Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Monday, 21 September 2009 12:00 UK

Can Freshers' Week friendships really last?


By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

As half a million teenagers begin the social whirlwind of Freshers' Week to mark the start of their university careers, is it the most important week of their life for making friends?

By the end of Freshers' Week, Tom Crookston was exhausted and broke.

"It was mad. I don't remember that much about it but it was very intense socially and very drink-heavy."

Six years after that frenetic whirlwind of pub crawls and late nights in Edinburgh, Tom is still close friends with several of those with whom he shared those dizzying few days.

Tom Crookston
Some people I met in Freshers' Week are now my best friends
Tom Crookston

"It was hectic and I spent a huge amount of money. I had just got my first student loan payment, the most money I had had in my life.

"So you think 'Oh my God, I can do whatever I want, eat whatever I want and drink constantly.'"

Now it's all about to happen again - as Tom embarks on a masters degree in Cambridge. But, older and wiser, he expects this Freshers' Week to be a quieter affair.

It will be second time round for him but this week, half a million students begin university life for the first time, which is more than four out of every 10 school leavers.

It's a period that is nostalgically characterised as the best of your life, with an expectation that friendships formed there will last a lifetime. Never is that more apparent than in the first week, when the university organises social events to help the newcomers settle in.

Listen and ask questions
Have an open-door policy in halls
Don't get too drunk and embarrass yourself
A-levels, schools and gap years are safe subjects if unsure
But by the end of the week, be more original
Source: Debretts

"Freshers' Week gives students the opportunity to meet each other - particularly those arriving for the first time - make friends, sign up for societies and clubs, and register for lectures," says Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students.

For some universities it is a fortnight but the emphasis is changing, he says, so the events are becoming less alcohol-driven.

Edinburgh University, for example, has introduced fair-trade picnics and coffee walks for students to sample some local culture.

But while there's a host of practical considerations about starting a new course, exploring a new city, managing finances and doing one's own laundry without a parent on hand to explain where the powder goes, for many new students it is the social opportunities that induce the greatest anxiety.

The support network of family and schoolfriends has disappeared, and the moment of arrival at university on the first day, or the time when the parents wave goodbye and drive off, is a pivotal moment in a son or daughter's life - alone in a place which will be home for three or four years.

Prince William and Kate Middleton
Kaiser Chiefs
Snow Patrol
Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie
Prince William and Kate Middleton (above)

Some students try to avoid arriving in complete social isolation by making contact with others in advance of the first day, on Facebook or on the UCAS website.

The arbiter on social etiquette, Debrett's, has also tried to help by extending its influence to student life, and publishing a list of dos and don'ts for freshers. The pressure to make friends brings its own social pitfalls, says Jo Bryant, its etiquette adviser.

Don't do something that will haunt you for the rest of your university life, she says, like drunken antics or saying the wrong thing.

"It can seem like you know people better than you actually do, because you're experiencing so many things together.

"You can think you're forging a greater friendship than there is. So keep really strong opinions to yourself."

If people become too obsessed with making friends then they don't listen properly and ask questions, she says. Avoid getting intense with someone early on and be sensitive if you find someone is getting a little clingy.

'No panic'

The week is quite over-rated in terms of friendship potential, says Mark Vernon, author of The Philosophy of Friendship.

"The problem is there's a tremendous pressure to make friends in this week but because of everyone's expectations, people can rush into it.

"That's why there's the saying that you spend the first term making lots of friends and the second and third ones trying to get rid of them."

The Young Ones
You win some, you lose some

Everyone is thrown into a similar situation - a turning point in their life - but a really good friendship is not about sharing an experience but knowing someone as an individual in all kinds of contexts, says Mr Vernon.

"There's a huge amount of nostalgia about college days in Hollywood films and books. People go expecting this to be the moment you make your lifelong friends and after two or three years maybe you will. But don't get into a panic if you haven't met your soulmate in Freshers' Week."

The whole mentality of the week is to commit yourself to something, he says, which is fine if that's the rowing club, but don't feel like you have to make similar commitments to friends.

One in five graduates has settled down with someone they met at university
Graduates have on average 15 close friends, five more than non-graduates
Source: Unite

"You're at a vulnerable moment. A new place and new friends. People around you that are apparently very confident, apparently enjoying their university life. It's quite an intimidating environment."

It takes great courage to really see what's going on and to enjoy it for what it is, but don't think it's any more than it really is.

"Perhaps Aristotle best characterised the human condition when he said: 'The desire for friendship comes quickly but friendship does not.'"

Below is a selection of your comments.

