Not “Fitting In” at University

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University. Finding friends for life, finding yourself, discovering life on your own terms and making your own decisions.

Not fitting in

Somebody might have told you this before you came to university, an older sibling, a parent, the internet. Only, now you’re here you don’t feel like any of that applies to you. You might be feeling like you just don’t fit and that your university experience isn’t shaping up to expectations.

I wish somebody in my position had told me it was so common to feel like this.

Feeling like you don’t fit at uni is so much more normal than you realise. People experiencing the same feelings as you are will often be afraid to talk about their problems because they feel like people will make fun of them. Others will keep themselves to themselves because they feel as if they’ve tried everything.

I’m in my third year, in the last few months before I graduate and it was only in second year that I really discovered a reason to love my life at University. I’ve made great friends, found people I really enjoy talking to and this year I’ve realised I actively want to go out and make more. However, this wasn’t always the case.

In my first year, I lived in student halls… in 2020. Making friends wasn’t only hard because I was a massive introvert but also because of restrictions trapping me inside my flat. Suddenly, the only people it felt possible to be friends with were those I had found through my course group chat. By the end of the first month I had found one person to hang out with. I was happy to have found a friend, but I still spent most of my time in my room, afraid to even enter my flat’s kitchen. Later, when my only potential friend dropped out, I found myself going into second year with no real friends and a sense of dread. It felt like the only two things keeping me in university were the tuition fees I had already paid and the need to actually explore my Uni city further.

Some of this might seem familiar to you. You might be in your first, second or third year still feeling as if you don’t quite belong. 

Here are some solutions that worked for me, mixed with some tried and tested tips on friendship from the wider world.

“I have no real friends at university, I’m afraid to talk to people.”

Unlike school, in University you probably won’t be forced to see the same faces all day every day. Which can be both refreshing and also a big problem. Seeing people often in places you have to go to gives you something to talk about and maybe even a sense of camaraderie.

In lectures and seminars, see who you think looks friendly and try to sit next to them each session. Since you have to go to these anyway, sitting next to the same someone each time means you have the chance to know more about them simply through doing your work together.

Ask questions that get them talking. If talking about yourself seems too nerve-wracking, try and get your potential new friend to open up about themselves. Remember things they tell you about themselves to use in later conversations— it feels good when people ask about things in your life because it shows you they’re interested and involved in what you’re saying. 

If you’re not too fond of the lecture idea, try and identify something you’re really passionate about and if there’s a society that does it, join it. Really into Doctor Who? Join Doctor Who Society. Chronic crocheter? See if you can find a knit and natter society. Like a night out? Nearly every society has club nights, usually weekly!

Joining a society ensures that you always have something to talk about. Everyone is there because they like the same thing. So try talking to them about that thing!

“I have friends but I don’t feel close to them.”

According to the New York Times, there are several ways to getting yourself closer friendships. Number one is to create a “foundation of security”, this means being reliable and consistent in your behaviour and communication. Another crucial step is to realise when you aren’t being entirely yourself around them. Let yourself be seen for who you are without embarrassment: make stupid jokes, admit when you’re jealous, confess you watch a cheesy TV show…

If your friend isn’t doing at least one of these things in return, then they might not be a good friend to have in the first place!

It’s hard to accept that closeness isn’t the same for everybody. Somebody you consider more distant may think of you as a close friend but could be having trouble showing it.

“I wanted to reinvent myself at uni but I don’t feel any different from before I came.”

Try on clothes you wouldn’t usually, get a radical new haircut, try things on that you didn’t feel able to back home. It’s scientifically proven that changing your look improves your mental health. What clothes you wear can make you feel comfortable, energised and signal to others that you’re someone cool to be friends with. So, have that new haircut moment!

Reinventing yourself isn’t just about wearing new clothes, it’s also about trying things and disliking them. If you don’t try new things you never would have before, how will you know that you don’t like them? I tried joining my university’s hiking society and I hated every second, but afterwards I felt better because I knew that that sort of thing wasn’t part of my identity at all. I could say with confidence that taking long muddy walks up steep hills wasn’t my thing at all.

“I made friends in first year, but I feel like I need to move on!”

This problem has plagued nearly every student since the beginning of universities themselves. Most often it will result in awkward housemate situations and some frank discussions about “going your own ways”.

The most obvious solution is to stop spending as much time around friends you don’t feel like hanging out with anymore. Acknowledge the happiness the friendship has given you and give yourself permission to move on. You don’t need to make up excuses for not hanging out anymore or lie about how busy you are.

If you’re sharing a house with friends you made in first year and need an out, tell them early that you won’t be looking to share a house with them the following year. Too late and you will have locked yourself into a contract.

“I’m in my final year and I still don’t feel like I fit in anywhere!”

There are a few ways you could approach a problem like this. You’re leaving university with a degree, experience and new life skills that you didn’t have before. Leaving gives you another clean slate, your options are open and you have time to think about your next move. The people you encountered at university might just not be your sort of people. Going to work means a whole different set of people in your life and having your own money to make decisions with.

On the other hand, making friends in your last few months isn’t impossible.  Study groups are one undervalued method of making friends when you’re in exam territory and no one has much time left to socialise. Joining up with a group of others on your course and studying together has many advantages. You and your study group can use each other for motivation and to fill in gaps in your knowledge. It also means you have something relevant to talk about.

Related Information

To connect and talk anonymously to other students at your university, you can download the TalkCampus app. TalkCampus helps you share problems you’re having with university and find others in similar situations.

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