Writing · 14 February 2013 · Ian Malpass

Everybody's Free (To Wear Subfusc)

It was 1999. I was revising for my Finals in Chemistry at Oxford. I use the word “revising” in its loosest possible sense. While trying to avoid anything that looked like learning, I ended up penning a re-wording of Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” that was peculiar to my current predicament.

I emailed it to friends, and it was sufficiently well-received that it was forwarded on (so much so that a few weeks later I was the bemused recipient of my own email). It has since made its way out on to the web in various places, and in various levels of adulteration. Which was handy, because I lost my original copy. So, for whatever it’s worth, I decided to write down a canonical copy here, with notes.

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’96: wear subfusc1.

If I could offer you one tip for Finals2, sub fusc would be it. The wearing of sub fusc is a required by the Proctors3, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own inane ramblings.

I will regurgitate these ramblings now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth.

Oh never mind. You will not enjoy the power and beauty of your youth until you’ve finished. But trust me: in a few weeks you’ll look back and realise in a way you can’t grasp now how much time you spent revising and how tedious it really was.

You are not as dim as you imagine.

Don’t panic about Finals. Or panic, but know that panicing is as effective as trying to write essays by starting a Mexican wave in Schools4. The real troubles are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, like leaving a tenner in your pocket while getting trashed5.

Do one thing every exam that scares you. Write.

Don’t be reckless with your answers, don’t put up with examiners who are reckless in setting questions.


Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Some people are clever, some people are not so clever. The exams are long and in the end, they’re only with a couple of hundred people out of the entire population.

Remember questions you managed to answer. Forget the blunders. If you suceed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your good luck cards, throw away your exam papers.


Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know which questions to answer. Some of the cleverest peole I know didn’t know at 21 which questions to answer. Some of the tutors I know still don’t.

Get plenty of sleep.

Be kind your your brain. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Maybe you’ll pass, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll get a first, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll become a Jobseeker, maybe you’ll join the SCR6. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your answers are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your alcohol. Drink it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it, or of what other people think of it. It’s the greatest substance you’ll ever abuse7.

Write, even if you have nowhere to do it but your exam desk. Read the questions, even if you don’t answer them. Do not read other people’s answers. They will only get you sent down8.

Get to know your tutors. You never know when they’ll buy you drinks.

Be nice to older people doing your subject. They’re the best source of answers to questions and the people most likely to buy you champagne when you finish.

Understand that knowledge comes and goes, but with a few facts you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps of knowledge and understanding because the closer you get, the more questions you can answer.

Lie on the quad once, but leave before it makes you brown. Sit in the JCR once9, but leave before the Simpsons comes on10.


Accept certain inalienable truths: scholars will have sleeves, exhibitioners will be bitter12 and you, too, will finish, and when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you sat Finals, examiners were reasonable, questions were answerable and people prepared properly for their exams.

Prepare properly for your exams.

Don’t mess too much with your gown, or by the time you’ve finished you won’t be able to sell it second hand.

Be careful whose revision classes you attend, but be patient with those that give them. Revision classes are a form of nostalgia. Giving them is a way of fishing past papers from the filing cabinet, dusting them off, tippexing over the hard parts and presenting them as something useful.

But trust me on the subfusc.

[1] Subfusc is the name of the peculiar garb Oxford University inflicts on its students at exam time. Suit, bow tie, black gown, and mortarboard (carried, not worn). You know, normal exam attire.

[2] Finals are your final exams at Oxford, and (at least historically) are the only things that matter in what class of degree you get. No pressure.

[3] The Proctors are the University’s disciplinarians.

[4] The Examination Schools.

[5] Trashing is the tradition of throwing buckets of water over students who have finished their exams (sometimes mixed with other things, like flour and eggs). They may also be sprayed with champagne or Buck’s Fizz. No, I don’t know why. (It’s a measure of the horror of Finals that having a bucket of water thrown over me was something I looked forward to.)

[6] The Senior Common Room, or the body of academics assigned to a given college.

[7] Yes, I’m aware that alcohol abuse is no laughing matter. Please drink responsibly.

[8] “Sent down” means being expelled from the University. There was also the punishment of rustication, which was a temporary explusion, whose origin comes from “being sent to the countryside” (typically one’s father’s country estate). Yes, Oxford has some hangovers from its past.

[9] The Junior Common Room, or the body of undergraduates at a college.

[10] British TV used to always show an episode of The Simpsons just before dinnertime.

[11] This referring to the type of flat-bottomed boat popular in Oxford. Punting on the river Cherwell remains a most pleasant way to spend a summer’s afternoon.

[12] The average student at Oxford is a Commoner. If you do well, you can be made an Exhibitioner, and your subfusc gown gets some extra fiddly bits. If you do very well, you can be made a Scholar and get to wear a full gown with sleeves instead of the short little sleeveless affair Commoners and Exhibitioners get to wear.