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5 Unusual University of Oxford Traditions

As one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Oxford has developed some rather unique traditions over its 800-year+ history.

From wearing white tie with carnations pinned to your lapels for exams, to celebrating the end of Finals with a good old 'trashing,' there are some unusual rituals which have stood the test of time.

We'll take you through some of the University of Oxford's most unusual traditions, giving you insight into student life at this historic institution.

Wearing White Tie to Exams

Oxford finals (exams) must be sat in a mixture of garments, similar to white tie dress. The outfit, which is properly coined ‘sub fusc’ is comprised of a short black ‘commoner’s’ gown, which has streamers over the arms instead of full sleeves. 

The outfit also includes a white shirt or blouse, black trousers or skirt, and then either a white or black bow-tie, a black full-length tie or a black ribbon tied into a bow. 

Although there were traditional gendered rules surrounding the outfits, the university lifted these in 2012 after a student vote meaning that girls could wear bow ties and trousers if they wished.

Another important aspect to the outfit is the mortarboard. Students must carry (and never put on) a mortarboard into every exam. Placing it on your head before you have passed your degree is frowned upon. 

Colour-Coded Carnations

A slightly less obligatory tradition for exam season is the wearing of carnations which are pinned to a student’s gown. These follow a strict colour code, and change depending on the stage of your degree. 

For your first exam, you are expected to wear a white carnation; in your interim exams, you will wear pink, followed by a bright red carnation in your final exam to signify your freedom from your study. 

If you’re local to Oxford, you may have seen the quaint flower stall which resides in the famous Covered Market. The carnations are usually bought here by a student’s ‘college parents’ (older students) as a good luck charm for their college ‘children.’


College Families

College families are a huge part of Oxford life. You are acquainted with them (well, your parents) before you arrive at the university, and they will become a supportive network for academic and welfare support. 

Your college parents are chosen on the basis that they should be able to help you flourish during your time at the university. One of them will study the same subject as you, meaning they can provide great academic help, while the other will be on-hand to offer truthful answers to the questions you may not want to ask your tutors, as well as help you adjust to the busy Oxford workload. They’ll most likely take you for a meal early in Freshers’ Week so you can get to know them, and this will form the basis of a reliable and supportive network.

During your time at the university, you will almost certainly ‘get married’ - in a completely platonic and friendly way. Colleges advise against marrying early on in your course in case your friendship doesn’t last, and they also suggest that you don’t marry someone who does the same subject as you, as it limits the range of children you could be assigned.

May Bumps

Taking place in the springtime, the May Bumps is an unusual four day rowing race between the various colleges around Oxford. 

The idea of the race is that one boat is given a slight lead to start with, and the other team has to try and bump it - a bit like dodgems. If they are bumped, the team must pull back slightly before resuming the chase. The idea is still to be the first to pass the finish line, though just through a fun and slightly messy race. 

Oxford Time

Before Britain had a widespread railway line, most towns and cities operated in their own time zone. Oxford, in particular, always operated five minutes ahead of the Greenwich Mean Time. To signify this time difference, Tom Tower would sound 101 times every evening a t five minutes past nine - to signal a curfew to students to go back to their colleges. 

There is still a nod to this time difference, with Oxford lectures beginning at five past the hour, which is great for students who struggle with punctuality!

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Discover the unique traditions of the University of Oxford, from wearing white tie to colour-coded carnations. Experience college families, May Bumps rowing race, and the time difference. Join our summer courses for an authentic Oxford student experience. Browse available courses now.

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