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STUDYING IN SWEDEN

Seven bizarre Swedish academic traditions

The Local guides you through Sweden's ancient universities' top academic traditions all foreign students need to know about. Each university has its own unique traditions, but these are some of the most common ones.

Seven bizarre Swedish academic traditions
Student life in Lund, southern Sweden. Photo: Johan Nilsson/SCANPIX

1. You arrive 15 minutes late for all lectures…

Swedes like to be on time. In fact, they are probably some of the most punctual people in the world. So prepare to be stunned by the fact that your fellow Swedish students saunter casually into the lecture hall 15 minutes late every day while you’re waiting in your seat.

This tradition, called an “academic quarter”, dates back to a time when students did not own pocket watches and the ringing of the church bells was the general method of timekeeping. When the bell rang they knew they had 15 minutes to get to the lecture. Obviously today’s tech-savvy Swedes don’t go anywhere without their smart phone, but the tradition lives on.

2. … or half an hour late for events in the evening

Been invited to a party starting at 6pm? Don’t show up until 6.30pm. In the evening the academic quarter gets extended to a double quarter – to allow students enough time to change into formal evening wear.

Therefore, if the invitation says 8pm, the event in fact starts at 8.30pm. Interestingly the academic quarter was officially abolished by an Uppsala University principal in 1982, but students and lecturers still observe it today.


Are you late enough yet? Photo: Torstein Bøe/NTB scanpix

3. You howl out your exam stress

Have you ever felt so stressed out that you just want to open your window and scream at the top of your lungs? Well, at university campuses in towns such as Uppsala, Stockholm, Linköping and Lund, students do just that when the exam pressure gets too overwhelming.

No one knows exactly how the howl (known as the Flogsta roar in Uppsala or the Delphi scream in Lund after the name of the student residences where it began) was invented, but every night at around 10pm students take to their balconies, roofs and windows to scream out their anxiety.


Don’t hold it in. Photo: Bertil Ericson/SCANPIX

4. You change your nationality (well, not quite)

The so-called nations (nationer) in the ancient university towns of Uppsala and Lund are the oldest student societies in Sweden, dating back to the 1600s, although each will claim they are older than the other. There are 13 at each university and they are all named after various Swedish provinces and counties.

In the past, students were meant to join the nation named after their own province of birth. Nowadays, they are loosely defined by either political alignment, interests, size or character. Most have their own cafe and pub and many also provide accommodation for members, alongside organizing club nights, formal dinners and musical events.


Student nations organise for example dinner events. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

5. Remember the three Ps: pea soup, pancakes and punsch

While not only a Swedish tradition within academia, this is a rite the universities have taken to heart. Many student societies organise informal as well as formal dinners every Thursday serving traditional yellow pea soup with pancakes for dessert. The tradition is said to originate from the time Sweden still subscribed to Catholicism as preparation for Friday fasting – but why give up on something yummy?

The pea soup is usually washed down with popular university beverage punsch (if you’re still able to spell that after a glass of punsch we’re impressed). The sweet drink contains around 25 percent alcohol by volume and 30 percent sugar and is produced from arrack, sugar, neutral spirits, water and various flavourings.

RECIPE: How to make your own Swedish pea soup


Yellow pea soup. Photo: John Duxbury/Swedish Food

6. You’ll be brushing up on your drinking songs

That punsch we mentioned? Your Swedish course mates will not let you have even the most modest of sips without singing at least one five-verse drinking song to accompany it. The same goes for all other beverages. There’s a song to go with wine, a special beer song, one for Swedish aquavit, another for plain tap water and so on.

Over the course of the evening, usually enjoyed at a three-course sit-down meal before a night of ballroom dancing (which these days is really just code for any-kind-of-modern-dancing-while-wearing-ball-gowns), they will all be sung.

The tradition of sit-down dinners is usually known as sittning (in Lund) or gasque (in Uppsala).


Practise your singing voice. Photo: Matthew Mead/AP

7. April 30th is the most important day of the year

Swedes celebrate bonfire parties on Walpurgis night (Valborgsmässoafton) every year. The most exciting action, however, occurs in the nation’s student cities, where revellers take the good weather with a good dose of extreme madness before they hunker down to revise for their summer exams.

For many students, the day begins with a champagne breakfast, which inevitably ends up with more champagne splashed around the rooms of the student nations than in champagne glasses. In Uppsala, thousands of residents then line up next to the river to watch students take part in a homemade-raft boat race. Then they all gather in the park to see in the warmer weather with loud music, dancing and wild student antics.

If you’re a student, chances are this will be one of the best nights of your life. If you’re not a student, it’s best to stay away. And buy ear plugs.


Preparation shopping tour at Systembolaget. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT

READ NEXT: Ten things to know before a Swedish party

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STUDYING IN SWEDEN

Seven things you need to know before coming to Sweden to study

You’ve been accepted to university in Sweden, accepted your spot, and applied for your residence permit. Now it's time to prepare for your move. Maybe you’re wondering what life in Sweden will be like? Here are some tips based on my first year living in Lund, where I'm currently studying.

Seven things you need to know before coming to Sweden to study

Buying new is so passé

Need a winter jacket? Bedroom furniture? Maybe a new baking sheet for whipping up something from Sweden’s never-ending list of seasonal pastries? Whatever you do, don’t buy it first-hand. Sweden is teeming with second-hand stores, selling everything from wine glasses and patio furniture to boardgames. On my walk into Lund’s city centre, I pass a second-hand shop which frequently has bras hanging in the window – undergarments is where I draw the line, but to each their own.

