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12 Unusual U.S. College Traditions

When you think of U.S. college traditions, alcohol-fueled antics and Animal House tropes may come to mind, but that wouldn’t be giving college students nearly enough credit. Whether it’s honoring a specific chemical element, chucking broken pianos off rooftops, or celebrating a particularly significant prime number, students have found creative ways over the years to forget the stresses of academic life. These stories showcase 12 of the strangest college traditions found on campuses throughout the United States.

Dragon Day (Cornell University, Ithaca, New York)

Every year in March, first-year students at the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning build a massive dragon to wage battle against a phoenix designed by the school’s College of Engineering students. Known as Dragon Day, the tradition dates back to 1901, when a student at the Ithaca, New York, school named Willard Dickerman Straight proposed a day to celebrate the architecture college. Through the decades, the event evolved alongside a growing rivalry between the architecture and the engineering students, until it eventually took the shape of today’s Dragon Day. It used to be that after the ensuing scuffle between the dragon and phoenix in the Arts Quad, the dragon was burned to a crisp, but this post-battle tradition has since been abandoned.

Piano Drop (M.I.T., Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A 1972 debate in M.I.T.’s Baker House dormitory started over a simple question: “What are we going to do with this broken piano?”

Someone suggested throwing the piano out the window, but student guidelines at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, university forbade throwing anything out of windows. However, an astute M.I.T. student named Charlie Bruno pointed out that the guidelines didn’t say anything about the roof. Fifty years later, M.I.T. students still muscle a broken, irreparable piano up to the roof of Baker House each year and watch it plunge to the ground.

Dooley Week (Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia)

A skeleton named Dooley, known as the “Lord of Misrule,” serves as the spirit of Atlanta’s Emory University. The tradition dates back to an October 1899 article in Emory’s monthly literary journal titled “Reflections of a Skeleton,” written from the humorous perspective of a medical skeleton housed in the science room. In 1909, the skeleton appeared in another article in the same literary journal, and took on the name Dooley. Today, Emory celebrates its resident spirit with a weeklong celebration. On one unspecified day during Dooley’s Week each spring, a person dressed as Dooley (or is it Dooley himself?) and accompanied by a coterie of guards dismisses classes for the day, and students celebrate with activities including games and concerts.

Pterodactyl Hunt (Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania)

A long-standing tradition at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College states that once a year the “temporal boundary between the present and 65 million years ago weakens, letting loose vicious pterodactyls and a slew of countless other monsters.” Students — armed with foam bats — defend the campus in a campus-wide LARP (live action role-playing) game of unparalleled chaos and weirdness. The university’s Psi Phi Club organizes the monster showdown to encourage students to stop worrying about grades for a night and instead take up arms against supposed pterodactyl invaders.

Shoe Tree (Murray State University, Murray, Kentucky)

On the campus of Kentucky’s Murray State University grows an unusual tree. Its trunk is completely obscured by hundreds of pairs of shoes, but, strangely, the “pairs” don’t match. In a sign of their devotion, couples who met on campus each leave behind one of their shoes, with the date of their anniversary written on the soles, to form a new “pair.” Some alumni couples who procreate return to the shoe tree to add a third baby shoe to their small footwear tribute. The tradition dates to around 1965, and the current tree is the third tree to stand on the spot — the first was struck by lightning and burned down, and the second was removed due to falling limbs.

The Healy Howl (Georgetown University, Washington D.C.)

Several key scenes in the classic 1973 horror film The Exorcist were shot on Georgetown’s campus, so to celebrate the school’s small part in film history, the film is screened on Copley lawn each year on the night before Halloween. Once the credits begin rolling around midnight, students at the Washington, D.C., college walk to nearby Healy Hall and howl at the moon in an attempt to scare off any ghosts and ghouls from campus.

