Grades this, responsibility that. Make sure you stay on top of your schedule and don’t party too much! You will hear this advice almost every day before you go to college. But there is so much more to college life, and no one ever warns you about it. Take for example, how building friendships changes from high school to college. The reality? Nothing really forces you to interact with your peers.
It’s freshman year. You just got invited to a party—your first college party. Some club you’ve never heard of is hosting it, but a friend who got invited by a friend invited you. You’re excited, albeit nervous. Who’s going to be there? Will you know anybody? Probably not.
As soon as you arrive you run to fix yourself a drink. Reaching for a mixer, you bump hands with someone. It’s some guy, who looks…vaguely familiar. He’s got a big smile as if he knows you. For a second you panic, but then you remember—it’s that guy from philosophy! He said that thing one time, about Descartes or something. His name is…well you’ve never been formally introduced so I guess you don’t know it. He probably said it on the first day of class but who even really pays attention to those icebreakers anyway.
You chat for a bit, talk about class and everything else, and then you remember that you don’t really know anyone else at the party. So you decide to just keep talking to what’s his name for the rest of the night.
Saturday morning arrives. You might feel a little hungover, and you really need some food in your stomach. A series of heavy and hazy footsteps bring you to the dining hall where you see…him: good old what’s his name. You try to act cool and walk on by, but you can’t avoid eye contact. This relative stranger, who you spent one night speaking to, looks you in your eyes and greets you by name. A rushed and feeble “hey!” escapes your lips, and the silent void of where his name should have been rings through the air.
For the rest of the semester, you talk to him a couple more times. Every time you pass him, you smile and wave at each other. I guess you two are friends now… even though you don’t know his name. It certainly feels way too late to ask now.
High school is centralized. I felt this effect very potently. I attended public school up until high school, meaning that when my freshman year began, I didn’t really know anybody. But things changed quickly. Most of the freshman class took the same courses. Everyone ate lunch in the same place, and large chunks of the student body ate at the same time. There were 1,000 of us, not 10,000, so it was much easier to become familiar with everyone.
This trend only increased throughout the four years. I continued to take classes with the same kids. Friends introduced me to new friends, meaning everyone was at least familiar with oen another. Even if I never had class with a person, it was common to find out that you’d had the same teacher at some point or that you took the same subject. Sophomore year everyone had to take chemistry. I found myself bonding with strangers over our mutual hatred of electron levels and stoichiometry. What even is stoichiometry? By the time I graduated, I pretty much knew everyone in my grade.
This comes with pros and cons, of course. Sometimes school life can feel claustrophobic. You would often be forced to interact with people you didn’t like—like that guy Fred, who you got paired up with in biology lab. He was super annoying and you needed to do all the work. Now he thinks you guys are friends and he refuses to sit anywhere at lunch but right next to you. Geez, Fred is the worst.
Similarly, even people you like, or you think you like, may only become your friend a result of your similar circumstances. You might share the same exact schedule with someone freshman year, and so you become friends. But you two have no choice but to spend time together. In some sense, this relationship is more shallow because the element of choice is largely removed. What if you were in a world where your classes were more sporadic, and you had the freedom to choose your schedule and go wherever you wanted whenever you wanted?
That’s what college is like. You might meet people in class but after a semester, things change. The two of you go off to different majors and live in different buildings. You never have any reason to interact unless you go out of your way to hang out. But you’re busy, and so are they.
Besides, what if you make the effort to hang out, and you slowly begin to realize that they’re actually weird and you don’t like them? There is little opportunity to casually accumulate the shared experiences that all friendships are based on. So you end up with dozens of ghosts in your contacts list, who pass by every now and then with little more than a friendly wave.
On the brighter side of things, when you do find people that you consistently hang out with, those bonds go a lot deeper, and friendships become more rewarding. The added freedom of college means you can hang out with friends more and in different ways. Instead of being stuck solely in a cafeteria or library, college friends can hang out anywhere any day of the week.
Friends shape their schedules around each other, and this creates even more shared experiences.
I wouldn’t say friendships in college are better or worse. The truth is, things are just different, and it helps to be aware of how things might change.