Growing up, my family always emphasized the importance of education.
When I was accepted into my college of choice during senior year of high school, I couldn’t wait to start the next chapter of my life.
Though I was expecting to get lost on campus, meet some interesting people, and learn about new subjects, I was not expecting the overwhelming loneliness that often accompanied my college experience.
That feeling overtook me right away — in fact, the very first night I arrived was one of the loneliest nights of my life.
After running across campus in a storm, getting lost in the rain, and finally finding my way back to my dorm room, I felt as if I’d made a mistake in even attending college.
Physically, I had pushed myself way beyond my limits — I was still figuring out how to manage my disability at the time — and that only fueled my feelings of loneliness.
To make matters worse, I lived in a single-occupancy dorm room, so while others at least got to know their roommates and ease into the college experience with some companionship right away, I was stuck in my room alone, with no one to talk to.
Sure, I’d gotten into the college I had always dreamed of attending, but being prepared academically didn’t mean I was prepared emotionally.
After changing into some dry clothes and hanging up the phone after tearfully begging my mom to pick me up — I’m thankful now that she didn’t — I opened my door.
Looking around, I saw everyone else leaving to go to their first college parties or hanging out with their roommates.
After a little while, I shut my door, feeling lost and overwhelmingly lonely.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ongoing series The Roots Of Loneliness Project, the first-of-its-kind resource that comprehensively explores the phenomenon of loneliness and over 100 types that we might experience over the course of our lives.
College is supposed to be an exciting whirlwind of personal and academic growth — but why do so many students feel so lonely?
In this article, I’ll share why college students are often lonely in college, why college loneliness is so common, how difficult it can be to make friends in college, and how students can manage — and start to change — their feelings of loneliness and isolation.
What Is College Loneliness And Why Does It Occur?
What Is College Loneliness:
Loneliness in college students often presents itself as feelings of sadness, isolation, and disconnect.
Students feel alone at various points throughout college often triggered by the unfamiliarity of a new routine, uncertainty about their education or major, isolation from family and friends, and lack of friendships and connections if they are new to college.
Though loneliness is common in college students, many students frequently feel as if they are unique in feeling lonely.
I grew up thinking of college as a place to further my education, make new connections, and begin my adult life. For me, college was a place for all of those things — but it was also immensely lonely at times.
When I was in college, I wouldn’t have guessed that so many other people felt as lonely as I did.
Everyone else seemed so happy, hanging out with their friends and juggling a multitude of extracurricular activities between classes.
In reality, feeling lonely in college is incredibly common.
A 2017 study asked students if they had felt lonely in the past year — and over 60% said they had.
In 2018, a study of loneliness in college students suggested that over one-third of college students felt moderately or severely lonely.
When talking to current college students or recent college graduates, I was surprised at how familiar their stories of loneliness felt to me.
Sara, who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degree at Portland State University, says that despite her love for school and learning, she felt lonely throughout college.
She tells me: “The years I spent working toward my bachelor’s degree were the most lonely. I felt isolated, depressed, and angry.”
Nichole Proulx-King is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and works as a mental health therapist at Husson University. She has worked with students from all backgrounds who have experienced loneliness.
“Loneliness can leave a person feeling isolated and as though no one cares about them,” Proulx-King tells me.
“These feelings can impact overall wellness which encompasses all facets of functioning. Mental health practitioners working in the college setting often see students with significant symptoms of anxiety and depression when this occurs.”
She goes on to say that “symptoms of anxiety and depression can impact physical health as well as emotional health. Unfortunately, one of the complicating factors with anxiety and depression symptoms are that students are less likely to seek new connections. These symptoms pose a barrier forming new connections and this further isolates them.”
Though loneliness can manifest itself in various ways (which I’ll touch on later), there are many reasons college students often feel lonely, including:
- Being away from home or moving to a new city
- Not having an established group of friends
- Lacking a familiar routine
- Uncertainty about the future
- Struggling to balance daily domestic activities, such as eating, washing clothes, cleaning, etc., with academic tasks and social activities
- Lack of traditions around birthdays, holidays like Thanksgiving, and other big events
- Not knowing what to study or what they are passionate about
- Struggling with time management
- Feeling as if no one else understands, or as if everyone else is happy
- Academic challenges
- Not getting along with a roommate
Feelings of loneliness can often lead college students to experience anxiety and depression, too.
