What can be more awkward than the first day at a new school? A two-time new school veteran, I experienced my fair share of uncomfortable interactions, the stress of making new friends, and the struggles of fitting in. So, if the concept of a first day of school evokes the image of Lindsay Lohan eating lunch alone in a bathroom stall in Mean Girls, then read on for your new school survival guide.
I changed schools three times. First, when I moved to the United States in seventh grade. Then, when my family moved to another town, forcing me to graduate a different middle school. And finally, when I started high school with a new group of kids from four different sending districts. Each time my mom’s car pulled up in front of a new school building, I asked myself the same questions: Who will I sit with at lunch? How will I ever find my way around? What if I can’t make any friends?
If you find yourself burdened with the same concerns, I want to reassure you upfront that before you know it, you and your new friends will be able to trace the map of these hallways in your sleep. As a teenager, I was incredibly introverted and had great difficulties striking up conversations or socializing with people I barely knew. My strategy of choice was always to hang back and hope that someone more outgoing notices me and takes me under their wing.
While this approach can occasionally work out and even lead to lifelong friendships, it’s never prudent to leave relationships completely up to chance, especially as you try to fit in a new environment. Here are four proactive strategies for coping with your new school nerves:
Attend those highly awkward new student orientations
I know, I know — sitting around in a circle and being forced to share “fun facts” about yourself in front of complete strangers can be as pleasant as pulling teeth. Although the organizers of these new student mixers undoubtedly have your best interests in mind, they tend to underestimate the degree of awkwardness that teenagers are capable of in unfamiliar environments. Yet it is this shared suffering and the mutual frustration at having to chat amicably with strangers you have little in common with that can actually help you to bond.
Whether you’re wandering your new school’s halls with a cheery upperclassman guide or listening to your new principal drone on about school policies, you can use the opportunity to befriend your fellow sufferers by breaking the student orientation spell. Just like you, every other new student will be pretending to enjoy themselves in order to appear friendly while checking their phone.
Although it may sound contradictory, drawing attention to the awkwardness may actually help to ease it and get a few laughs out of the group. And once you’ve found someone with whom to poke fun at the futility of it all, you are well on your way to making your first friend.
Frequent the local hot spots
It can feel impossible to approach new people and attempt to make plans without feeling like an impostor. I have certainly never succeeded at organically inserting myself into a friend group at any of my three schools. However, you don’t need to be aggressively social to create a non-stressful social situation with your new classmates. Do as the locals do. Especially if you’re new to the area, the fastest way to develop common interests with other students is to frequent all the local hot spots. If there is a park where many students hang out after school, start by scoping out the environment on your own. Next time there is a group conversation about weekend plans, you will have a shared vocabulary with the others, which will make it easier for you to partake in conversations and understand what they’re about.
Join an after-school organization
The easiest way to fit in a new environment to find like-minded individuals who share your interests. Lucky for you, after-school clubs were created exactly for this purpose. Chances are, you’re switching schools at the beginning of the school year, so you will certainly not be the only new kid to join a club in the fall. And while it may be tempting to join the organizations that are considered cool and popular within the school, you are always better off engaging in something you truly care about than trying to fake a passion and finding little in common with other participants.
When I started my first year at my new high school, I had no idea what extracurriculars I wanted to pursue. I only had a vague notion of wanting to do something artsy and a deep aversion to team sports. When a group of upperclassmen piled into my freshman homeroom and encouraged us all to check out the newspaper’s info session, I decided to give it a shot. I ended up joining as a staff photographer, one among a dozen of freshmen eager to join their first club.
Given the nature of the work, I could not avoid making friends as I spent several hours a week going on assignments with other writers and discussing new topics with my editors. And because we were all interested in school news and storytelling, it was easy to find things to talk about. Even before I had a close group of friends, I had many newspaper buddies to spend the weekend with if I wanted to. By the time I graduated high school, a large portion of my social circle comprised a variety of newspaper kids, some of whom still keep in touch with me three years into college.
People who study together stay together
Another organic way to befriend fellow students and assimilate in your new school is through study groups and group projects. The common struggle of preparing for a difficult exam or completing an assignment can form quite a strong bond. As a confused freshman in an honors physics class (without a single science bone in my body), I was assigned the seemingly impossible task of building a Rube Goldberg machine in the company of three other students. My group ended up spending hours in each other’s basements trying to make our project work and getting to know each other in the process.
In another challenge, I once stayed up until 2 a.m. with classmates I barely knew to bake a cake in the shape of a cell for our biology class (the things we do for extra credit!). In both instances, I became fast friends with people I barely talked to before and discovered a myriad of shared interests. Although the prospect of a group project may not be the most riveting in the moment, it can actually be a great way to make friends in a new school.
As a new kid at a new school, you may find it hard not to stress out about your ability to fit in. However, you don’t need to be a social butterfly in order to make friends and find your place. By stepping a little outside of your comfort zone and attending school-hosted events, joining after school clubs, hanging out where the others do, and studying with your fellow classmates, you will quickly discover shared passions and form a bond with your new classmates.
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