The introvert’s guide to starting college

Back-to-school season is upon us, and for thousands of freshmen about to flood onto college campuses, starting a new season of life means surviving a socially-demanding schedule.

For some, it’s a week of unmatched anticipation and excitement. For my fellow introverts, it can also be seriously overwhelming! When you’re faced with a slew of orientation events, club meetings and class introductions, it’s important to put yourself out there while knowing your limits. Here are a few lessons I learned freshman year that will help you to stay re-charged and ready for anything.

Schedule (productive) alone time every day

Before college, “me time” looked like lounging on the couch, watching TV while mindlessly munching on chips. In college you probably won’t have this luxury, or at least not as often. I learned that multitasking is key: now I recharge by listening to music while I fold my laundry or study.  Exercising will help you stay energized — both physically and mentally — throughout the rest of the day, and you can easily listen to your favorite podcast while you run or read a book on a stationary bike. Do what whatever works best for your regimen!

Alone time doesn’t always have to be productive, though, and sometimes that movie-night-in might be just what’s needed to de-stress. The important thing is to not exhaust yourself through constant social engagements. Find time to take a break each day from interacting, even if just for half an hour.

Get involved

Finding an extracurricular activity you love might do more to enrich your college experience than any other decision you make. Join the student literary magazine, try out for a musical group, or sign up for an intramural sport — most colleges have many options to choose from. When I showed up to a meeting for the college paper, it opened the door for opportunities that I never would have foreseen– like getting to attend a journalism conference and landing an editorial position — not to mention some fantastic friendships!

During the first couple weeks of classes is the best time to head to as many club meetings as you want. They’re actively recruiting freshmen, and other students will be new, just like you. As the year goes on — and classes get more demanding — it will be more difficult to convince yourself to go for the first time. Attending these meetings doesn’t usually require year-long commitment, and if you decide to become more active later in the year, you’ll already know some familiar faces.

Master the introduction

One of my all-time pet-peeves is group introductions — usually I nervously fidget in my seat anticipating my turn as I ponder exactly what I’ll say. (Yes, it’s embarrassing!) Unfortunately, during the classes and events during the first few weeks, introductions are an unavoidable reality. Prepare yourself for saying your name, major, and where you’re from many times.

American society is extroverted, so sometimes for us introverts, it’s harder to make a good first impression.  You’re meeting your professors, advisors, and friends — relationships that will be essential to your college experience — so it’s a good idea to put your best foot forward. Learn to put extra effort into smiling, making eye contact, starting conversation, and speaking with confidence.

Pro tip: think of a couple “fun facts” about yourself in advance. When a professor asks you to share “something interesting about yourself,” you can avoid an pressure-filled existential crisis in which you wonder if your entire life is void of all interest. You’ll be glad you did.

Take initiative in conversation

By challenging myself to initiate conversation, I met some of the people who became my closest friends, and it made a huge difference for my freshman year. This could be as easy as offering a sincere complement (“cool phone case!”) or noticing something in common (“I’m taking that class too! What professor do you have?”) It might sound cheesy, but it works — they’re probably just as eager to make friends as you are.

Act quickly; the longer you wait to introduce yourself to the student who always sits in front of you, the less likely you’ll be to do it. Just try striking up a conversation on the first day! You’ll find that you’ll have not only the basis for future conversations, but you’ll also probably feel more comfortable in the class and have greater self-confidence, too. The times I didn’t introduce myself right away, I definitely regretted it later.

Make dinner plans

Scheduling plans ahead of time to meet up with someone for a meal is an easy way to build in social interaction into your day.  It also allows you to anticipate and mentally prepare to socially engage, rather than be caught off guard at a time when you might be tired or emotionally drained. Spontaneity can and should be a part of college life, too, but I’ve found that scheduling meals provides more consistency and accountability.

….or don’t

It’s okay to eat alone. Even if it seems weird during the first few weeks, other students aren’t judging you. As the school year continues, you’ll start to realize that pretty much everyone eats alone from time to time. After lunch, I’d camp out in the dining hall to work on assignments before my next class or head to a study room to sprawl out on my favorite couch. Sometimes you’ll want to eat, study, or chill by yourself, so look for comfortable spaces where you can be alone.

Know when to push yourself

As every introvert knows, being social can be a struggle — especially when you’d much rather curl up in a ball and watch Netflix.  We’ve all debated the “should I stay in or go out?” dilemma before. It’s stressful!

Personally, I had to repeatedly force myself into social situations — or else I’d isolate myself. If you’re in doubt, just go for it! This could be as easy as taking a solitary activity — like reading or using your laptop– to do in a common area. My friends helped convince me to join activities even when I didn’t feel like being social, and the late-night conversations that resulted are now some of my favorite memories.

Know your limits

Know when to slow down. Even if your friends are going out every weekend, that doesn’t mean that you have to join them.  Don’t push yourself too far with social engagements, or you’ll face the temptation to shut down and pull away from your friends entirely — which is detrimental to your health and psychological state. If you notice the signs of social exhaustion early, you can protect yourself against these pressures by slowing down.

Make friends with other introverts

They “get” it when you truly need to be alone for a while, and it isn’t awkward to have a few minutes of silence at dinner. Spending time with my introverted friends, I always feel comfortable, relaxed, and able to be myself. Fellow introverts can also challenge each other and provide moral support when it comes to social events and large groups. While you need some extroverted friends to coax you into joining fun activities, fellow introverts will understand when you’re ready to leave early or need to have a night in instead.

Explore your extroverted side

In high school, sometimes I kept to myself just because that’s what others expected of me. It’s freeing to head off to a new place where no one remembers that embarrassing thing you did in high school two years ago, or assumes you’ll act a certain way. For me, this allowed me to channel my inner extrovert during the first crazy week of meeting people by being a little extra friendly.

That doesn’t mean that you need to be uncharacteristically outgoing forever. As your relationships at college deepen, close friends will get to know you more fully. But sometimes you need to be bold in starting conversation in order to form those relationships, especially with other introverts. Let your new environment empower you exercise your outgoing side!

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How have you coped with overwhelming social situations? I’d love to hear about it!
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