i found them very useful , my writing and understanding ability has risen a lot in the past 2-3 years since i listen the podcasts regularly . three years ago i wasn’t able to write a simple sentence or understand a whole esl podcast . but i have to mention that in parallel i started to read a lot about english grammar too which has a really big importance in building your english knowledge . ( ” grammar girl ” is also a good podcast … 🙂 )

    another thing after i am keen a little is some more Jeff’s and Lucy’s intervention in the blog …

    dini from romania

  9. Peter says:

    Indeed ,

    Eslpod sharpen fluency. Truth to be told , it was pretty much what I aimed for when I joined the gang back in 2007.

    I achieved it!

    now, I am looking at the program as a means for loosing my accent. I am not there yet but I am nearing.

  10. Peter says:

    Take this advise my friends,

    the end is nearing , so in this free ride which is your life leave no stone unturned

    And spend no Friday nights alone.

    Knock, knock
    Who is knocking
    me ,who
    my dear,old friend misery

  11. Tania says:

    Hi ! Dr. Jeff , you are a real encyclopedia of the human activities . And radio , press , photos , writing books … maybe this is the difference between East and West .

    All the best for you all ,


  12. emiliano says:

    Well dini I think you are right, and I agree with you about your points of view.
    It should be nice to have some more opinions about the topics in the eslpodcast or the cafes, less praise to our teachers as they know perfectly well our feelings and the third to have Jeff´s and Lucy´s thoughts in the blog?. Right, of course, but it depends of how many time they have to do it, but if they did the blog would have more life, of course.

    Personally I would like that the blog could be a little less endogamic as you suggest and it depends of us….more people, more
    subjects, less praises and more Jeff and Lucy´s interventions.

    I think that´s right. Thank you dini.

  13. Peter says:


    I totally agree ,Jeff is totally encyclopedic,all you mentioned Jeff has it in him, but don’t generalize what you see in Jeff. It is not that all the people residing out west share the peculiarity you attributed to Jeff . Likewise,not all folks out East lacks those attributes. I am positive you can find gifted people out East as well.

    You just mentioned Jeff ,

    I believe Lucy deserves the same recognition. What she is doing is amazing .If you go through her works you barely track fancy ,highfalutin words still you never see any overuse of adverbs and adjectives. I don’t know how she does it. It is like magics.

    Dear Jeff and Lucy
    if I may,

    In English, we have something called adverbial ,or adjectival overuse.don’t get me wrong;proper use of adv and adj strengthen your writing ,but over using them affect your writing other way around( ruin your writing), to avoid this ,we should use somehow more complicated verbs containing the whole connotation.

    What amazes me is that Jeff and Lucy never use these highfalutin,fancies words ,and at the same time never get caught in adverbial,adjectival overuse. It is almost impossible. Don’t ask me ,I don’t know how they do it.
    If you don’s use fancy words ,adv and adj keep getting in the way.
    Here comes some adverbialover use:
    A mouse ran rapidly across the room into a small hole
    you would be better off if you omit “ran rapidly ” and put “scurried in a hole” that way you omitted the adverb “rapidly” still implying the same connotation

    Adjectival overuse:

    Lucy is a very good writer. A very good can be replaced with talented writer.

    You see, it is essential to know different words and their order of intensities.

    beautiful ,pretty ,gorgeous ,…….. .What I put down just now is called the order of intensity for the word “beautiful.”

    sorry Sorry my very long and boring posting ( a perfect example for both adverbial and adjectival overuse)

    Allow me to replace “very long and boring posting” for “long-winded posting.” both carry the same meaning . But ,the important thing is which one you vote better.

    The more you know about the English language,the more you grasp how skillful they are.

  14. Peter says:

    living in an English speaking country, I came to realize that there is a fine line between non-native and native speakers residing here ,English wise. Eslpod help us cross the line.

  15. khaalid says:

    my name is khaalid i jus like it
    although I don’t have head for swimming(=good at it) in my mind i think it is good for the students to learn
    because they may get by in bad situations like in ocean so that
    i’d like to advise all of us to learn it whatever”

  16. YVONNE says:

    Taiwan,island surrounded by sea, government used to ask students to pass the swim course.
    Since we felt it’s a shame not to be able to swim as the resident live in island.
    Under this logic, for example, people who live in Swiss should have to pass skii course before graduated and in AU scuba diving or something?
    I think it make sence that everyone should learn some skill relative to the natural surrounded you.
    Natural disastor may come at any moment today, especially Taiwan just suffered from flood last year,
    it may help to be able to swim a little (maybe not??)
    However, nowaday the vast majority of students in taiwan seem to be able to pass “online game course” than “swim course”.

  17. Tania says:

    Hi ! I remember Michael Phelps – the revelation of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics . Plushenco has won the gold medal at skating .

    All the best for you all ,


  18. Tania says:

    Hi ! And you Dini … and you Brutus … I know I do not know very well the English gammar . I knew it not very well but I knew it years ago .
    I must start studying it again . But the grammar book is so big .. When , when , when will I start ?
    Thank you for your sincerity .

    Strive and succeed !


  19. Canan says:

    except with a surfboard ha :)))
    Dear Jeff ,
    You have a superb humor style I think.And you and Lucy are great teachers.
    Many thanks again for your effort.

  20. Daniel says:


    just want to let you know that your posts are intersting,i m a rwandan student here in Morocco and every once in while I check out your posts ,I’ve realise that you use excellent expressions.knowing that you’re not a native speaker (just like me)really keeps me motivated.may be someday ,(when i’ll no longer need to put your writtings under the microscope,searchin’with a fine tooth of comb,waitin’ for finding new expressions lol),I’ll reach your level

  21. peter says:

    Hang in there my fruend Daniel,

    I know nothing my friend. I am just a simple English student who tries to get a hang of this domineering languge. Thanks for the compliment though.Your kind words are good momentum for me;it encourages me to keep going . as you mentioned let’s hope once we all all become a second Jeff or a second Lucy , not in this life time ,of course 🙂

    Just a pipe dream( thanks to lucy)

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