Mainstream movies, TV shows, and music would have us believe that large colleges are full of loud parties, heavy drinking, and Greek drama. To some of my fellow bright-eyed high school graduates, the scene was an exciting and alluring one. To others—bookish, quiet introverts like me—the idea was terrifying.
I was relieved to eventually discover that college isn’t just four straight years of toga parties and sorority rushes. For most of my first semester, however, I really thought it was: it seemed like everyone around me was partying every night, and all that ever seemed to appear on my Facebook feed were pictures of proud new pledges waving freshly earned Greek letters. Even at UC Berkeley – 34,000 students strong but hardly considered a party school – I felt plenty of pressure to act more like the toga-wearing, letter-waving characters I’d grown up hearing so much about. The 700-person lecture halls, packed study cafes, and loud dorm buildings only scared me more.
I found my place eventually, but it took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to betray my introvert self to do it. Here’s what I learned:
Not everybody is partying.
Actually, pretty few American college students socialize every night (for more, see this research project). It’s just that people tend to Instagram more often about upcoming parties and their nights out than, say, the nights in their rooms with a book and a bowl of instant mac and cheese. It’s worth going to at least a party or two just to see what it’s like, but you’re not considered weird for preferring work time or lazy time over crowded rooms and sweaty dance floors.
Know how you connect best with people, and then do that.
Do you prefer small groups? Join a campus club or attend events that interest you. Do you connect best through one-on-one interactions? Say hello to the student next to you in lecture, or invite your dorm floormate out for a coffee.
Unlike high school, college won’t often create small-group social interactions for you – you’ll have to take the initiative to plan them yourself – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people happy to interact with you in that way. Parties and giant welcome events aren’t the only way to find friends.
Find your hideaways.
Look for quieter areas of campus and less-frequented cafes. Head to higher or lower floors of campus libraries instead of parking near the main entrance. Peaceful surroundings will help you settle back into yourself and store up enough energy to re-enter the fray when you’re ready.
Recognize that your bedroom might not be your refuge anymore.
If you live in a dorm and/or have one or more roommates, you may not be able to come home at the end of a long school day to a quiet space. Instead, try using your time away from home as your break from socializing so you can save up enough social energy for the evenings. Take walks between classes, sit on your own during lectures instead of next to classmates you know, or find a quiet place on or near campus to eat your lunch alone.
Remember that smaller classes are often more socially intense than large lectures.
People tend to keep to themselves in large lectures, so it’s easy to avoid draining small talk just by blending into the crowd. In smaller classes, however, you’re more visible and more likely to be approached. Smaller classes offer great academic benefits, like closer relationships with professors and more personalized learning, so the answer isn’t to avoid small classes. Instead, consider setting up your schedule in a way that avoids stacking too many small classes into the same day, or in time slots too close together, to save yourself enough time to take a social break if you need to.
Be proactive in finding your circle of friends.
Introverts tend to prefer having a few meaningful friends over meeting a slew of acquaintances. The nice part about big colleges is that they’re big enough that you can be sure there are people around who share your interests. The frustrating part is that you have to sift through thousands of other people in order to find them. The only answers here are persistence and luck – choose classes, extracurriculars, and social events that you’re interested in, and be open enough to socializing with strangers that you can give yourself a chance to form close connections.
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Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament.