An Introvert’s Guide to Finding the Right College

Dear Priscilla,

My introverted daughter, who is in 10th grade at a private school in Maryland, is embarking on the college admissions process. Are there certain colleges and universities that are more “quiet”—i.e., introvert-friendly—than others? I think she needs to land at a school that has opportunities for her to make new friends without being smothered by non-stop social activities.

Also, do you have suggestions for easing her anxiety during the process of making the transition from high school to college? True to her introverted nature, my daughter loves routine and is slow to warm up to new people. She has been at the same school and with the same friends since Kindergarten. Therefore, she is terrified to move away from home and face a lot of unknowns and social challenges.

Thanks for your advice,

Worried mom of college-student-to-be

Dear Worried Mom,

First, I’m with you, as my 11th grader is currently looking at colleges, and wow—is it overwhelming!  Anything to narrow down the choices would be so helpful, right?! But unfortunately my son and I have found that we can’t rule out schools based on category or type of school; it really comes down to the individual school and the individual introvert. As a former college professor at both a large research university and a small liberal arts college, I can say with confidence that I don’t think that either setting can be labeled as better suited to introverts. Moreover, I believe strongly that introverts can flourish in a wide variety of settings as long as they know themselves, know how to advocate for themselves, and don’t run up intransigent barriers in the form of unsympathetic administrators or overly rigid ideas about what constitutes social engagement or “the right way to be a college student.”

The most important advice I have for you is this: encourage your daughter to look for schools that don’t put pressure on students to conform to one kind of identity or one style of socializing or engaging in campus life. Steer her towards schools that support many different ways of socializing – from joining an anime club to tailgating, from playing an intramural sport to working on a literary magazine. Search out schools that offer a wide range of activities, both academic and social, that don’t circle around a central “identity.”

On the face of it, a small college would seem to be a more hospitable environment for an introvert, but small colleges can also be socially intense, especially if they’re in small towns where everything interesting happens on campus. At a large university, there may be a greater array of extracurricular options. She will have a greater ability to be anonymous—not noticed, talked to, engaged with 24/7. There are more niches in a large campus, and therefore more freedom for your daughter to define herself and find her own place. Schools that have a heavy fraternity and sorority presence may seem like the wrong environment for introverts, but a friend of mine who works as a college administrator told me she knows “introverts who joined sororities precisely for the reason that these provide an instant community for those who don’t wish to spend tons of time building lots of friendships, because that can be exhausting.”

Other things to look out for: does the school have clubs and groups that your daughter would be interested in joining? Does she see recognizable and appealing ways that she can get involved in campus life (a choir, a film society, a hiking club) while still preserving her ability to decompress and take a break from the social mayhem? Do the libraries have enough quiet study spaces with private nooks rather than open-plan seating? Are there serene interior spaces like chapels, meditation/yoga rooms, or low-noise lounge areas? Does the school have places of natural beauty like gardens, ponds, orchards, and parks, where she can take refuge from the din of dining halls and the chaos of quads covered in Ultimate Frisbee playing, loud-music-listening, chattering students? Do some dorms have wellness corridors that may be substance free or designated “quiet zones” that prohibit loud music or parties beyond 11 pm?

Dorm living can truly be a nightmare for introverts, especially if the rooms are small and furnished with bunk beds as most of them were when I was in college. The sounds of your roommate: their alarm clock going off an hour before you want to get up, their typing or chatting on the phone, or their staggering drunkenly through the door in the wee hours of the morning long after you turned off your light to go to bed… this is enough to drive anyone crazy, let alone a strong introvert! And conventional dorm life really does mean seemingly never-ending pizza parties, late-night TV watching sessions in the common room, drinking games, etc.

For a student with a strong need for privacy, quiet, and the ability to regulate his or her auditory and sensory environment, I’d lean towards a school that gave the option of single rooms (more and more schools offer this) and of off-campus living. I moved off campus my junior year into a studio apartment because I really needed long hours of solitude and quiet to read, write, and think, and I needed an escape from the relentless socializing that made life in my small residential college often feel more oppressive than convivial.

And this brings me to the issue of geographic location.  You mention that your daughter has been in a small private school since kindergarten and has a lot of anxiety about the transition to a larger world. I feel strongly that staying close to home might be a good option. I asked my friend Natalie Friedman, one of the most experienced, sensitive, and wise people I know about all things related to college life, for her advice regarding your daughter. Natalie has been Director of the Learning, Teaching, and Research Center and a member of the English department at Vassar, Assistant Dean of Students at NYU, and Dean of Studies and Dean for the Senior Class at Barnard. Here’s her sage advice:

I’d encourage the letter writer’s daughter to think hard about how far she wants to be from home. I see lots of students who cross the country to be at a school they think is “good” because of prestige or location (or because their parents or grandparents went there), but they would be much happier, given their temperaments, being closer to home. I knew a student from the west coast who came east for school because her mother and grandmother attended the college she was attending. But she was a classic introvert, and also a kid who was sensitive, very close to her mother and siblings, and not very adventurous. She struggled with homesickness, which in turn led her to stay in her room a lot and avoid social interaction with new people. As a result, she didn’t enjoy college as much as her mother did, which puzzled her mom. In the end, the student decided to transfer to a school closer to home, and when she made the decision, you could see the relief on her face.

As far as easing your daughter’s anxiety during the transition, listen to the second half of Susan’s Quiet at College podcast and look for a future column on this topic!  

Finally, I wish you and your daughter all the best during this arduous search and stressful time. I’m confident that with a mother as engaged, sensitive, and thoughtful as you clearly are, your daughter will successfully find the right school for her. Remember: it’s all about fit, and your questions indicate that you’re approaching this in just the right way.

Do you have a question for parenting and education expert Priscilla Gilman? Email her at [email protected].