Tips For Making New Friends As You Head Back To School

Whether you're in high school, college, or you've already graduated but decided to brush up your skills with an evening course, heading back to school can trigger some anxiety. And sure, worrying about your grades or learning how to juggle your study load can be difficult, but the real nerves usually kick in when it comes time to meet new people.

Not to add to the pressure, but making new friends matters at school, especially if it's your first year on a new campus. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Research found that university freshmen adjusted better to their schools when they had built new, high-quality friendships. Outside of school life, friendship matters too. According to Mayo Clinic, friends can help keep you physically healthy, happier, and less stressed.

If you're looking to build your squad this back-to-school season, you'll likely hear the advice to "just put yourself out there" — and it's true that putting down your phone and striking up an IRL convo can be a good place to start. But to keep the momentum going and increase your odds of finding your new besties, there are a few essential tips to keep in mind that go beyond the cliché advice you've likely already heard.

Be consistent

Making friends might seem like it all boils down to saying the right thing at the right time to the right people. But building connection is more about being consistent and intentional than it is about luck. "My best advice is to be very intentional with how we approach making friends; seek out opportunities, experiences and activities where we are likely to meet new people with whom we share something in common," clinical psychologist and friendship researcher Dr. Miriam Kirmayer told British Vogue. "My second piece of advice is to try and choose wisely, or, in other words, choose opportunities where we will have more frequent interactions, because we know that friendships often require that frequency of interaction in order to develop."

Dr. Kirmayer's advice relates to the mere exposure effect, a phenomenon where people tend to like and trust those they've been repeatedly exposed to. The effect explains why people often befriend their seatmate in class or the neighbor who's lived on their block for years. Eventually, familiarity leads to attraction and preference.

With this in mind, don't give up when an attempt at making friends isn't immediately successful. "A lot of time we think we're going to join a meetup group and then we go and don't find our new best friend, we quit," Danielle Bayard, a friendship coach, explained to Better by Today. Instead, continue attending the same after-school club or showing up at the same lunch table to give friendship time to blossom.

Find excuses to talk

If you're the type to wait to get called on by the teacher before ever speaking up in class, this school year might be time to change that. No, we're not advocating for disrupting the lesson, but we are suggesting initiating conversations before and after class when someone interesting catches your eye — rather than always waiting for someone else to take the lead. After all, staying quiet is unlikely to help you make friends. Dr. Amber O'Brien, a psychologist with the Mango Clinic in Miami, agrees, telling WebMD, "You don't need to wait for anyone to reach out to you and take the first step. Instead, become the kind initiator, even if you're an introvert."

If striking up a conversation sounds intimidating, keep a mental list of go-to comments so that you're never at a loss for words. It might be a compliment on someone's outfit, a request for help with an assignment, or even the classic "Do I know you from somewhere?" line.

When you're ready to graduate to more advanced chit-chat, try opening up about how you're feeling or asking a slightly personal question (such as, "What are you most grateful for right now?"). A 2021 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition discovered that talking about deeper, more intimate topics boosted connection and didn't elicit as much awkwardness as the participants had predicted.

Get out of your comfort zone but don't sacrifice who you are

Having friends is important, especially if you're at a new school or enrolled in classes without your besties, but no friendship is worth sacrificing your authentic self. Tiffany Onorato, director of student life at Columbia University's School of Professional Studies, explained to Teen Vogue, "Many theories suggest that students want to feel like they matter on campus. If you feel like you're trying too hard to fit in, you probably are!" Onorato warns against changing yourself for other people or forcing a friendship just because you think the other person seems cool.

On that note, don't be afraid to try new things and step out of your comfort zone at times, but make sure those activities align with your genuine interests. Board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Roxanna Namavar told MindBodyGreen, "When we start to focus on doing things that make us feel good and engage in a way that increases positive feelings, it makes it easier to see and connect with other people we resonate with." Read: If loud parties or football games aren't your thing, you're better off finding other ways to make new friends. If on-campus activities for your interests don't exist, consider organizing your own or starting a student group yourself. You might attract some new like-minded friends in the process.

If you get nervous, practice being a good listener

Making friends at school can be challenging, and the fear of rejection or judgment can make socializing with new people seem downright frightening. If you can relate, try turning your attention to the other person — and away from yourself — next time you chat with a classmate or approach a new face in your dorm hall.

First, work on mastering active listening. Make eye contact when a new friend is talking, watch their body language and other non-verbal cues, and ask follow-up questions to ensure you understand the meaning behind their words. Resist the urge to craft your response in your head, says Wayne Elise, an author and conversation consultant at Charisma Arts. "The answer to the riddle of flowing conversation is not in your head," Elise revealed to Wired UK. "It's right in front of you."

Though it can take some practice — especially if you consider yourself shy or struggle with social anxiety — keep your focus on the other person, and make your impression on them less of a priority. Ask questions and remain curious throughout the conversation. It may even help to approach interactions with the goal of learning one interesting fact about your conversation partner. This might help distract from any nervousness you may be feeling while conveying to the other person that you're genuinely interested in getting to know them.

Remember: Making friends isn't a competition

School can make everything seem like a popularity contest. But when trying to make new friends, keep in mind that there's no prize to be won for having the most social media followers of all your peers or the biggest number of people who know your name. In fact, popularity may even come with some disadvantages. A 2017 study published in Child Development found that young people who had larger networks and more social status were more likely to struggle with social anxiety in early adulthood. Meanwhile, participants who had close-knit friendships tended to experience more self-worth and less depression and anxiety years later.

Remember, having a small friend group isn't a bad thing. Especially if you're starting from scratch this school year, keeping your expectations low (in other words, trying to make just a few friends, not win over everyone in your graduating class) can make it easier to create meaningful relationships. As Marisa Franco, a psychologist and the author of the book "Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends," shared with Vox, "The biggest return we get in friendship is going from zero to one friend in terms of its impact on our mental health and well-being. If you can get that deep with one person, it's going to be powerful and it's going to be impactful, and you don't need to have a ton of friends."

Be patient

We've all heard a story that goes something like this: Two people sat down next to each other on the first day of school, instantly hit it off, and the rest is history. These serendipitous anecdotes might be ideal, but the reality is that friendship is often a bit more complicated. "Sometimes you might meet people on the first day who you can be friendly with, but it turns out that they're not actually going to be your best friends, and that happens," clinical psychologist Dr. Hazel Harrison told BBC's Newsround. Often, long-lasting bonds take time to form. Dr. Harrison added, "Sometimes making friendships can also be about being patient. Over time you might find the people you feel like you can truly be yourself with and to me I think that is what a great friend is — one that just lets me be who I am."

You may be in a hurry to find someone to sit next to at lunch or attend off-campus parties with, but it's best to not get discouraged if the timeline you mapped out in your head doesn't pan out. In the meantime, reconnect with old friends who lift your spirits, and spend time doing solo activities that fill your cup. Because of a phenomenon called "emotional contagion," any disappointment you feel about making friends may spread to the people around you — and push them away. Remain patient and optimistic, and know that high-quality friendships are worth the wait.