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Catherine Holland
Noodle Expert Member

September 05, 2019

College students feel a lot of pressure to succeed — and no time brings this out more than exam period. Learn how some schools are creatively helping students alleviate their stress.

The moment you arrive back on campus after Thanksgiving, the countdown starts.

At most colleges, there are just weeks until finals — so a semester’s worth of reading, labs, and mid-terms must be memorized, internalized, and then recreated … before holiday break. It’s a stressful time.

Lots of schools realize this, and a few have taken the lead in offering wacky (but effective) stress relievers for students.

Here are the 2015 Noodle picks for the seven best college stress relievers:

1. Puppies

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Really, there is no better place to start than with puppies. At a number of colleges around the country, local shelters bring scores of these soft, tumbling, yipping canine creatures, setting them loose on the schools’ (fenced-in) lawns for students to pet, play, and snuggle.

It’s hard to imagine a more effective diversion from the worry of looming exams, but we thought it was important to get firsthand confirmation. One University of Miami senior reported, “The puppies do help, though my stress returns when my parents tell me I can't adopt all of them."

# Fun Fact

One year, Fairfield University tweeted that there were going to be puppies in the college library during finals week, so students got to take a break and play with these roly poly bundles inside a space where student stress is (or rather, was) practically palpable.

Here are a few colleges that offer puppies as stress relievers:

2. Therapy Dogs

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Where do you go after puppies? To therapy dogs, of course. At several colleges across the U.S., student health and wellness centers are integrating these canines into their service offerings. The dogs are specially trained to be at ease in crowds and among strangers, and their handlers roam campuses with them to give students time to de-stress by petting and talking to the dogs. One Temple University graduate recalls “how run-down all of the students looked — until they spied the dogs in the library!"

The University of Minnesota–Twin Cities has even coined the acronym PAWS, or Pet Away Worry and Stress. The school uses the popularity of the program to draw students into its health center, where they may also speak with trained human therapists.

# Fun Fact

The PAWS program offers students the opportunity to pet cats, bunnies, and a therapy chicken named Woodstock{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, as well.

Here are a few colleges that provide therapy dogs as stress relievers:

3. Massive Pillow Fight

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At Columbia University, students gather on the main lawn in front of the school library for an enormous pillow fight at midnight on the Sunday eve of finals week. They bring pillows from their dorm rooms and “beat the stress out of one another," according to one Columbia graduate. In some years, the battle, involving more than 150 students, has self-organized according to the participants’ placement on the north or south side of the lawn, while in other years, there have been pre-ordained teams like “Team Sundial" and “Team Butler" (in reference to campus landmarks). One graduate, who simply joined the fray when she arrived late to her first pillow fight freshman year, wisely observes, “Stress is not fun, but sometimes the community created around coping with stress can be."

# Fun Fact

In 2013, one student at the University of Waterloo in Canada decided to take things into his own hands and began a series of pillow fights across campus.

Here are a few colleges that have organized pillow fights as stress relievers:

4. Waffle Fest and Other Food Traditions

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In addition to offering puppies outside of the library, Skidmore College hosts an event called Waffle Fest. A senior explains that an enormous feast of breakfast foods is served to students at 10 p.m. one night during finals week — and this is the only time when upperclassmen without meal plans can eat for free in the dining hall! Given the workload at Skidmore, not to mention the cold December weather in Saratoga Springs, NY, this event may hold the best promise of getting students much-needed, nourishing stress relief.

Meanwhile, Barnard College opens up the dining halls one night during reading week (when students are studying) for Midnight Breakfast. The school’s president, deans, and administrators don chef hats and offer students an array of delicious breakfast foods. There is a different theme (a ’90s tribute, Grease, and so on) each year, and many participants arrive in costume for an event that succeeds in bringing fun into an otherwise stressful period.

And Arizona State University’s Honors College hosts an event called Smoothie Saturday at which parents arrive on campus to make homemade smoothies that they hand out to students to help them start finals week with some nutrition and comfort from home.

# Fun Fact

Pomona hosts a “Death by Chocolate" event before the start of finals. An incredible array of tasty chocolate treats (including gluten-free options) awaits stressed-out collegians in the school’s Edmunds Ballroom.

Here are a number of colleges that organize food events as stress relievers:

5. Noisy Minutes and Primal Screams

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College campuses often become uncharacteristically quiet around exam periods, and perhaps none more so than Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA. At this small, liberal arts school best known for its renowned STEM programs, the college is transformed into a quiet zone from noon Sunday through late Friday night of exam week. Many of HMC’s finals are take-home tests, and since it is assumed that students may be just as likely to complete their exam at 2:30 a.m. as they are at 4 p.m., the administration institutes campuswide silence during this six-day period.

