Fast friends: How to make proper connections in the pressure cooker of Oxbridge

In an environment as hectic as that of a top university, it can be difficult to balance your social life with study. Students need to be smart about their approach to ensure their social experience at uni is a rewarding one.


7/11/20236 min read

Image: A friendly girl pops out of a fast food box. Source

University life is often marketed as a space for students to discover their individual interests and forge lifelong friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds. In an academic environment as hectic as that of Oxford and Cambridge, however, it becomes difficult to balance your social life with study. On top of that, the high-achieving and individualist mindset of many Oxbridge students can make building genuine attachments with them tough.

While not all Oxbridge students are the same, the two universities’ rigorous academic schedules mean that you unfortunately have less time to spend with friends compared to less demanding universities. The shorter terms also mean that the whole scope of university life is condensed down to only six or seven months per year.

Image: An overwrought man seems to drown in his bedsheets. Source

Will I be able to have a social life if I go to Oxbridge?

It is common for college and university officers at Oxford and Cambridge to suggest that students treat their degree like a full-time job, meaning that they spend around 40 hours a week doing academic work. For the benefit of students’ welfare, it is recommended that they use planners and online calendars to carve out a regular working day, with breaks, to make a clear distinction between when they should be working and when they can do other activities. Although timings obviously vary for different courses and different approaches to work, the 40-hour benchmark demonstrates just how little time Oxbridge students have to build friendships.

If a student works 40 hours a week over an 8-week term, that's a total of 320 hours. Factoring in time to sleep, eat, get dressed, commute, and countless other basic tasks in the day, the remaining time of the term gets eaten up very quickly. This is not to mention the countless hours of procrastination that some of us will undoubtedly have to tack on. It takes real work to maintain social connections at Oxbridge, especially when students have different views on the importance of these connections.

Image: A graphic from Jeffrey Hall's study breaking down the correlation between spending time with someone, and getting closer to them.

How long does it take to make new friends?

A 2018 study by Dr Jeffrey Hall of the University of Kansas suggested that it takes around 50 hours to establish a casual friendship, around 90 hours to become ‘solid’ friends, and over 200 to become good friends. Hall wrote that building friendships, especially early in life, can be viewed as making “strategic investments toward satiating long-term ‘belongingness’ needs”.

Terms at Oxbridge last nine weeks, typically with an extra week included just before the official eight-week term. This extra week at the start is called Noughth Week, as the number zero is sometimes referred to as "nought" in British English. Students might also stay after the formal end of term, especially if they have exams or do a science subject. In general though, compared to other UK universities, Oxbridge students spend substantially less time at uni. This affects all elements of their experience, but especially their social life. There is only so much time a student can dedicate to building these supposed lifelong connections when they constantly need to produce academic work.

Image: A woman leans affectionately on another woman.

What is the best way to network?

Top universities are very selective academic environments which ensure that many of their students have bright futures in academia, business, politics, and many other fields. This means that some students at these universities, likely a higher proportion than at other universities, treat their friendships as transactional. They only see value in a connection if it benefits them directly.

This benefit can come in the form of, for example, a position in a society, increased social capital, or a future job opportunity. There are many ways that students, with their own talents and social networks, can support each other. However, this view of friendship can become toxic if taken too far.

To many, the primary reason to strike up a friendship with someone is simply enjoying their company. Connections can be built through similar interests, shared values, and involvement in the same academic and social activities. Becoming friends with someone purely because they can provide you something in the short or long term does not fit into this social paradigm.

While networking is perfectly acceptable and often necessary to further your career prospects, especially at Oxbridge - where every opportunity is competitive - a student’s entire social life should not be an extension of their CV. Though the time spent at Oxford and Cambridge each term is limited, there is certainly enough time to spend some of it just having fun with friends. This is beneficial to your mental health, especially in Oxbridge’s pressurised academic environment.

Those who only seek out friends for the sake of social or career advancement forsake the potential to build lasting connections that can extend far beyond your university years. They often find that within their transactional relationships, once the other person does not see value in them anymore, they stop caring. Genuine friends, meanwhile, will be there for you no matter what stage of life you are in as long as the relationship is healthily maintained.

How do I make real friends?

Oxbridge terms are a time squeeze no matter the course you take, so it’s beneficial to take a look at your week and try to carve out time to be social. This can involve something as simple as noting down a time when you want to make your way down to the college bar to have a chat, or you can organise something more extravagant like booking a restaurant table with friends or a partner.

The Oxbridge college system makes it a lot easier to make friends with other students in a smaller environment than the whole university campus, especially because for the first year many colleges have their students living together in accommodation blocks. Eating together in the dining hall, attending college events together, and spending time in the library or student bar are just a few of the ways to take advantage of the close-knit social space of your college.

One of the best ways to keep yourself social, especially when it comes to being social outside of your college bubble, is to join university-wide societies. There will hopefully be at least one that piques your interest, and it’s very easy to build friendships with like-minded people who share that interest. Maintaining different groups of friends is a great way to ensure that you don’t need to rely on the presence of a single person or group of people to enjoy yourself socially at university. It also makes it less difficult if you are forced to part ways with one friend or group when you already have others that you can spend time with instead.

Is networking wrong?

Along the way, you might find yourself making friends with someone who holds an important position in a student society, or someone that could offer you great academic advice, but wonder if you are being genuine. People make friends for a variety of reasons, and it's not morally wrong to build a connection with someone because they have something you want. However, if your entire network of friends is built upon taking something they can provide to further your own goals, it will be difficult to maintain those connections after university when they have less to offer you. At least, in the same way. You may find that there are few people remaining in your life willing to emotionally support you or put in effort to spend time with you. Keeping a good mix of those you simply like hanging out with and those who provide you with something unique is key. It’s the best way to keep your social life humming along in university while also keeping an eye on your future prospects.

By Charlie Bowden. Linkedin.