Cambridge Uni students must celebrate end of exams differently this year

“Please finish the sentence that you are writing. Put down your pens. The exam is now over.”

For generations of Cambridge University students, the voice of an invigilator is the last thing you hear before you step away from your degree.

Out of the exam hall, you feel the cool spray of cava, and excitable shrieks of your friends as you take a big gulp of fresh air and fizz, trying and failing to process that this is it.

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It’s a ritual as old as time — or at least the 90s — but this year’s class of Covid had more anti-climactic celebrations after doing exams in their own rooms.

The “trashing” was one constant, however, as friends sought to create a joyful atmosphere for each other.

When Arjun Singh, a 21-year-old Human Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) student at Girton College finished his last exam in his bedroom, he knew it was a question of when not if he got sprayed.

Between his close friendship group, “it’s been a little bit of an elaborate game of who can create the most convincing surprise.”

So when he got a text telling him to come outside and was ambushed with a bottle of Aldi prosecco while rounding a corner, it still took his breath away.

The exam itself was “surreal,” he said.

“When you’re still in your bedroom doing an online thing, it’s very hard to feel like anything you’re doing has any importance to it; thinking ‘I’m still three feet from my bed and I’m doing my finals’.”

What would have been a three-hour test in strict conditions was extended into a six-hour open-book exam, which had its advantages, he said, but it was tricky to maintain focus throughout.

“There wasn’t much of a transition, it was almost like a switch,” he said.

Arjun said he was looking forward to the freedom to work his next steps out.
Arjun said he was looking forward to the freedom to work his next steps out.
(Image: Ella Henry)

Flora Bowen, a Modern and Medieval Languages (MML) student at Clare College, also found the process surreal.

The 22-year-old, who had her year abroad in Bolivia and France cut short last year, said it was “very difficult to separate work and study and sleeping and relaxing.”

Her post-exam celebrations involved more planning: after submitting her paper to the “virtual void”, she met friends at the Sidgwick Site to spray each other with cava.

So though Cambridge’s streets have stayed dry this year — welcome news to some residents, who got the spraying banned in 2012 — the bubbly tradition has been upheld.

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Staff at Sidney Street Sainsbury’s said that sales of cava brut had been particularly high, with 200 cases sold last week. While Market Square M&S reported that wine sales were 10% up from 2019 levels.

Emmanuel College languages student Genevieve Holl-Allen, 22, shut her laptop and saw her housemates assembling in the garden with bottles of cava.

It helped to make what was otherwise an “anti-climactic” moment feel more celebratory.

She added: “It was quite a disappointment that when this day 21 June was floated, it seemed quite poetic in a way that we would have a week of freedom, of everything, before I had to leave Cambridge.

“So it was quite deflating to find out that we weren’t going to have that.”

The lockdown lifting delay has meant that graduation, which Emmanuel students were allowed to invite two guests to for a drinks reception, has now been limited to students only.

May Week, usually the fancy finale to the year, will also see balls downgraded to college garden parties.

For Arjun, his Cambridge degree has been an experience of two halves. A week before the first lockdown, Girton hosted its spring ball.

“So I told people that my time in Cambridge effectively ended at that ball. That was kind of my last hurrah and everything else has sort of been like an epilogue where I’ve just kind of been picking up the pieces.”

Now he wants to make up for lost time – doing things he never had the time or opportunity to do during his three years here, like visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum, and Grantchester Meadows.

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