9 Weird Things to Expect When You Attend Oxford as an American
Secret societies, fancy outfits, crying in libraries and more.
When I got my letter of acceptance to study at the University of Oxford, I had just finished a physics test and was trying to sneakily check my email.
As soon I saw the words, “We are pleased to inform you,” I actually dropped my phone. “Mrs. Peterson,” I whisper-yelled quietly as I could because other kids were still taking the test, “can I please call my mom in your closet? I just found out I got into Oxford!”
“Sure,” she said, a little nonplussed. “…Oxford, Mississippi?”
I went to a fairly suburban high school in Georgia, where not that many people knew it was a Big Deal to get into Oxford. I knew it was a big deal, but even I didn’t know the weirdness I was about to get myself into. Throughout my three years there, I fell in love, fell into a British accent, and fell into the river. It was an amazing, exciting, terrifying and very strange time in my life — all the more so because I had no idea what to expect.
Here are the nine weirdest things I experienced when attending the University of Oxford as an American.
1. You have to sit exams in something called sub fusc.
I used to heartily believe in the power of taking important tests in sweatpants. Comfortable, breathable, and allow you to hyperventilate very quietly. That was before I took (or “sat,” in the local parlance) exams at Oxford.
Because Oxford is such a weird and old university, it has tons of leftover and frankly meaningless traditions — one of which was being forced to wear a specific formalwear outfit and a gown to exams, Principal’s Collections, and graduation. It was a white top, dark bottoms, and shoes, with a black ribbon if you were a woman, or a white bow tie if you were a man, along with a gown. The gown looked like a long, black vest with very long shoulder tails. If you achieved a first (70% or higher on your exams) you were permitted to wear a Scholar’s gown, which was more like a poofy cape.
You also had to carry (but were not under any circumstances permitted to actually wear) a mortarboard or soft cap.
It was traditional and considered lucky to pin a carnation to your sub fusc. You’d wear white on the first exam, pink on the middle ones, and red on your last one. It was pretty typical to be walking to the exam school to sit your final exam, and be serenaded with shouts of good luck as people saw and recognized that you were on your final march to the exam schools, due to the red carnation.
It was very unlucky to have to buy your own, so you’d form an agreement with friends to buy each other’s carnations for exams.
2. Collections were tests; battels were fees.
Oxford was very unusual in that they had three very short terms: eight weeks each. Vacations were quite long, frequently 4–6 weeks at a time, with a very long summer vacation.
To force students to come back in tip-top academic shape, we were made to sit what were called “collections.” These were mock exams that would be graded by our tutors.
Although these fake exams didn’t go towards your final grade, they were taken extremely seriously. My friends thought I was so lucky to have a 6-week break for Christmas, but they didn’t see me frantically trying to cram old exam questions in my head for those six weeks.
On the complete opposite side of things, at the end of every term, we also had to pay what were called “battels.” These were the fees for our living accommodations, food, and tuition. We students often thought the two should be switched — you collect the fees, and you battel the exams, after all!
3. Tutors encouraged confidence and critical thinking with harsh tutorials.
People often asked me where I learned to write, and the truth is Oxford tutorials did.
Although we all attended the same lectures as the rest of our coursemates, every college had a tutor for your specific subject. Every week during those eight-week terms, our tutors set us a question they’d pick out. We’d spend the week researching, reading on, thinking, analyzing, and finally writing a 2,000-word essay on the subject.
That was the easy part.
Then, we’d submit the essay to our tutors. The next day, we’d all gather in a “tutorial,” with the tutor and 3–4 other students who’d done the same assignment. The tutor would proceed to rip our shoddy essays to shreds as we tried haplessly to defend them.
This was very intimidating because tutors are typically academics at the top of their chosen field of research, veritable experts in what they were asking you about. I, meanwhile, was a snotty eighteen-year-old who didn’t know the first thing about academic research.
After writing about 72 of these over three years, it taught me to write quickly, write well, and write critically.
4. Oxford terms are named Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity.
Because Oxford has to be special in every aspect, even our terms have special names. The term from October to December is Michaelmas, then Hilary is January through March, and finally, Trinity wrapped our academic year up from April to June.
Because terms were short, each week had its own flavor to us. You were never “halfway through the term,” you were in 4th week. 0th (noughth week) was when the best parties typically were — everyone was back from vacation but before you had to settle into the real work. If you’d just arrived, it was minus first week (the week before the week before academic work begins, which is 1st week). Folks were prone to the “fifth-week blues,” when you were exhausted from five weeks of academic rigor, but still had a long way to go.
