cambridge university students weird traditions

Gowns, Latin and getting married: The weirdest Cambridge traditions you didn’t know about

It’s not a cult… right?

Founded in 1209, Cambridge University is one of the oldest in the world. With Potter-esque buildings and students roaming around the cobbled streets in gowns, studying at Cambridge seems like something out of a dark academia film. But the things Cambridge students get up to on a regular basis, and some of the traditions we have, are pretty weird compared to other university experiences.

From getting fake married to lectures on a weekend and candlelit formals, here is an inside look at what it’s really like to be a student at Cambridge. Gowns, reciting Latin by candlelit and signing away our souls into big old books. It’s definitely not a cult.

Here are all the weirdest student traditions and rules at Cambridge University:

1. Your terms are eight weeks long (with no reading week)

This is one of the main differences between Cambridge and other universities. Lectures, practicals, and supervisions (which are small-group classes) are squeezed into an intense and unusually short eight-week term.

Other UK universities typically have two terms or semesters of between 10-12 weeks, and some even allocate a “reading week” in the middle to allow students to catch up or maybe even get ahead on work. But Cambridge could never. There has actually been a campaign this year to introduce a reading week at the university.

Week Five of a Cambridge term (where a reading week should be) is notorious for being one of the worse. It’s when the workload and burnout hit you at the same time. Cambridge University has recently come under fire for its mental health provision. The uni said: “We now have a significant programme of reform across the colleges and university to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can.”

2. AND they all have funny names…

There are three terms every academic year and they all have fancy names: Michaelmas, Lent, and Easter.

But just use first, second, and third term if you go to Cambridge. Otherwise, your mates will never understand what you’re on about.

3. Your weeks start on a Thursday and you might have lectures on a weekend

The unconventional “Cambridge term” is made worse by the weird “Cambridge week” which starts on a Thursday and ends on the following Wednesday.

This means that at the start of every term, lectures will start on a Thursday.

There doesn’t seem to be a reason for this other than good old tradition, but a rumour amongst students is that weeks start on a Thursday so you forget when the weekend is and end up working seven days a week.

This rumour is supported by the fact that some students, usually Natural Scientists, have Saturday lectures and supervisions. There’s no wonder that they don’t know what a weekend is!

4. You attend ‘matriculation’

When you arrive at Cambridge as a wide-eyed fresher, you live in one of its 31 colleges.

During Freshers’ Week you are also sworn into this college during a ceremony called “matriculation”. Usually, students attend matriculation in their gowns and sign the college book, thankfully not in blood or with a quill but a ballpoint pen.

Each college’s book contains the signature of every student who has studied there. So some students are lucky enough to sign the same pages as Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, David Attenborough, or even Emma Thompson.

5. You can get fake married

It’s tradition for Cambridge students to get “college married” to someone in their first year. Most students propose to their friends and some even have a “wedding” in their college chapel.

The “college family” is largely a pastoral scheme as you and your spouse then become “college parents” in your second year, and are given two or three freshers who become your “college children”.

As a fresher, your college family is like a support network of students, and sometimes you become really close with your siblings and parents. Yes, college family incest can occur.

6. You’re not allowed to have a job

During term time, the University is clear that “students are expected not to work during term-time” due to the intense nature of the courses. It is not a requirement to follow this policy however, it is very unusual for a Cambridge student to be juggling a term-time job alongside their degree.

When the maintenance loan is often not enough to cover living costs and the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds increases year upon year, this is one of the most controversial policies that the university has. Amazing bursaries do exist at the university but some students may not qualify or even be aware of them.

7. You can attend any lectures you want to

The University says that if you are a matriculated student you are allowed to “attend any lectures… of any degree course”. 

This means that if you fancy going to your friend’s lectures as well as your own, there is nothing stopping you… Unless the lecture theatre is full. So why not learn a bit about Chemistry alongside your Geography degree?

8. You get to attend candlelit formals

Formals at Cambridge require their own section. Typically, each college provides weekly formals where waiters wearing waistcoats serve you a three-course meal. Amazingly, these formal dinners cost as little as £7.20 for some students.

Before the meal begins, it is common practice to stay standing until the high table made up of Fellows sits down. Then, grace is read by a member of the high table, a gong is banged and everyone can finally eat. Oh, and did I mention that this all happens in Latin?

But students do get to have some fun at formals. “Pennying” is a tradition for many. If you aren’t touching your wine glass and your friend manages to sneak a coin into it, you have to down it. If a coin is placed into your wine glass and it happens to be empty, you have to fill it up and then down it.

This tradition also extends to dessert. Except you then have to eat the entire thing without cutlery or using your hands. Good luck!

cambridge university uni weirdest traditions rules students

9. You celebrate Christmas a month early

The short Michaelmas terms ends at the start of December so Cambridge students celebrate “Bridgemas” on the 25th of November.

Turkeys are cooked and crackers are pulled with friends that you may not be able to see over the actual festive period. This tradition is wholesome. We approve.

10. You go to C-Sunday

Another period of celebration for Cambridge students is known as “C-Sunday” or “Caesarian Sunday”. The tradition started when one college’s drinking society used to meet another in a local park called Jesus Green for a “brawl”.

Sadly, this wrestling match was banned and now students gather on Jesus Green on the Sunday of the May bank holiday weekend to have the final bit of alcohol-fuelled fun they can get before exam season begins.

Every year Daily Mail photographers hide in bushes to photograph the C-Sunday antics. As C-Sunday is prime time for freshers to be initiated into drinking societies, you can imagine that the subsequent Daily Mail content is superb.


11. You can attend balls

After exams, most colleges throw a ball (Bridgerton style) or a garden party to celebrate the end of the academic year.

These take place in “May Week” which is actually in June. No idea why.

The balls are expensive but contain unlimited food and drink, free admission to various silent discos, carnival rides, and performances from other students to famous artists such as Charli XCX and Scouting for Girls.

If you are lucky enough to make it to 6am, there is a traditional “survivor’s photo” to mark who made it to the end without completely passing out.

These balls are lavish and unlike any other. The St. Johns May Ball was even dubbed by the Times as the seventh best party in the world.

Related stories recommended by the writer:

Naked socials and fake weddings: All the weird uni traditions you didn’t know about

• Latin, gowns and the grace: The weird and wonderful Oxbridge dining hall traditions

• It’s official: These are the country’s most private school unis