Seventh Annual Nitrogen Day (Reed College, Portland, Oregon)

Nitrogen is the most abundant gas in Earth’s atmosphere, but it’s often overlooked because of its mostly inert properties — you can’t see, smell, or taste it. To give nitrogen its proper due, students at Portland, Oregon’s Reed College hosted the first Nitrogen Day in 1992, which featured grilled hotdogs (because of the nitrates), a ceremony called “In Nitrogen We Trust,” lots of liquid nitrogen freezing, and musical performances from a group by the name Just Say N to O Band. Despite being celebrated for two decades, each year’s event is labeled the Seventh Annual Nitrogen Day due to the element’s venerable position on the periodic table.

Great Midwest Trivia Contest (Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin)

The “great” qualifier is not hyperbole: Started in 1966, the Great Midwest Trivia Contest is a 50-hour-long trivia marathon held during the last weekend of January at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and broadcast by the student radio station WLFM. The last question of the previous year’s contest becomes the first question the following year — which helps earn it the nickname of the “world’s longest-running trivia contest.” Because teams have access to the internet, the questions are usually quitedifficult. For example, past questions have included: “Translate the phrase ‘Bon matin, j’aime le jeu’ from French to Furbish” (as in the language of Furbys) or “What is the binary code for the 13th letter when it is translated?”

The Pull (Hope College, Holland, Michigan)

Dating back to 1898, “The Pull” is one of the oldest college traditions in the U.S. It’s exactly what it sounds like: an epic game of tug-of-war. Every fall, freshmen at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, face off against sophomores in a grueling game held across the Black River. Each team — composed of 18 “pullers,” who lay in pits and pull with all their might, and 18 “moralers,” who provide moral support and direction as the team’s “eyes” from above the pits — fight for every inch of rope. Most matches last upwards of three hours. However, the 1956 pull lasted a record-breakingly short two minutes and 40 secon ds.

Van Wickle Gates (Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island)

Dedicated in 1902, Brown University’s Van Wickle Gates stand as a proud symbol of the Providence, Rhode Island, campus and its 250 years of history. However, the gates themselves are only open three days each year. At the beginning of fall and spring semesters, the gates open inward towards campus to admit new students, and during end-of-year commencement ceremonies, the gates open outward. According to longstanding tradition, students who walk through the gates beforetheir graduation are doomed to drop out. The university’s marching band members, who must walk through the gates for every commencement ceremony, attempt to avoid this fate by crossing as many limbs as possible or by hopping backwards when passing through the gate.

Liquid Latex (Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts)

Each April, students stage a “Liquid Latex” show at Brandeis University, a liberal arts college west of Boston. The students apply copious amounts of liquid latex paint to mostly nude models in various intricate designs and choreograph dances. It’s one of the largest liquid latex performances outside of Brazil’s Carnival celebrations — and it’s just risqué enough to earn an honorable mention in Playboy magazine.

Number 47 (Pomona College, Claremont, California)

Pomona College has a strange relationship with the number 47. In the summer of 1964, science students at the Claremont, California, college were conducting experiments about the random occurrence of certain numbers in nature. Because 47 is such a large prime number, they used it as a control to see how frequently other numbers occurred. Strangely, the student began seeing the number 47 everywhere: The college is located on the nearby freeway’s exit 47, the college’s motto has 47 characters, the school’s organ has 47 pipes, and so on.

Although it was an example of frequency bias — in which our brains are primed to see specific things when we’re actively searching for them — the number made its mark. It even snuck into pop culture: Pomona alum Joe Menosky included many references to 47 when writing episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Today, the college still honors its obsession with the number by holding an annual celebration on April 7, or 4/7.

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When considering U.S. college traditions, alcohol-fueled antics and Animal House stereotypes may come to mind. For more creative promotion ideas, such as those you might want to share on platforms like Spotify, check out However, that would be selling college students short. From honoring chemical elements to chucking broken pianos off rooftops, students have devised creative ways to relieve academic stress. These stories highlight 12 of the strangest college traditions found on campuses across the United States.

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