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10 Things You Didn’t Know About the US Ivy League

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the US Ivy League main image

Much like the UK’s ‘Oxbridge’, the US Ivy League colleges are a frequent source of fascination, both for those who have a personal connection to one of the eight elite schools and those who are ‘outsiders’. I have to admit, I’ve never been in a position to claim myself an expert on Ivy League traditions or trivia – so this blog post was largely inspired by an attempt to enlarge my knowledge in this area. From their historic pasts to their innovative presents, here are my top 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Ivy League…

1. Harvard has a hip hop archive…

This was in fact the piece of Ivy League trivia that made me think about researching this post. And yes, I’m quite behind the times here: Harvard’s Hiphop Archive and Research Institute was actually established back in 2002, with the aim of providing a dedicated resource for exploring “the most influential artistic, educational and social movement for youth and young adults” of the past few decades.

2. … and a tradition in which students run around naked before exams.

Twice a year, at midnight on the night before final exams start, Harvard students gather for a de-stressing naked run through the college yard. This apparently evolved from an earlier tradition in which students opened their windows and yelled for 10 minutes to release pre-exam stress – which explains why it’s known as ‘Primal Scream’.

3. Columbia students like to prep for exams with… a marching band.

Meanwhile at Columbia University, the marching band blasts into the library every year on the night before the organic chemistry final exams. Known as ‘Orgo Night’, this has been going on for more than 50 years now, with the band putting on an hour-long show of music and jokes. Not quite as ‘wild’ as the Harvard approach perhaps, but still a good way to de-stress!

4. Brown celebrates Halloween with a spooky organ concert.

It’s become a Halloween tradition at Brown University for students and locals to gather for a midnight organ recital of spooky music, with the lights turned off and creepy costumes on. Resident organist Mark Steinbach, who’s been playing the Halloween concerts for the past two decades, says he loves “changing the way people think about the organ”, and he keeps his costume a secret each year.

5. Yale has a manuscript no one can read.

The 15th century ‘Voynich manuscript’, held in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, is reputed to be the world’s most mysterious document. For years, linguists, mathematicians and code-breakers of all descriptions have attempted to decipher its 240 pages of unknown letters and bewildering images, with occasional breakthroughs being proposed – alongside regular suggestions that it’s some kind of very convincing historic hoax. For those who want to attempt to unlock the book’s secrets, the entire manuscript can be viewed online.

6. Cornell had the first Greek-lettered fraternity for black students…

Established in 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha (ΑΦΑ) was the first Greek-lettered fraternity established by and for black students, who had previously been excluded from many these kinds of traditional society. Today the fraternity has more than 400 college chapters, and since 1940 it’s been open to male members of all ethnicities.

7. … and has the only Ivy League college motto not in Latin.

While the other Ivy League members all express their college mottos in Latin, Cornell University’s motto is in English: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study” – based on the words of founder Ezra Cornell. This approach seems to have impressed motto-lovers; in 2007 it topped Motto magazine’s ‘Top 10 Motto List’.

8. Before ‘Keggy the Keg’ Dartmouth had an even more controversial mascot.

You probably know (I did, anyway) that Dartmouth College’s (unofficial) mascot is a personified beer keg. But you might not know that its earlier mascot, abandoned in the 1970s, was a Native American figure – and that the use of Native American names and mascots by US college sports teams remains a controversial issue, as this recently published poem ‘If the Indian Mascot Could Speak’ illustrates.

9. Princeton had the first ever university campus.

Or at least, the first campus to be called a campus. In the 1770s, Princeton University’s sixth president John Witherspoon used the word ‘campus’ (the Latin for field) to describe the area around the university buildings. This coinage is generally accepted as the first usage of the word in this sense, and it certainly caught on!

10. UPenn students throw baked goods around at sports events.

More specifically, it’s traditional at the University of Pennsylvania to throw toast onto the field after the third quarter of home football games. This apparently originated from a drinking song that included the line ‘Here’s a toast to dear old Penn’; during the prohibition era, students couldn’t toast their team in the sense of raising a glass of alcohol, so they took a more literal approach.

There are lots, lots more weird and wonderful facts about the Ivy League, I know! What’s your favorite piece of Ivy League trivia, old or new? Share in the comments below.

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Written by Laura Bridgestock
The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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1 Comment

Harvard students running naked after exams... hmm very informative.