In more ways than one, college is looking pretty different this year. If you’re back on campus, mandatory face masks, social distancing, and parameters set around large gatherings are just some of the ways that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic may have impacted your day-to-day. If you’re not on campus, online college can pose its own set of mental and physical challenges. Due to the pandemic, college, which used to be a space that was prime for meeting new people, can suddenly feel much more isolating. But whether it’s your first semester or your last, leaning into social connections is important for your well-being—particularly right now.
“Science shows that 70% of our happiness comes down to our relationships, so it’s easily one of the most important factors for our well-being—both physical and mental,” says Shasta Nelson, friendship expert and author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time.
Essentially, the closer we feel to those around us, the happier we are. Numerous studies back up the idea that social support is essential for maintaining physical and psychological health as well. “How supported we feel is directly correlated to how much we feel stress, depression, and anxiety, so the more stressful the circumstances, the more crucial it becomes to our social health,” says Nelson. Not to mention, one decade-long study, published in the book Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success, found that having friends in college can actually boost your academic performance.
To help navigate through this uncertain time, friendship is necessary—but making new friends can seem like a daunting task at first. And sure, the beginning stages can be a little awkward, but feeling a sense of community and belonging among your peers is a big part of what makes college so great. If you’re looking for some advice on how to get started in creating those lasting friendships—especially during the coronavirus pandemic—read on.
How to make friends in college:
1. Put yourself out there!
“Try not to get discouraged by the fact that your social experience may look different than you expected it to,” says Danielle Bayard, a certified friendship expert and author of Give It a Rest: The Case for Tough-Love Friendships. Instead, look at this new landscape with the pandemic as a way to be more intentional about your relationships. “Friendship and connection is not something that just happens to us but rather something we initiate and need to put energy into,” says Nelson. So committing to making friendships a priority is the first step in being successful in creating a new connection—even if it feels uncomfortable at first.
“The main thing to remember is that the fear of rejection drives a lot of our decisions,” says Bayard. However, it’s important to recognize that this is often due to our own insecurities. “It’s always scary to put yourself out there, but know this: Most people are relieved when someone else reaches out first. So take the leap!”
2. Participate in safe, university-lead gatherings.
If you’re on campus, show up and participate in the safe events that are already planned. “Even if they feel awkward, these gatherings are bringing together people who are there wanting to connect,” says Nelson. If clubs are still meeting in person and following distancing rules, go to a meeting and inquire. Or, if your school is holding an outdoor event for new students, put on your favorite face mask and see what it’s all about. These are great places to meet people, as other students are likely looking to make friends as well.
Wearing a face mask doesn’t have to be an obstacle either. “People gravitate to those who leave them feeling good, so focus on smiling (yes, even with a mask, it will show in your eyes), complimenting, and acting interested,” Nelson says. “We so often think we need to impress people, dress a certain way, or say the right thing—but studies show that we like people who act like they like us!”
3. Don’t shy away from virtual hangouts.
If your school is offering any virtual gatherings (like a digital trivia night) for connection—sign up! “We can’t meet people if we aren’t present, and that includes online opportunities,” says Nelson.
While the virtual environment has changed the way we interact, it doesn’t mean that connecting is not possible. You just might have to work a bit harder and more creatively to make it happen. To make a connection, Bayard says to pay close attention to people who say something funny, have an interesting background, or who have creative responses. According to her, all of these things make for great conversation starters, so follow up after the event by sending a personal message and mentioning your observation. You can start out by messaging them something like, “Hey! I loved what you said about ____,” and seeing where the conversation goes.
4. Message someone in your class.
“Whether at a social event or simply in an online class with others, the goal is to start connecting one on one or in smaller groups with a few people,” says Nelson. Maybe this starts with putting a note in the class chatroom that if anyone is looking for a study group, you’re starting one, and seeing who responds. Or maybe it’s writing a private comment to someone after they spoke up and shared in class, saying, “Great point! I was thinking the same thing.” You can use these little moments to help start those connections.
And when it comes to making plans, “try to look at this as an opportunity to be creative,” says Bayard. In addition to an online study group, can you study on separate blankets in the park, picnic style? Can you have a socially distanced meetup in an open-air common space? Just be mindful of other people’s comfort levels when it comes to proper coronavirus precautions, and establish boundaries early.
“It’s always best to assume the other person wants to abide by social distancing measures (as we should be!),” says Bayard. “Try not to suggest doing anything that breaks that, because one, it may make them say ‘no’ when they want to say ‘yes,’ and two, if they see that you’re not adhering to social distancing, then you’ll begin your relationship by making them question your judgment.”
Carlo Prearo / EyeEm, Getty Images
4. Follow up.
“After we meet people we like, a relationship can only happen if we repeat interactions with them, so the real secret is in figuring out how to easily follow up with a few people after the event,” says Nelson. It might mean asking for their phone number or email address, but it could also mean finding them on social media and sending them a quick note saying, “It was great to meet you last night! Hope we can stay in touch!” This will increase the chances of ongoing interaction, according to Nelson.
5. Remember that making friends takes time.
Try to train yourself to see the opportunities instead of the obstacles and motivate yourself to make an effort when it comes to creating these connections. Keep in mind that friendship isn’t something we “find” in someone else but rather something we “develop” with someone over time. In other words, it takes a long time to go from stranger to best friend.
“One study shows that it takes most of us about 200 hours together before we consider ourselves best friends,” says Nelson. “So the goal is to make small connections and slowly, incrementally add more shared experiences and interactions so that, over time, we start feeling like we know each other better.” What might start out as a conversation over the chat feature of your virtual class can turn into weekly study sessions or frequent check-ins with each other to see how you’re progressing on a project. Then, you may begin to talk about things outside of class and get to know each other on a more personal level.
Don’t be discouraged after a few weeks if nothing seems to be happening. Not all hangouts will end in friendships, and that’s okay. “Since it may take a bit of time before you feel connected on our new campus, you can also prioritize staying in touch with past friends and family,” says Nelson. Just know that, over time, you’ll slowly become closer to those around you simply through shared experiences. Trust the process!