How to stay on the ball at Oxbridge balls

Oxford and Cambridge offer no shortage of glamorous events to students. Attending a ball can be a real high point of your time at Oxford or Cambridge, but given the cost involved it’s important to take advantage of everything a ball has to offer.


Charlie Bowden

7/14/20236 min read

Image: A row of stylishly-dressed students walk down a beautiful Cambridge street arm-in-arm. Source: Keith Heppell

Oxford and Cambridge offer plenty of opportunities to turn up to glamorous events. Yet what makes the Oxbridge social sphere distinct is their regular college and student society balls.

What is an Oxbridge Ball?

Balls are lavish events that occur at numerous points throughout the year, typically towards the end of a term. The tickets are more expensive than a typical black-tie dinner or student society social event. However, they also offer many more attractions. These often include fairground rides, musical performances, luxury food platters, photobooths, and an endless flow of champagne. They are run by student committees in co-operation with the college staff.

Should I go to an Oxbridge Ball?

Attending a ball can be a real high point of your time at Oxford or Cambridge, creating fond memories that will stay with you for years. But given the costs involved, it’s important to get the most out of your experience!

Image: A dapper young couple strides confidently out of the gates of the Pembroke 2019 Ball at Cambridge. Source: ARVisual

When do Oxford balls happen?

Most Oxford or Cambridge balls are hosted by an individual college or society. The majority of colleges will have some sort of black-tie event at least once a year, while some societies like the Oxford Union have a ball every single term.

Will I be able to go to a ball if I study at Oxford?

At Oxford the largest colleges hold a “Commemoration Ball” every three years on rotation. These are often the largest and most lavish, and because of this three-year rotation undergraduates can theoretically attend all of them. In the first of the three years only Oriel College holds a ball, followed by New College and The Queen’s College in the second, and Worcester College, Christ Church, Trinity College, and St John’s College in the third.

Other colleges hold Commemoration Balls on significant anniversaries. For example, in 2023 Balliol College held a Commemoration Ball to celebrate the 760th anniversary of its founding. Most of these balls are held in “Commemoration Week” which takes place the week after the end of Trinity (summer) term, after exams have concluded.

When do Cambridge balls happen?

Cambridge colleges have similar traditions for their balls. Most Cambridge balls take place during May Week, which happens (ironically) in June after exams have finished. Balls at Cambridge are therefore known as May Balls. Some also take place at other points in the year. Selwyn College is the only Cambridge college to host an annual winter ball, called the Snowball, while Churchill College hosts a spring ball in the middle of Lent term annually. Smaller colleges do host June Events, which cost less to attend than a May Ball and have less stringent dress codes.

How long is an Oxbridge ball?

Balls differ from other events in that they can last upwards of twelve hours, often not finishing until dawn. It is common for those who manage to stay awake and walking for the whole night to take ‘survivor’s photos’ in the college quad.

Image: Trinity College Cambridge hosted a May Ball recently which featured punting on a lantern-lit river at night. Source: Geoff Robinson Photography.

What is there to do at an Oxbridge ball?

All balls will offer some enjoyable mix of food, drink, and entertainment, but the specifics often vary, especially on the entertainment provided. Some colleges book famous musicians to perform a set for their guests - past balls have hosted Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Calvin Harris, The Rolling Stones, and The Wombats. Others offer fairground attractions like Ferris wheels and dodgems. Fireworks are a regular element of college balls, typically during the big celebration at the end.

Image: A stylishly-dressed woman is carried along the streets of Cambridge on the shoulders of a friend. Source: Press Association

How much does a ball cost?

Ball ticket can cost hundreds of pounds. Therefore, it’s important that guests can get their money’s worth and see all that the ball committee has to offer them.

How to get tickets to an Oxbridge ball

Before you even think about entering an Oxford or Cambridge ball, you obviosly must secure the tickets. They are not open to the public or all members of the college, so you must plan in advance if you'd like to attend. Since they are very popular and can cost a lot of money, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on when balls are meant to be taking place and watch for announcements from societies and colleges. It should be easy to find out which colleges are meant to be holding balls at which times, whether you’re in the Oxford rotation system or the annual and biennial systems of Cambridge.

Making sure that you and your friends know which ball to go to is also essential, because if you leave it too late there might not be enough tickets for everyone. It’s also rather embarrassing to turn up at a ball and suddenly realise that everyone you know is at another college ball because you bought the wrong ticket.

Should I rent an outfit for an Oxbridge ball?

Dress code wise, if you’re worried about the cost of a fancy outfit in addition to the ball ticket, you can always rent white tie outfits and ball gowns from a variety of businesses and societies. Balls have been going on at Oxbridge for centuries, so there will be plenty of shops offering dress code-appropriate attire for students who don’t want to break the bank by purchasing an expensive outfit. However, if you plan on attending multiple balls throughout your time at Oxford or Cambridge, it might be better in the long run to purchase your own dress coat or evening gloves.

Image: Cambridge scholars and guests congregate along the river for the survivors' photo at the end of the ball. Source: Trinity College, Cambridge

Pace yourself to make it to the end!

If you want to last until the end of the night and take a survivor’s photo, it’s important to pace yourself both with the alcohol and with the entertainment. Some events like particular musician sets can only be seen at specific times, whereas a trip on the Ferris wheel can be enjoyed throughout the ball. As such it’s a good idea to figure out a plan ahead of time to maximise your experience. The food and alcohol will be flowing throughout the night too so it’s best to not go overboard if you want to see the sun rise the next day.

Balls should be celebrations, not a source of stress

The final thing to remember is that relaxation and enjoyment are the key to balls. Oxford and Cambridge hold most of their balls after exams are done for a reason. They are a space to celebrate what you’ve accomplished throughout the year and spend time with the friends who helped get you there. You should take advantage of whatever the ball provides but equally you shouldn’t feel pressured to do something stupid or stressful because everyone around you is drinking and having fun.

Image: Cambridge students watch a dazzling fireworks display from traditional Cantabrigan boats. Source: Keith Hoppell

What is the dress code for an Oxbridge ball?

Balls often have an overarching theme that may be incorporated into the dress code; some go for all-out fancy dress. Regular favourites include 1920s and Belle Epoque. Otherwise balls will at minimum be black-tie events, but many require students to wear white tie. For men this involves wearing a dress coat and a white piqué waistcoat rather than a simple suit. Women, meanwhile, typically wear evening gowns with gloves. However, it is unlikely for a student with a ticket to be thrown out for violating the dress code as long as they are wearing some form of formal attire.

What is ball crashing?

Ball crashing is where students without tickets try to gain entry to the ball. Ball crashing, or attempts at it, are frequent occurences. Many colleges and societies hire external security services for the night to prevent ball crashers, although some adventurous students risk it all by swimming in a lake or climbing over walls to avoid security. Ball crashing might make for a thrilling story which lives on in the annals of the Oxbridge social scene but it’s far more trouble than it’s worth and might involve a conversation with the police if it goes too far.