Lest the stress and monastic environment become too much, though, the office of the Dean of Students sponsors a nightly ritual known as “Noisy Minutes." From 8:45 to 9 p.m. each night during exam week, students flood the quad and erupt in screams, shouts, laughter, and general mayhem to release some of the pressure they’re feeling. Organizers set up an inflatable obstacle course, a group pillow fight, and a drum circle. There are also puppies, though students try to keep the craziness to a minimum around these little guys.

At Harvard University, students gather in the Yard at midnight on the night before final exams begin for the school’s Primal Scream (in both winter and spring). With the university band playing, students run naked in circles around the famous Harvard Yard, a 22-acre expanse of lawn that is the oldest part of the campus. Some participants wear masks or other offbeat accessories. Amid the sight of adorned — but still naked — Harvard students streaking through this central part of the university in the frigid Cambridge winter, student onlookers gather to gawk — and, of course, scream. One Harvard grad remarked on the energy of the Primal Scream, “Even though it’s frigid during the winter, there’s so much activity and energy that no one, not even the runners, seems to get cold."

# Fun Fact

Harvard’s naked Primal Scream may have its roots in an 18th-century incident involving Charles Adams, who streaked across campus with a drunken group of friends and wound up expelled as a result. Harvard’s tradition also joins a distinguished list of organized naked events at other U.S. institutions of higher learning, including Brown University's Naked Donut Run, and Columbia University's Naked Run. Here are a few colleges that have noisy stress relievers:

6. Crafts, Hammocks, Massages, and Fitness Classes

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A number of universities offer stress relievers that bring to mind a relaxing tropical vacation. The University of Miami strings hammocks around campus, which, given its location in Coral Gables, FL, makes a certain sense.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison, in addition to therapy dogs in the dorms and elsewhere, sets up coloring stations and other crafts activities in the lobby of its many libraries. The school also provides massages, yoga, and other stress-reducing fitness classes.

Washington State University offers free fitness classes through the “Sweat the Stress" program during finals week. The school’s Student Recreation Center, acknowledging the toll that stress can take on academic achievement, also organizes other stress management activities.

The University of Mary Washington organizes fitness classes, games, and crafts — including play dough! — to relieve students’ stress. The Office of Student Activities and Engagement has even established a meditation area, and is considering expanding its Stress-Free Zone to include a room with balloons or beach balls that students can run through. One graduate, recalling her favorite activity tie-dying t-shirts during this period, observes that it helps to “take a break and relieve your stress instead of moving from one cram session to the next."

# Fun Fact:

The University of Texas at Austin hosts its annual “ChillFest" to help students relax during finals week. This college may have one of the best combination of activities, with therapy dogs, massages, holiday music, coloring books, Legos — and bubble wrap. Who wouldn’t feel better after a massage and the satisfaction of popping scores of those bubbles?

Here are a few colleges that have health and wellness stress relievers:

7. Marching Bands in the Library and Dancing the Hora

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Another well-known tradition at Columbia University is called Orgo Night — named for one of the school’s hardest courses, organic chemistry. On the eve of the class exam, the marching band (or, The Cleverest Band in the World, as it is widely known) parades into the main hall of Butler Library to perform an hour of stand-up comedy and songs. Students mount tables and bookshelves to get a good view of the action, but since no topic is off-limits, this tradition is not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, some of the acts include jokes that were previously banned from the band’s performances at school sporting events.

Once the performances are finished, the marching band does a circuit around different dorms to prevent students from studying and, according to the musicians, lower the curve on the Orgo Final. One of the stops is in front of the university president's house, where dozens of students link arms to dance the Hora (a traditional Israeli circle dance performed at weddings and other celebratory events).

Illinois State University also employs music and dance to help students relieve their stress during finals week. The Student Government Association organizes Club Milner, a biannual 10-minute dance party at the school’s library. Hundreds gather for the event, which has featured a DJ and breakdancers in recent years, and once the 10 minutes are up, students return to their studying — likely more relaxed and energized for the challenges ahead.

# Fun Fact

The Columbia University Marching Band (CUMB) has been banned twice from performing at Fordham University, most recently in 2012 following the school’s previous 10-year embargo on CUMB.

Here are a few colleges that have music and dance as stress relievers:

Many students today express concern about their academic achievement, educational expenses, and future career prospects. These worries may manifest as anxiety, depression, or worse, and colleges have begun to take note. In addition to providing mental health services, schools also recognize that some simple, goofy fun can go a long way toward relieving the stress. So, jump in and play with those puppies!

Use the Noodle college search to learn more about different campuses across the country. You can also find free advice from experts about test-taking strategies.