Social scientists have known for a long time that friends can have a significant impact on your life. Some studies even suggest that during childhood and adolescence, your friends have more influence on how you develop than your parents!
So what does that mean for college students? Well, a recent study suggests that it’s not just the type of people who are your friends, it the type of friendships you have that can affect your ability to succeed in college.
Types of friendships
Sociologist Janet McCabe examined friendship networks and discovered that college students form three different types of network: “compartmentalizers” have different groups of friends for different purposes, such as studying and having fun, and the friends in one group may not know any of the people in the other group(s); “tight-knitters” have a group of close friends, most of whom know one another; “samplers” have one or two friends from different sources—classes, clubs, dorms—but those friends don’t know any of the other friends.
What the research showed was that the compartmentalizers had the best chance of overall success in college. They were able to find balance in their lives because they had at least two types of friendship network: academic and social.
The friends within each cluster knew one another, but didn’t necessarily know the friends in the other cluster(s). The friends in the academic cluster studied together; the friends in the social cluster went out together. Thus the academic cluster could provide support for academic achievement, but the social cluster provided an outlet to relieve pressure and blow off steam.
The tight-knitters had a lot of social support within their cluster, but they were also highly subject to pressures to conform within the group: the group could motivate members to do well academically, but it could just as easily become a group that liked to party too much.
Often tight-knitters would study together, but sometimes that was more of a distraction than a help. As McCabe reports, “All behaviors—negative and positive—were quite contagious within tight-knit networks.”
The samplers did very well academically, but they often felt isolated and lonely, so they did not feel successful socially. They succeeded academically because they had personal motivation to succeed. Their friendships did not provide any motivation, but they also didn’t distract the subjects who were identified as samplers.
They did not study with friends or use friends for social support, and they tended to see themselves as loners. McCabe suggests that they might have been even more successful, both academically and socially, if they had one or two clusters of friends instead of just a few individual friends.
How do your friendships impact you?
The important lesson to be learned from this study is not that you should look to force yourself to become a compartmentalizer just because the study shows them to be successful both academically and socially. The reality is that there are circumstances, contexts, and personal preferences that influence the formation of friendships.
So instead, think about the value you are getting from your friendships. Do your friends support you and help you be your best? Or are they bringing you down by distracting you from your studies? Do you have friends you can call when you need help? Or when you need to take a break?
If you are having difficulty academically, think about the friends who can help you ... and if you don’t have friends who can help you, think about making new friends with similar interests from your classes or campus activities. These are steps that everyone can take, without trying to drastically change your usual way of handling social interactions.