Tips for Creating a Great First Impression
Making New Friends Your First Week on Campus
By Patti Wood MA, CSP
Author of SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions Body Language and Charisma
- Be open: You have the rare opportunity for a fresh start at your impression. Smile as you walk across campus, walk down your dorm or class hallway or enter any room. Take the initiative to make eye contact, say hello and introduce yourself. Keep your body language open.
- Keep your body language "up": Up body language means walking, standing, and sitting with your upper body relaxed upward. Instead of hunching over, keep your shoulders back, your head up (not bent over your electronic device), and open your hands and move them upward when you gesture.
- Gesture: Moving your hands occasionally while you speak actually helps you think and speak more clearly. The location of your hands also affects other nonverbal behavior. When you are conversing with someone standing up, if you place your hands and arms at your sides your energy goes down, your voice lowers and can become more monotone, and you show fewer facial expressions. If you’re nervous, bring your hands to the level of your waist, and you will become calm and centered. If you gesture occasionally with your hands at the level of your upper chest or above, your voice automatically goes up, increases in volume, and has more variations; you actually become animated.
- Start new habits: If you always texted your friends in high school to see what they were doing, now you can initiate face-to-face interactions. Knock on a dorm room door or catch people at the student union and invite them to do something with you. You be the one who says, "Hey you want to go get a coffee after class, hang together to study tonight, or meet at the cafeteria to eat?" If you used to study in your room with the door closed try studying in the college library or outside. Don’t bring your TV with you to college or spend hours watching Hulu or Netflix when you get to campus. People make lifelong friends in their first week of college. Put yourself out there to meet as many people as possible as soon as you step on campus.
- Know a rebuff is seldom about you: If not every single person says hi back or takes you up on your offers for plans remember college is stressful. Most freshmen feel a bit insecure at times and, if they seem distant, don't take it personally. Most body language rebuffs such as lack of eye contact and scowls are motivated by what is going on inside the person and not really about you.
- Be helpful and considerate: Having roommates and being in a new living situation can be stressful at first, even if you click as friends. Before settling into your new space, offer to help your roommates carry in their belongings or bring snacks to share. Ask them about their interests. Introduce yourself to their families. Invite them to dinner with your family if they’ve arrived by themselves. Laying the groundwork for a positive relationship with your roommates can go a long way to help things go smoothly.
- Help people form a positive impression of you in class: Your professor and your fellow students will respond to you and perhaps judge you by how you act in your classes. If you're late all the time or if you don't go to class, they notice. They also notice if you come prepared for class, slink to the back to sit, pay attention, ask thoughtful questions, doze off, or spend the class texting. In high school slack behavior might have been cool; in college it will get you ostracized. Each class has a different set of "rules of engagement," so be aware of the size, structure, and instructor’s preferences for behavior. It is easier to set a positive impression at the beginning of the semester than try to erase a bad one.
- Learn your classmates’ names and use the formal title to address your professor: For example, "Dr. MacEnulty" or "Professor Camel." People respond to their names, so learn them! It’s a skill that will serve you well in most settings.
- Be aware of your last, or exiting, impression: Last impressions are critical. Excuse yourself if you briefly leave a conversation and or say goodbye if you are leaving a group of any kind. It might seem easier to just walk away or leave, but it actually feels better for everyone if you smile and say something to create a close. Sometimes it pays to stick around and/or make yourself visible. Stay after class occasionally and attend your instructor’s office hours to ask questions and initiate discussions around the class topic.
- Mix it up when choosing who to talk to: Whether you’re at college in your home country or an international student beginning school in a brand new one, make friends with people from other countries, cultures, and backgrounds. International students who came from another country to attend college will especially appreciate your friendliness and that you include them in activities. Ask others about their home countries and try out their favorite foods.
- Volunteer, go to activities, and be a joiner: If there is a movie night on campus, a student union game night, or dorm room function, go! The first week of my freshman year I joined the fencing club, went to a freshman dance though I had been the girl no one ever asked to dance, went to the dorm watermelon eating contest, and volunteered to referee the impromptu volley ball game on the campus green. I met great new friends with each activity.
- Go early rather than late: Research shows that arriving early actually reduces your nervousness in new situations. It’s easier to get acclimated. You can stand or sit near the door when you arrive and greet people as they come in. More anxiety reducing tips are in the book.
- Ask to help: At parties you can ask for an anxiety-distracting task like taking coats from new arrivals or offering them drinks or food. Nervousness comes out of your body in many ways. One way is through your hands. When your hands are confidently occupied with useful tasks, that confidence message goes to your brain and affects your entire body. It also gives you an easy, repeatable script, questions such as "Would you like me to take your coat?" or "What can I get you to drink?" These types of questions open up the conversation.
- Look for an "open" person: Search for people who are already speaking in a small cluster or someone who is standing or sitting with their feet apart a few inches, rather than crossed, pressed together, or in a "cowboy" defensive stance (for guys that is fourteen inches apart). Research shows that someone who is gesturing with open palms and smiling and occasionally moving their heads is more open to approach. If you are super shy, look for someone who looks happy and confident and do what they are doing.
- Trust your radar: Steer clear of people who are negative or give off bad vibes. Look for people who have the top two first impression factors from SNAP. That usually means people who are warm, likeable, and make you feel comfortable.
- Go first and initiate conversation: I know, I know, you’re thinking, "Patti, you are insane. I hate to talk to people and you want me to initiate? I’d rather stick a fork in my eye." Put down the fork. Research shows that when you initiate and move forward, you appear more confident and other people immediately feel more at ease. In addition, when they feel at ease, the comfort transfers back to you. A quick tip for when you feel anxious: take one small step forward; motion tricks your limbic brain into feeling more confident.
- Introduce yourself: You can breakthrough any awkward silence that occurs when strangers meet by simply sharing your name as in, "Hello my name is Patti Wood." Giving your name to someone is a form of self-disclosure that shows you’re willing to be open and be vulnerable. It gives the impression that you are nice. Purse snatchers don’t typically say, "Hey, my name is Max Brewer and I’ll be taking your wallet today." Breaking through the silence by sharing your name may be a pretty basic suggestion, but it works. We are sometimes afraid to break the silence because we fear we will be met with silence or rejection. If you don’t get an immediate response after sharing your name with someone, ask, "And your name is..?"
- Introduce people to each other: This gives you something practical to do. Making introductions is appreciated by others, and it takes the pressure off you. As you stand and move to bring people together, you are creating a visual connection between yourself and other people in the room that makes you look powerful and popular. They see you move toward people and act as a connection, and they think, "Boy, she [or he] knows everyone."
- Ask a question, then simply relax and listen: So much anxiety comes from not knowing what to do or how to do it well. One of the smartest things you can do to meet people is to make a positive statement like "Great T-shirt" or asking a gentle question such as "Did you see the concert on the student green last night?" or, "What did you think about class today?" This completely takes the talking pressure off you. You don’t have to be super funny or super hip to be a good listener. It’s amazing how cool people will think you are because everybody loves someone who really listens to them. More conversation starting questions are in my book.
- Nod your head: I love teaching men this simple body language cue. Men generally only nod their heads when they agree, while women nod to show they are listening. So guys, if you’re interested, nod as you listen. Women love it and nodding your head actually releases "feel good" chemicals into your blood stream.