Almost every good friend I am still in touch with I either met during my freshers week, or I met through someone I met during my freshers week. I started University back in 1992.
Anthony Jayasekera, Geneva, Switzerland

I missed Freshers (1999) entirely. Didn't mean I missed out on meeting my best friends over the course of the next four years!
Alex, London, UK

Went to four universities around the UK since the early 1980's and one thing I learnt was never rush into friendships with both feet nor sacrifice your principles (if you have any) for their sake. Your friends will not respect you for it. In fact most of my good friends were made through neighbours in the halls where I lived and through the classes I attended. Otherwise it is a good idea to join societies & clubs where you will meet like-minded individuals like yourself. If you have had enough of these by end of year one you can simply quit. I also made lots of friends who were already friends of those I first met. The trick is not to be shy, be confident and don't be afraid to say "hello" with a smile..
Ali, Leeds

I'm just starting my 3rd year at uni. I didn't start in freshers week expecting to meet my 'best mates', and I don't think most people do, people already have really good close friends from years at school and college so why would they go away to uni intending to replace them? Becoming best mates with people you meet in freshers week only happens because your probably either living with them or doing the same course as them, i.e. around each other all the time.
Debs, Hitchin

I remember my very first day, when we'd unloaded the car, unpacked a few boxes and my parents were ready to leave. The anxiety coursing through my veins was numbing. I could feel a tear welling up in my eye. My mum gave me a hug, my Dad a manly hug and a pat on the back and before I knew it they had departed for home - 250 miles away! I'd always been quiet and had certainly never been in a situation like this. I quickly realised I had but one option and that was to go a meet my flat mates. I washed my face, opened my door and stepped into the rest of my life. Within 2 minutes we were sitting in the kitchen chatting about A-Levels, uni courses and the coming Freshers Ball. Home had faded to the back of my mind and the intense anxiety had melted away into excitement. I'm no longer in touch with any of those people from that first day. I met a new bunch of people a few months later and finished my uni days with them. I'm still in touch with most of them and we still meet up and have adventures - both healthy and un-healthy (beer!)
Ben, Bristol

If I had read this article before I went to university (some years ago now) I would have been much more chilled. I arrived expecting to meet my best mates in that first week. When that didn't quite happen I began to get quite down especially as I could see people around me forming (or at least appearing to form) very close friendships. As a result I felt quite alone and pretty lousy. It wasn't until the January after freshers' week that I began to meet people I genuinely got on with. Now, five years on the friends I keep in touch with aren't the ones I met in freshers' week but the ones I met in my second and final years.
Ben, London

Don't get too drunk? Polite chat about A Levels and schools? Have these people never been to a freshers' week before? Here's a tip miles better than any of those: whatever you do, try and remember every person's name when they tell you! Otherwise you'll be referring to everyone as 'mate' for three long years.
Chris, London, UK

I'm one of the one in five quoted at the side who've settled down with someone they met at uni. My now fiance and I met on the first day of Fresher's week, we were next door neighbours in halls. Within a week or so we'd moved into the same tiny dorm room and have never looked back! Everyone thought it was a bit of a whirlwind and would never last - admittedly many of our peers started equally intense relationships that fizzled out just as quickly as they began. But it is possible!
Jo, Birmingham

I don't think I have any friends from uni who I gained solely through fresher's week, most are people I lived with or studied with and their friends. Fresher's week was a bit mad for me but not alcohol related! Spent days trying to sort out an accommodation mix up by the uni ended up living in a hall filled with crazy performing arts students (me being and Environmental Scientist) who insisted on me joining them for Karaoke (still mates with many of them).
Phil, North Shields

My freshers week back in 1997 was an incredible experience - but my lasting friendships were formed slowly, over the following months. And in fact, I didn't meet my now husband until the very last month at university.
Sally Magrath, Sevenoaks, UK

I no longer have any contact with anybody I met during freshers week, so many of the people I knew then were under the impression that the friendships made then were stronger than they actually were. University is a time for letting lose and experimenting, then you leave get older and most of the things from university get left in the past and you either form new stronger relationships or go back to older friends from before.
Prieure, Cheltenham

As a mature student in 1989 I felt the same pressure to network and develop friendship groups as most of my direct entry peers. I may have been a bit older and wiser but I still threw myself into the myriad of social events. Most of the circle of friends I met in my first couple of weeks continued to be my friends long after university. One in particular has been the most important person in my life since that point. I met my wife, Marie, who I married in shortly after my final exams, in that first week. I graduated the day we came back from our honeymoon. It's not necessarily true that you spend your time trying to ditch the people you meet during 'freshers'. I think the trick is to make connections initially and then decide who you're going to form close relationships with.
Michael McAlinden, Bangor

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