As a result of these feelings, students often avoid interacting with others, which can, in turn, make students feel more alone.
Bottom Line: When preparing for college, the topic of loneliness is rarely discussed. However, the majority of students experience loneliness at some point in their college careers. Since many students experiencing loneliness may hesitate to reach out, it’s easy to feel as if no one else is lonely. In reality, more students than not are likely to be lonely at any given time.
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When Are College Students Most Likely To Experience Loneliness?
Transitioning From High School To College
Graduating high school is such a thrilling experience for so many students, especially for those attending college a few short months later.
Most students are so focused on what lies ahead, however, that they don’t realize what a major transition they are about to experience.
As a mental health therapist at Husson University, Nichole Proulx-King has often seen students struggle with loneliness in their first year of college. She explains to me:
“Loneliness can certainly peak at a variety of times in a student’s academic career. One of the most common times that we see loneliness is about halfway through [students’] first semester and at the start of the spring semester of their first year. There are many reasons for this, and among these is that for many, this is their first time being away from home.”
During the initial transition from high school to college, many students are likely to feel homesick.
Though homesickness isn’t unusual — one study suggests that 66% of college students felt homesick in their first year — it’s not something that most people talk about.
After my first week at school, I returned home to recover from a physically and emotionally draining week.
When telling one of my new acquaintances that I was going home, he asked, “Why? This is your home now.”
Not wanting to delve into my list of reasons — or start crying on the spot — I only smiled and muttered something about needing to get some things from home.
This, in addition to seeing everyone around me appearing to click instantly with their roommates and new friends, made me hesitant to talk about my loneliness.
Beyond homesickness causing loneliness in students, having to figure out real-world challenges can make college students feel frustrated and lonely, too.
Lindsey, who is now a Content marketing strategist, attended Brigham Young University. Though the transition from high school to college wasn’t difficult academically, she was surprised at how different her life felt in college.
“The first initial day at college was strange,” Lindsey tells me. “There was no one to come home to [who was] making dinner every night or doing the dishes while I studied.”
“I had to learn to not only be good at school and extracurriculars, but I also had to be good at balancing running errands, making dinner, and providing for myself. It was a fun transition, but it took time and a lot of practice before I figured out how to actually balance and manage everything.”
While every college student will have unique experiences, most college students’ first experiences in college are filled with a dizzying mix of excitement, confusion, happiness, anxiety — and loneliness.
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Deciding Your Major Or Deciding To Change Majors Or Schools
Transitioning from high school to college is one of the biggest changes in many young adults’ lives, but deciding upon a major, changing majors — or even schools — can also trigger feelings of loneliness for students.
Though changing your major isn’t uncommon — approximately one-third of college students have changed majors by their third year — this environmental and academic shift can leave students feeling alone and inept.
My younger brother, Jacob, who is in his third year at the University of Virginia, experienced the stress and loneliness that came along from changing his major during his first year of college.
Initially majoring in engineering, he struggled with making the decision to change majors, especially since everyone around him seemed to be doing so well.
He tells me:
“During my first year of college, I felt really anxious because the engineering classes I was taking were extremely difficult, and it seemed like it took nearly every hour of every day just to stay afloat.
It also made me feel lonely because it seemed, from the outside, that everyone else was doing fine and that I was the only one struggling to that degree.
Before I had made the final decision to switch, I was worried about whether it would be the correct decision, since the decision was so final. I didn’t know if I should “tough it out” or if what I was doing at the time just wasn’t for me. It was hard to know for sure.”
For students who don’t necessarily know what major to choose, the possibilities and the pressure to choose the right major can be overwhelming.
Lindsey, who attended Brigham Young University, struggled to choose her major, an experience that caused frustration and loneliness at times.
