Understanding Peer Pressure in College

By Kelly Burch

By the time you reach college, you’ve probably experienced peer pressure. Nine out of ten teens have. It’s human nature to want to fit in with the people around us, and that can influence our decisions.

Sometimes, peer pressure is obvious, like when your friends beg you to come to a concert when you know you should be studying. Other times, it’s more subtle. For example, your friends might not tell you to wear certain clothing, but you know from their comments that it’s what they expect. It can come from one person in your circle or you might experience group peer pressure. 

When you’re in new situations—like when you start a new school or go away to college—it’s natural to want to feel connected and accepted by others. But it’s good to be aware that this feeling can make you vulnerable to making decisions you think will please other people so that they’ll accept you.

Giving in to peer pressure may not always be bad. If the other people or group wants you to believe or do something that seems sensible, safe, and enjoyable to you—no problem. That’s the idea behind having a study buddy or workout partner who will keep you accountable. But often peer pressure can push you toward behaviors that you’re not comfortable with, or that are illegal. For example, nearly 60% of college students say they’ve been peer-pressured to drink.

Standing Up to Peer Pressure in College

Resisting peer pressure isn’t as simple as just saying no. It’s really hard sometimes, especially when you’re feeling vulnerable, lonely, or just really eager to meet new people. These skills can help you stand up to peer pressure.

  • Listen to your gut. Gut feelings—the way you feel about something without even thinking about it—are powerful information. If you have a gut feeling that something is a bad choice, or doesn’t work for you, trust yourself and listen to it.
  • Believe in yourself. When you know just how awesome you are, you’re less likely to do things you’re uncomfortable with to fit in. Building self-confidence and self-esteem takes time, but it’s really important and helpful, and worth working on bit by bit. 
  • Know your values and limits. If you have a clear idea of what is important to you and what you care about, you will have a clearer idea when someone is trying to get you to go beyond your comfort zone.
  • Build different friend groups. It’s OK to hang out with different people. That way, if one group is doing something you’re not interested in or not comfortable with, you can spend time with other friends.
  • Get comfortable being alone. Staying in on a Friday night might make you feel antisocial, but there are some real benefits of being alone. It’s OK to spend time by yourself and say no to friends. It doesn’t always mean that you don’t have people to hang out with or that you’re lonely. It just means you’re confident enough to know when an activity isn’t for you.

Think About What You’ll Say—or Not Say

Responding to peer pressure is hardest in the moment. Planning ahead for how you might respond if someone asks you to do something you’re not comfortable with is really helpful. Here are a few options:

  • Have an explanation ready. If you know that your friends are doing something you’re not comfortable with, have your response ready to go. This can be as simple as saying “I don’t drink” when someone hands you a cup, or “Sorry, I have plans with friends from home” when you’re invited to an event that’s out of your budget.
  • Don’t explain. You don’t owe anyone, even friends, an explanation. You can keep it super simple by just saying “no thanks” or “not for me.” Remember, “No” is a full sentence.
  • Make excuses. Sometimes, making a stand against your friends can be emotionally exhausting. It’s OK to let someone or something else be the reason you need to pass on activities that are dangerous, expensive, or just unappealing. Blaming your parents, coach, work, or anything else really for why you can’t go out drinking or take another trip to that expensive restaurant might save you the hassle of arguing with your friends.

Giving in to peer pressure can feel like a way to make friends quickly. But making true friendships takes some time. Don’t feel that you need to make choices that don’t feel like you just to connect with other people. Instead, be patient, and continue to put yourself out there as you make new friends who share your values and beliefs.

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