College Survival 102: Social Norms on Campus

July 17, 2015
Worried about where to fit in? The first few weeks at college can be a tough experience. Finding friends, groups, and things to do isn’t always a breeze, but with so many kids at each school, doing these things isn’t as tough as it might seem. These AdmitSee users are here to tell us about what the social norms are like on their campuses, and how to find your group.

In college you’re going to meet a lot of people who are more open-minded, more career/academically focused, and more socially aware/open than high school students. With that said, there are no stringent or specific social norms since it’s okay to be different. Diversity is encouraged by both the administration and student body. You’ll probably still see certain cliques, although they aren’t like the ones in high school where people only hang out with those in their group. Instead, these cliques are made up of people who have the same social or academic interests and they hang out with each other often, but not exclusively. Competitive organizations such as acapella groups, dance teams, and fraternities and sororities fall in this category.

I go to MIT so the norms at my college are very different from my high school experience. It’s expected that everyone always do their best and be into some geeky things. The slacker genius from high school (we all knew at least one) doesn’t really exist here, or at least not to the same extent. Aside from the academics-oriented culture, it’s also great to see that people are by and large very supportive of the unique ways others express themselves ­ a lot of people have wildly colored hair, expressive fashion sense, or an amazing talent. It’s definitely a change from high school, and one I can totally get behind. The other thing that really surprised me was how much walking there is. In high school everyone was super excited to start driving, to get a car or catch ride from a friend. But in Boston, people walk almost everywhere and rely a lot on public transportation. If you’re headed to the east coast, be sure to get some rain boots!

The social norms in college are very different from those of high school, and you should be ready for a totally new atmosphere when you first come to college. First of all, I have to say that I only know what the social norms are at my school, which happens to be a fairly big, private university. I am sure there are many differences between my experience and those of my peers at smaller or public schools. However, one quality I think is fairly consistent across all college campuses is that the social hierarchy that rules so many high schools across the country does not apply to college life. There are certainly defined social groups and even ‘cliques,’ but it’s not as though these groups are categorized in terms of the high school definition of popularity. Rather, what I’ve observed is that, due to the greater number of undergraduates at most colleges than in high school, the groups of friends that form tend to be more genuinely bonded. They don’t hang out with each other simply due to convenience (e.g. having the same classes). Additionally, I feel it’s more socially acceptable to not have a single defined group of friends­­ to be somewhat of a drifter­­ in college than in high school, where people who don’t have that one set of friends are sometimes viewed as strange. Finally, you have to consider that the regional variance in the social and cultural climate between colleges is greater than in high school. I doubt I could accurately explain what the social climate of a school in Chicago would be like, for example, having never experienced these cities’ cultures for myself.

One of the main differences between high school and college is that high school is dominated by a certain social hierarchy, full of cliques and fairly inflexible friend groups. It also tends to be a bit more judgmental than college. My college is known for being very open-minded and creative, and the student body prides itself on being as outlandish as possible. There are some people who go to class dressed up as characters from their favorite books or movies, and I can’t even count how many people I see with crazy hair colors and covered in tattoos. While this would’ve been met with nothing but scorn and ridicule in high school, the creative environment at my college not only accepts but encourages such behavior, and I think it’s a good thing. People aren’t made into social pariahs for expressing themselves. There are groups that naturally form based on majors, but it is easy to make intermajor friendships as well. For example, I’m a writing major but most of my friends tend to be film and TV majors.


Unlike in high school, there is no definition of “normal” in college, no standard for you to adhere to. College is made up of so many students from different backgrounds and with different interests that it’s impossible to try to define what is normal. Most students lose interest in trying to fit in with the popular crowd simply because it doesn’t exist in college—there’s no single group that’s at the top of the social hierarchy. Instead, students focus on pursuing their own passions and making friends based on what they love. In addition, most colleges are large enough that you won’t know most of the other students, so you’re consistently meeting new, interesting people and expanding your friend groups. Although there are still groups that can be categorized as “the jocks” or “the partiers,” college students become less interested in comparing themselves to others and instead form friend groups based on similarities. Finally, spending a lot of time studying and trying to getting good grades is no longer something to be laughed at because colleges are by definition institutions of higher education. Students are encouraged by their peers to study for exams and seek additional help from professors. 

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