Though she ultimately majored in marketing, making the decision wasn’t easy.
“I loved every class I took and wanted to do [everything],” Lindsey explains to me. “It was really hard deciding, especially because once I started my junior year, there was no more switching [majors].”
“The semester before my junior year, I applied to marketing, recreational therapy, and experience design management. I figured I would major in the choice that I was admitted for. In the end, I was admitted to all three, and this is where I had to make the ultimate decision. I had to decide what exactly I wanted to do after college, and that was a hard thing because I had no idea.”
In addition to the academic stress that can come with changing majors or schools, many students also worry about losing their established group of friends.
A childhood friend of mine, Christina, transferred from Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois to Regent University in our home state of Virginia after her freshman year.
She had initially studied zoology at Olivet, but after two semesters in Illinois, she decided to return to Virginia to study English.
Though she was certain transferring schools was the right choice for her, she was worried about starting over again at a new school.
She told me:
“My biggest concern [when transferring schools] was that I wouldn’t make any friends. I’m a stereotypical English major, shy and at least a little awkward, so making new friends has never been my strong suit.
However, I became really close friends with one of my roommates right away. She was a transfer student too, so we essentially got to start out at Regent together.”
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Having No Friends In College
Having a supportive network of people is important, especially for college students.
In addition to obvious social and emotional benefits, research suggests that friendships can also benefit students academically.
Despite being surrounded by hundreds, or even thousands, of people in college, however, making friends is often much harder than it was in high school.
For many students, their newfound freedom — and the lack of structure that accompanies it — is jarring, and makes it hard to make new friends.
Sara, who attended Portland State University, said that she struggled to make new connections when she was working towards her bachelor’s degree — and the people she did befriend didn’t stick around.
She tells me:
“I struggled to make lasting connections with anyone at my school [as an undergraduate]. The person I felt I had fostered a true friendship with moved away and the boyfriend I had been seeing cheated on me. It wasn’t a pretty time and took a toll on my self-esteem.”
When you struggle to make friends with other students, the absence of friends can be particularly upsetting when something major happens in your life.
Jeb, a sophomore at Ohio State University, was immensely lonely after a breakup with his girlfriend. Surrounded by other students he didn’t know, he realized how lonely he felt.
“A week after my girlfriend and I started taking a break, I tried to finalize the breakup but she was too busy to talk,” Jeb tells me.
“I felt extreme loneliness and sadness. I started crying in the dining hall, surrounded by strangers I didn’t know and who didn’t seem to care. I tried to think of who I could call so I could be around someone else. My mind drew a blank — I [realized that I] only had about two friends to contact.”
For introverted students like myself, making friends can be even more difficult. Crowded, loud parties never really appealed to me, and with limited energy, it was hard to make connections.
Kaila, a peer and friend of mine who also went to James Madison University, also felt that making friends as an introvert in college was difficult at times.
“I have a quiet and introverted personality, and always felt generally bad at making friends,” Kaila tells me.
“I usually felt overshadowed by the more outgoing people. I also didn’t always want to do the typical “college” shenanigans like partying and binge drinking. I was more happy doing laid-back, less exhilarating — at least to other people — activities.”
Dr. Ryan Roemer, PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), is the Manager of Adolescent Mental Health and Psychiatric Emergency Triage Services at Mission Hospital in Southern California.
A common reason college students struggle with loneliness, he says, has to do with connecting with others.
“I have found with my patients that loneliness can present itself in a lot of different ways,” he explains to me.
“I most commonly see it in young adults struggling to create a new social life now that they have left their high school groups, especially those far from home trying to find their place in an environment.”
Even though having no friends in college, especially when you first start out, is normal, that doesn’t mean the experience isn’t difficult.
There are various times and reasons why students are more likely to experience loneliness in college. When first starting college, many students are often overwhelmed by the transition and feel homesick or lonely.
Deciding what you want to major in, as well as changing majors or schools can also cause students to feel alone, especially if their group of friends changes.
Throughout college, students who don’t have close friends, or who don’t feel as connected to their college friends as they felt to their high school friends, are especially likely to feel lonely.