Some shops are well-curated; others appear to be a dumping ground for anything and everything cleared out of junk drawers and closets after a long cleaning hiatus. But the search for the perfect formal dress for a sittning (one of Lund’s popular formal dinners) or a ball is half the fun – so grab a friend, and get browsing!

Want a drink at home on a Sunday? Plan ahead

Sweden’s Systembolaget shops have the monopoly on alcohol sales in the country – you won’t find anything over 3.5 percent anywhere else. And these shops aren’t open 24 hours. They close early on Saturdays, and don’t open at all on Sunday. If you fancy something other than a warm beer from your local supermarket on a Saturday night, plan ahead and pay a visit to your local Systembolaget. If you’re in a student-filled area, you’ll find plenty of your peers doing the same, walking out with cases of beer, boxes of wine, and whatever liquor they can afford. Be warned: drinking in Sweden is not cheap! Downing a pint at home instead of at a bar will save you a few kronor.

Failing a class…isn’t as bad as it sounds

So you’ve failed a class. Now what? Well, not much. You can take the exam again and again until you pass, so long as the material on which the test is based is not changed. If that happens, you may have some new topics to learn. In my media and communication studies MSc programme at Lund University, professors provide three deadlines for submitting the essays that we must write in place of exams. If I don’t submit my paper by the first deadline, I know I’ll have two more penalty-free opportunities to get it done. And if I receive a failing grade, that grade will not go on my academic record – instead, my record will not be updated until I submit a passing paper. While I’ve yet to take advantage of this system, knowing that missing a submission or failing a class is not a disaster is a welcome change from the strict, deadline-driven American environment in which I completed my bachelor’s degree.

Getting a bank account is a long process

Don’t bring cash with you. You’ll never spend it. I’ve still got some cash sitting in a drawer, because I keep forgetting which ATM near me will let me deposit cash into my account – my bank branch is cashless, and won’t help me there. Make sure to let your bank at home know you’ll be using your card in Sweden.

I moved to Sweden at the end of September. I didn’t open my bank account until mid-January. Opening an account entails a lengthy journey through Swedish bureaucracy, beginning with an application for a personal number, or personnummer. You can apply for a personal number at your local Skatteverket, or tax agency, office, provided that you can document you will be in Sweden for more than one year. I’m lucky enough to attend one of the universities piloting a two-year student resident permit, so proving the length of my stay was easy. While I got my personal number within 10 days, the process can take up to 18 weeks.

So you’ve got a personal number. The next step is to get an ID card, also from Skatteverket. There are three offices that issue ID cards: in Malmö, Gothenburg, and Stockholm. And appointments book up fast. I waited six weeks for mine. I got my ID card quickly, within two weeks – a friend waited months for hers to be issued.

Finally, with what I thought was sufficient documentation in hand, I walked into a Nordea bank to open my account. I was sent home account-less that day though, with the bank requesting statements from my Pakistani accounts. Armed with even more paperwork a few days later, I finally completed my application for a bank account. About a week later, my account was open. And finally, I had BankID – the magical Swedish eID that opens all sorts of doors, including, finally, digital access to my Covid-19 vaccination records. Swedish bureaucracy is a multi-layered beast, each layer tightly entwined with the others, and it took me months to unlock all the layers, starting with my personal number and ending with my digital ID.

Stock up on candles

The winters are dark. And long. And depending on where in Sweden you are, either delightfully snowy, or constantly slushy. In Skåne, there’s slush. So when you get home and peel off your jacket and scarf and hats, and it’s 3 pm and dark and dreary, you light a candle. Or two, or three. Preferably scented. Candles have gotten me through dark Scandinavian winters before when I lived in Copenhagen, and they continue to do the trick. I brought a favourite coffee-scented offering from a small Pakistani company with me, that I’m still rationing. If you don’t have a favourite to bring with you, you can browse through the selections at IKEA and Lagerhaus. Some friends of mine opt for fairy lights to brighten up their apartments, but I prefer the warm glow of a candle’s flame. Perhaps I just like fire.

Don’t worry if your Swedish is stuck at a basic “hej”

Almost everyone can communicate in basic English. That said, learning the local language is never a bad thing. After all, if your hope is to stay on in Sweden, you might soon need to prove a basic level of Swedish proficiency before getting permanent residence.

But ditch the Duolingo – or at least, don’t rely on it exclusively. One of the benefits unlocked by a personal number is the opportunity to enroll in SFI, or Swedish for Immigrant, language classes, offered by your municipality free of charge. You can choose to study in person or online, morning or evening. Do it! It’s a great way of understanding the language – wait until you hear about all the different ways in which adjectives can end – and as a bonus, you can also expand your social circle with the other students in your class.

Holidays and traditions are a serious business

If you’re currently waiting for your student visa, you may have already experienced how tough it is to get hold of office workers in July. Annual leave is taken seriously here, with workers taking several weeks off during the summers. No checking email, no answering work calls – pure vacation mode.

This commitment to time off for enjoyment also applies to holidays throughout the year. On Valborg, on April 30, I saw my largest Swedish crowds: about 50,000 people crammed into Lund’s city park, well on their way to total inebriation by 11am. The celebration, to welcome the coming spring, brings Swedes out of their homes after the winter, with massive bonfires burning bright in the evenings. Midsommar, the summer solstice, is also celebrated hard, with families and groups of friends bringing picnics into parks around maypoles, where they sing about small frogs and dance around, gripping onto their partners’ earlobes.

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