Guest Post • Guide to UK Applications

5 Unique Traditions at the University of Cambridge

POSTED ON 08/24/2022 BY The Red Pen

5 Unique Traditions at the University of Cambridge | The Red Pen

Established in 1209, the University of Cambridge is renowned for its world-class education, prestige and traditions. While some, such as wearing fancy gowns for formal halls and matriculation, are well-known, there are a few quirky traditions that make studying at the University of Cambridge a rather unique experience.

Below are 5 unique traditions at the University of Cambridge:

1) Secret societies:

The Cambridge Apostles is perhaps the most famous, mysterious, and exclusive secret society. Founded in 1820 by George Tomlinson (later the Bishop of Gibraltar), the society gets its name from the biblical Apostles and counts celebrities such as John Keynes and Lytton Strachey as alumni or ‘Angles’. Today, the society is commonly known as the Cambridge Conversazione Society, but it still holds up some of its old traditions. New members must swear by a ‘curse’ or take a vow of secrecy, while ‘Whales’ or sardines on toast are still served during weekly meetings where discussions revolve around a topic proposed by one member.

Another unique secret society is The Night Climbers of Cambridge, which takes sightseeing in Cambridgeshire to different heights. While most tourists appreciate the magnificence of the intricately designed Hogwarts-like buildings and architecture while punting through the River Cam or walking around town, some Cambridge students prefer site-seeing by climbing the buildings instead! Based on the 1930s book written under the pseudonym,  “Whipplesnaith”, members of The Night Climbers of Cambridge hop around Cambridgeshire, playing harmless pranks, exploring the town from ‘the top of the world’’! Their most recent prank was to spread the holiday cheer on ‘Bridgemas Eve’ or November 25 by decorating St John’s College with Santa hats.

2) Cardboard boat races:

Post the May exams or what is known as ‘May Week’ comes the Cambridge University Cardboard Boat Race! This long-awaited race sees Cambridge students competing in boats made out of cardboard, PVA glue and tape. The fastest and most interestingly designed boats win the race. Over the years, some of the many fascinating boat designs have been ‘Elizabeth Line’, commemorating the Queen’s platinum Jubilee and ‘HMS Cheesy Ship’, which resembles a favourite midnight snack. To get the best view of the race, stay close to the starting point, as even the best of Cambridge engineers seemingly fail at keeping their vessels afloat for longer than a minute! I would even argue that this race receives a larger (and more excited) audience than the ‘May Bumps’ or the actual rowing races.

3) Pennying:

Formal halls, resembling the dinners at the Great Hall in Harry Potter, also have been transformed with student traditions, one of which is ‘Pennying’. If a student manages to toss a penny into someone else’s beverage, the owner of the drink must gulp it in one sip. Consequently, students, professors and even College Fellows tend to cover their glasses throughout the dinner. Another variation of this tradition is where the chefs randomly place a 5p coin in a dessert. If found, the recipient of the dish must eat the entire dessert without hands. Who knows, these chefs may have wanted to put the elaborate cutlery to better use.

4) May Week:

Cambridge students live by the motto “work hard, play hard”. After a strenuous period of studying, students overcompensate by celebrating the end of their exams for a week in June (rather than a month). This most-awaited week comprises May Balls, garden parties and June events every evening, as well as non-stop daytime parties, full of traditions. These exuberant annual events, hosted by the University of Cambridge Colleges, include everything from live concerts and Ferris wheels to firework shows. The themed balls are usually “White-tie” and strictly restrict dress codes to full-length gowns and black suits. Those who manage to stay on their feet till morning attend a ‘survivors breakfast’. A common sight during May Week mornings is people in floaties mingling with tired gown-wearers by the pool for picnic parties.

5) College Family system:

The University of Cambridge Colleges are responsible for the pastoral care of the students. Several well-established systems exist to ensure that the College becomes a student’s home away from home. The College Family tradition involves three generations of students coming together to form kinship groups. The system assigns a ‘college parent’ and ‘college grandparent’ who are in their second and third years to ‘college children’ or freshers. Before being promoted to the second year, freshers must ‘marry’ or team up with another student who is not a ‘college sibling’ to adopt first-year students arriving next year. Families often take day trips and go out for meals, sometimes sponsored by the college. Thanks to your College Family, you will feel a sense of belonging!

Traditions which have survived the test of time through centuries continue as enjoyable and quirky aspects of the unique experiences at the University of Cambridge. If you are considering applying to the University of Cambridge, get in touch with the Red Pen for more information and guidance on your application.

Preksha Jain is a guest blogger and current student at the University of Cambridge. She is reading Psychological and Behavioural Sciences and aspires to specialise in education consultancy and consumer behaviour. Preksha graduated the IBDP from Dhirubhai Ambani International School and has worked with firms to host mock Oxbridge interviews, review applications and help students secure admission into some of the world’s top universities.