Even the breaks were called something special: vacation instead of holiday. This was because the expectation was that you’d vacate the premises but continue to work hard. Hence, it wasn’t a holiday.
5. You are expected to fall in love with your college parents.
Like American colleges, Oxford had a system to ensure incoming freshmen (“freshers”) were not cast totally adrift upon arrival. Every fresher was usually given two college parents.
There was a whole culture around proposing to your college spouse, who was usually a friend— my college spouse proposed to me in a club with a candy ring around midnight Wednesday of 0th week, for instance. We had an amicable divorce and spousal swap in 2nd year, but I have no regrets.
Like many other Oxford students, I actually fell in love with my college dad. Most of these relationships didn’t last long, but ours did and we are now married!
6. You basically get sorted into a college like Harry Potter.
When I applied to the University of Oxford, I didn’t realize you actually had to apply to a specific college at the university, of which there are 39. Totally unbeknownst to me at the time, each college has a very specific flavor and reputation. Wadham was the state school college. Jesus was the Welsh college. Christchurch was the posh college.
I picked Balliol purely because I liked the sound of the name (Bay-lee-ole), but was pooled to a different college. I like to think it chose me. I had a very happy three years there.
The names were pretty meaningless. For example, you had New College, which was actually one of the oldest. Magdalen College (pronounced “mod-lin”), Trinity College, Jesus College, Christchurch College, and so on, didn’t often have anything to do with religion.
Unfortunately for tourists, there’s also a University College, called Univ by the locals. This causes no end of confusion when you arrive at Oxford and are trying to find the university, not realizing the entire town is the university. Univ college porters had to explain this to a lot of tourists.
7. Getting trashed does not mean getting drunk.
Well, it kind of does, but there are multiple meanings. At Oxford, getting trashed is a very specific and fun ritual everyone does at the end of exams. Like with many other traditions, each college has its own spin.
At my college, you’d sit your exams, then walk back with your college coursemates to get trashed in 2nd Quad. We ran through the arch and all our friends gathered on the grass to douse us in water with buckets.
After, we’d be given a bottle of cheap bubbly purchased and shaken up by a friend. The aim was to pop the bottle in such a way that the cork hit the big clock face in the Quad. If you did, local legend had it, you’d secured yourself a first (70% or higher), which was considered an excellent grade.
Other colleges would trash their students at the Exam Schools with glitter, silly string, tiaras, and so on.
8. You would punt on the Isis.
The Isis was the Oxford branch of the Thames, derived from the Middle English name for the Thames, the Tamesis.
During Trinity term, colleges would permit you to book out their punts, which were spindly, squarish boats, and go punting on the river. Punting involved a punter standing up on the end of the boat and poling the boat along. It was typical to bring fruit, snacks, and of course Pimms.
Understandably, punting was very precarious. It was not unheard of for punts to flip and have to be dredged from the bottom of the Isis. And if you, like me, went punting after your exams, also after having a celebratory bottle of champagne, and thought yourself steady enough to punt, you’d find yourself sorely mistaken and also in the river.
Luckily on this occasion, it was sunny enough that I was able to change out of my sub fusc and dry off pretty quickly.
9. There were lots of secret (and not-so-secret societies).
At the end of my first year, I received a mysterious note in my pidge (short for pigeon hole, and where students received all their mail). It invited me to an even more mysterious event, held at a mysterious locale. I was to come dressed in a mysterious costume.
This was my first experience with secret societies at Oxford. Like any ancient university where people are rich and have too much free time, the place is lousy with them. There were mostly men-only ones, as women were only relatively recently permitted at Oxford, and a lot of those societies were aimed at folks who came from money.
While my secret society was a fairly open secret at the college, there were some that were extremely quiet that I only ever heard rumors about, as well as those that were notorious, like the Bullingdon club. And of course, I’m sure there were plenty I never heard about at all.
These nine bizarre Oxford traditions and traits are only the tip of the iceberg. I could write a book about the rowing subculture, the college bops, the covered market, the various sandwich shops, and my memories about them all. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have experienced a very eventful three years there that have provided me with a wealth of knowledge, anecdotes, and friendships.
There isn’t really a takeaway for this article — this was just intended to let any reader mentally travel to Oxford University for just a few minutes. What I personally learned from my three years there is that Oxford isn’t unique in that it’s unique. Every place has its traditions and habits, if you’re willing to look.
Oxford shattered my preconceived notions of what I thought it meant to “go to Oxford.” In every place I’ve lived after, I’ve done my best to try to experience it to the fullest and enjoy as much of it as I could. If nothing else, I have learned to come to any new situation with an open mind and an open heart, ready for what I can learn.