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How Do College Students Overcome And Cope With Loneliness?
As common as loneliness is for people throughout college, it’s important for all students to learn how to cope.
Connect With Others
Just as is the case with other types of loneliness, connecting with others is often a crucial step to mitigating feelings of loneliness.
Sara, who studied editing and publishing at Portland State University, says that taking the time to take care of herself helped her to feel less alone, as did reaching out to others.
She tells me:
“I worked all the way through my college years, so I was able to meet and connect with fellow employees. One of them is my current roommate, and the other is still a close friend to this day.
My aunt and uncle were also incredible support systems for me and were always there to give advice or just listen to my sleep-deprived, stress-induced ramblings.
Taking physical education classes also helped me immensely, as these required frequent interaction with others and opened up opportunities for communication that weren’t coursework-related.”
As a college student, I found that making a point to talk to my friends and spending time with others made a huge difference in my overall well-being.
Sometimes, this just meant taking the time to get to know a classmate. Having a friend in my class made any subject more enjoyable, and on days when I couldn’t spend time with others outside of class, I had built-in time to socialize.
Otherwise, I made an effort to do something social that was unrelated to my classes at least once a week.
Even if I felt tired or anxious and wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend time with others, it was rare that I ever regretted taking the chance to socialize.
Be Aware Of Potential Symptoms Of Mental Illness And Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help
For college students, it’s also important to understand that there’s a difference between normal feelings of loneliness and more serious mental conditions, many of which are likely to occur in college-aged individuals.
In retrospect, I wish I had been more willing to reach out when I was struggling and feeling lonely; I was so hesitant and anxious to express how lonely I was, and being lonely in college sounded like a weird, if not silly, complaint.
Whenever I talk to college students now, I make sure to recommend that students take advantage of the resources they have and to talk to counselors, friends, and family if they are feeling sad or anxious, or dealing with depression-related loneliness.
Nichole Proulx-King works with college students as a mental health therapist. She advises students to pay attention to their feelings rather than ignore their loneliness in order to discern if their feelings are situational or part of a larger issue.
“Because all issues pertaining to mental health, physical health, and wellness are intertwined, it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between loneliness and larger mental health issues,” Proulx-King explains to me.
“Since feelings of loneliness often occur along with symptoms like anxiety and depression, it is important to weigh whether or not they experience these feelings persistently, in certain situations, or across all settings.”
Know That You’re Not The Only One Who Is Lonely
Even though it may seem easier to keep feelings of loneliness private, talking about feeling lonely can actually help you connect with others.
Throughout college, I felt as if no one else understood my loneliness. Now, however, I’m both surprised and comforted to know that feeling lonely isn’t and wasn’t unusual.
Kaila, a friend of mine from college, agrees that realizing how normal loneliness is for college students can be reassuring.
She tells me:
“[Students should] know that it’s totally normal to be lonely, and to just be honest with yourself and others about it. Don’t force yourself to fit into a certain mold or clique.
And don’t keep all of your emotions bottled up. Find a good person to talk to and just have faith that there are people, activities, and support groups made just for you.”
Bottom Line: Learning to cope with loneliness in college is an important skill students can use throughout their life. These skills include: taking the time to connect with others, even in small ways, to help you to feel less alone; taking care of your mental health and knowing when to reach out for help to ease the burden of isolation; talking about your experiences with loneliness; and realizing how common feeling lonely actually is, often make it easier to befriend others and begin to feel less alone.
As a college student, you will have days when you’re excited to learn and feel surrounded by people who care about you.
You’ll also have lonely days, too — days you miss your mom’s cooking or your high school friends.
Even though most people talk about their good days, the lonely days are normal, too, at least every once in a while.
On days when you feel lonely, know that even if everyone around you seems as if they’re fitting in and adjusting easily, you’re not the only person who is lonely.
And on the days where you feel like you’re exactly where you belong, reach out to others — you’ll be surprised to find that so many other students are lonely, and the simple act of reaching out can help someone else who’s also lonely feel like they, too, belong.