Usually, heading to university is a magical experience. You sign up to more societies than you could ever dream of attending, dance your heart out to cheesy pop songs in the student union and hopefully start to decide what you want to do with your life.

On the flip side though, it can be tough. You may move to a new postcode, miles away from your hometown. Deadlines (and dirty dishes) can pile up in a flash. And then there’s the issue of making friends, which has only gotten harder because of lockdown.

When we were kids, making friends was simply a matter of asking: “Will you be my friend?” or “Will you play with me?” But as adults, connections don’t come so easily. It can be difficult to pluck up the courage to chit chat with a coursemate or to ask a stranger if they’d like to grab a coffee.

University life in lockdown

In lockdown, society get-togethers have been swapped for six-person bubbles, lecture halls have been replaced with laggy video calls and most students are confined to the four walls of their student accommodation. Freshers week is radically different from what you imagined it to be. And it’s completely understandable if you feel cheated, disappointed or upset.

We’re constantly told that our time at university is “the best years of our life”. So when the reality doesn’t quite stack up, it’s easy to feel like we’re letting this experience slip through our fingers, and that no one else feels the same way.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Lockdown has left us all feeling out of whack emotionally, and many students are in the same boat as you. You might be pining for your old friendship group or comparing yourself to others. Perhaps you haven’t found “your people” yet, or feel like lockdown has made making friends near impossible.

It’s a head-spinningly strange time. But you’re not alone in feeling like this. So be patient and be kind to yourself. Sometimes friendships take a moment to flourish and that’s okay.

How to make friends at university despite lockdown

Friends are the people we trust, the people we offload to and the people who manage to cheer us up (even when we have a huge deadline looming over us).

But let’s face it: for many of us, making new friends in adulthood can be a little nerve-wracking.

If you haven’t found ‘your tribe’ yet, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and try these tips. Who knows, your new best friend could be closer than you think…

  • Make regular and direct contact with people. This is easier said than done during lockdown. But there are plenty of creative ways you can reach out to people. Has your university organised a virtual yoga class that you could attend? Or maybe you could band together with your coursemates and form a study group? You could even rustle up dinner for your flatmates once a week. 
  • Be brave. It’s easy to stick with your besties from home but resist the urge. Yes, make sure you keep in touch with them, but also push yourself to connect with new people too.
  • Boost your conversation skills. Conversations are a two-way street. It’s about talking and listening. Ask genuine questions, listen and respond.
  • Make small talk. We can’t always dive straight into deep, meaningful conversations so small talk is always a good place to start. It’s awkward but essential.
  • Know what to talk about. Is your flatmate a footie fanatic or a foodie? Ask them about it. On the other hand, if you sense some tension when a political conversation comes up, for instance, it’s perhaps best to steer clear.
  • Broaden your interests and try something new. It’s easy to get in a conversational rut, especially when our lives aren’t as spontaneous as they used to be. If you feel you don’t have much to talk about, branch out. Give baking a whirl, practice a new TikTok dance or tune into that Netflix show that everyone’s talking about. It could just be your next conversation starter.
  • Tell people about yourself. Sometimes when we feel nervous we hold back in talking about ourselves, even though it’s an easy conversation topic.
  • Let people know if you like them. If you’ve enjoyed talking to someone, let them know and compliment them. Don’t overdo it with compliments though, or people may find it insincere!

Why am I struggling to make friends at university?

In these bizarre times, we’re having to be much more inventive when it comes to making friends. But if you’re struggling to ‘find your people’, try looking inwards too. There may be another explanation under the surface.

One reason we may struggle to make friends at university is best explained through the lens of Schema Therapy. Essentially, schemas (or “life traps”) are a blueprint through which we see ourselves and the world, which we develop in response to our early experiences.

Let’s say we grew up in a household which was loving, secure and our boundaries were respected. With this strong network, we may naturally foster positive beliefs.

In contrast, if our core emotional needs weren’t met as a child, we may develop maladaptive – or dysfunctional – schemas as a means of coping. These harmful beliefs can distort our perception of both ourselves and the world – inevitably influencing our friendships and relationships too.

Let’s take a closer look at how different schemas may impact the way we make friends…

Social isolation schema

“I don’t fit in”, “I’m an outsider looking in” – sound familiar? If so, you could have a social isolation schema. This schema can hold us back in social situations because it – wrongly – makes us believe that we’re fundamentally different in some way. After all, if you never feel like you’re on the same wavelength as anyone, how could you ever form an equal friendship?

But where exactly does this thinking come from? You may have adopted this schema because you grew up feeling your family was different from those around you. Maybe your parents struggled financially or perhaps you’re ethnically different from those around you. It could even be because you moved often and were always the “new kid on the block”.

As you grew up, you might have unhelpfully exaggerated your differences or self-identified as ‘a loner’. In doing so, you may have withdrawn and shut down any opportunity to connect with others, so that they could never really reject you.

It’s a painful and often misleading belief. We’re all different, yes, but we’re also more alike than we care to admit.

Defectiveness Schema

Imagine you feel like there’s something inferior, flawed or fundamentally wrong with you. Even when a flatmate asks if you want to hang out, you second guess yourself and don’t believe them. With this sort of thinking, it’s understandable that you might struggle to make meaningful connections at university. That’s because you’re self-sabotaging any potential friendship that comes your way. You’re putting them up on a pedestal and selling yourself short.

This is called a defectiveness schema, and you might develop this if you experienced abuse, neglect or rejection at home or at school growing up. As kids, we find it difficult to judge between right and wrong, so we may internalise this negativity, believing that it’s our own wrongdoing and that we brought it upon ourselves.

Abandonment Schema

Do you form intense, clingy friendships but believe that ultimately, everyone leaves you? Or perhaps you jump to conclusions and assume a missed text means your best friend must hate you? We all occasionally worry about being rejected, but if we have an abandonment schema, it’s much more pervasive and intrusive. You crave connection and belonging, but expect the worst in people. And it’s only natural that it could hold you back at university.

Trapped in a negative loop, you may choose friends that reinforce this belief. For instance, maybe you’ve befriended someone who’s notorious for flaking out on plans or maybe you just struck up a friendship with someone you know is moving home?

People with this schema often feel like they were literally or figuratively abandoned as a child. Your parents may have divorced or maybe one of them passed away. Or it might have been more subtle. Perhaps your caregiver was stressed, overworked or emotionally unstable? Or if they had their own mental health problems, their love and attention may have been unpredictable and unreliable.

What next?

Just because we identify with these beliefs doesn’t mean we can’t fix them. Therapy could offer some real relief, for instance. It provides a safe judgement-free space where we can work on the hurt in our past so that it doesn’t drag us down. Because when we open ourselves up and work on our feelings, we might start attracting the right sort of people into our lives — the ones who show up for us and who are there for us through thick and thin.

Between Zoom quizzes and 2m-distanced picnics, virtual hangouts and online classes, there are also plenty of practical ways you could find friends at university. Not everyone is meant to stay in our lives forever. Some friendships naturally drift apart – and that’s okay. But if you take the plunge and reach out to someone, they’re likely to meet you halfway. Maybe you’ll hit it off. And maybe, just maybe, they could become a friend for life.