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How to Make Friends and Stay in School

Studies show how structured social time can help students make friends.

Key points

  • College students today may struggle with the social skills needed to make friends.
  • Providing structured social time that invites vulnerability is better than parties or icebreakers.
  • Deliberately connecting students with different identities is necessary to combat homophily.
Keira Burton/Pexels
Source: Keira Burton/Pexels

My college roommate almost dropped out. He returned from a semester abroad with nothing but the clothes on his back and his acoustic guitar. He planned to hang out for a few days before heading home to figure out his next step in life. I wasn’t sure what he was going through, but I tracked down as many friends as I could to talk to him, and collectively we convinced him to stay. He graduated a year later, ultimately earning a master’s and embarking on an amazing career in urban sustainability.

This story is a very specific example of how friends help you stay in school. We often discuss the importance to student retention of social belonging, integration, connection, and other such nebulous terms. But rarely do we acknowledge that friends are really the safety net that help each other navigate the toughest crises and stay on track to earn a degree.

Unfortunately, I keep hearing from college staff and students themselves that they don’t know how to make friends. During a recent community college visit, I was told about a college skills workshop that unexpectedly became a lesson in friendship. We’ve long relied on the mere exposure effect—the idea that students will organically make friends by being stuck together—but if that ever did work, it sure ain’t working now. Given many students’ social behavior following the pandemic—choosing online coursework, avoiding in-person events, and staying in their room to engage virtually—what can we do to help those who want to make friends?

Friendships don’t always happen organically

Making friends takes effort, even in college, which may be especially true for minoritized individuals. In one study, 226 incoming engineering students (about two-thirds of whom were men) were invited to multi-hour social events about three months before the start of school. The 99 students who participated were randomly assigned to groups designed to increase contact between men and women in order to prevent homophily, our tendency to befriend those similar to ourselves.

By the first week of classes, students were more likely to have made friends—especially of a different gender—from their randomly created group as opposed to any other students in their cohort. They were also more likely to become friends with those friends’ friends. Although these friendship clusters weakened over the first year, they were replaced by a newer, denser social network. It’s likely that the pre-college networking created a positive experience for students during a critical transition and provided translatable skills for making new friends beyond those induced by the intervention.

Practice vulnerability

The long-term strength of those induced relationships may have been strengthened had students been guided to be vulnerable. So often when we create social opportunities for college students, we let them freely mingle or, even worse, play icebreakers. Research tells us, however, that friendships emerge not from conversations, per se, nor shared characteristics or experiences. Friendships happen when we share personal information about ourselves.

In another study, 207 students at a Hispanic Serving Institution were randomly paired with another student in their section of introductory psychology, and the pair was assigned to either “small talk” or engage in a “closeness induction” task for 18 minutes. Both tasks involved students asking each other assigned questions, but the small talk stuck to general get-to-know-you’s like, “Where did you go to high school?” Closeness induction involves asking questions of increasing disclosure, in this case culminating with, “Tell me one thing about yourself that most people who already know you don’t know.”

This brief intervention had a remarkable impact. Students who small-talked were twice as likely to withdraw from college in the next year compared to those who experienced closeness induction. This effect, however, was driven by students of color who were 25% more likely to return after closeness induction (compared to White students who showed just over 1% higher retention). In fact, students of color had almost 10% better retention than White students following closeness induction!

Friendships aren’t easy

Data from the closeness induction suggested that students did not become new besties with their conversation partner. What likely happened was that students learned a new tool to create and foster deeper friendships with other students with whom they shared an affinity. Although many of us believe that disclosure is “cringe,” most of want to disclose, and to be disclosed to, more.

Together, these studies offer several strategies for helping college students make friends:

  1. Provide structured social time. Don’t assume students will organically make friends in class or by living together.
  2. Connect students before college at a time with less stress and distraction. This will make sense to do virtually with many populations but any in-person contact will be more effective and much welcomed.
  3. Ensure contact between majority and minority group members. This can combat homophily and improve diversity and equity in retention.
  4. Encourage self-disclosure. Small talk and icebreakers don’t create friends; induce closeness through carefully considered (and completely voluntary) questions.

Given students’ pleas for help making friends, another strategy might be a shared reading: Platonic by Dr. Marisa G. Franco. I structured this post around advice from her book, incorporating studies that bridge the gap between the research Dr. Franco shares on how to make friends as an adult and the college student experience. Perhaps with these tools and some cleverly designed social time, students will no longer feel the pressure of making friends and will build the social network that will help them persevere when all hope seems lost.


Boda, Z., Elmer, T., Vörös, A., & Stadtfeld, C. (2020). Short-term and long-term effects of a social network intervention on friendships among university students. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 2889-2900.

Rasco, D., Day, S. L., & Denton, K. (2023). Student retention: Fostering peer relationships through a brief experimental intervention. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 25(1), 153-169.

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