Drinking in College: What to Expect

Read how these students and grads interacted with college drinking.

Put the words “college” and “alcohol” together and a few images immediately come to mind: wild frat parties, loud music, and red Solo cups filled with an unidentifiable alcoholic concoction. Is this really the ideal — or even the norm — for most college students on a weekend night?

I asked more than a dozen college students and recent college grads about how they have chosen to interact with alcohol. The students I spoke with were males and females at both public and private schools; some were involved in Greek life, some not. Their answers were revealing: As their college experience unfolded, most of the students I spoke with reported growing more intentional in their relationship with alcohol, whether on account of a bad experience with drinking or simply growth in perspective.

Their relationship with alcohol changes as they balance their social lives with academic and extracurricular commitments, invest in particular communities of friends, study abroad, and learn from others or their own experiences with drinking. Rather than submitting themselves to some default stereotype of campus life, students seem to be reflective and aware of their own growth as they choose the role that alcohol plays in their lives. 

At the start of a new academic year, it’s a good time to test the stereotypes and assumptions about college students and drinking. Studies show that only a little more than half of college students consume alcohol in a given month. Rather than buying into a myopic view that equates the college experience with binge-drinking and blacking out, the insights from these students might paint a more realistic picture of what to expect and help us be intentional about our interactions with alcohol — in college and beyond. 

Upon arrival

There is no doubt about it, alcohol is prevalent and readily accessible on many college campuses. First-year college students witness this almost immediately upon arrival. For the students with whom I spoke,  those early months were ones of navigating, observing, trying, and discovering their comfort level around alcohol. 

Some students embrace the social scene as part of the college experience. Others make the decision in those early weeks to refrain from drinking until they turn 21 years old, which means they go to parties and do not drink, or choose to forgo parties altogether. They report that alcohol makes it easier to fit in when they first arrive, but that they are also able to find alternative communities and activities if they don’t want to drink.  

Here are some insights from their first-year experience, in their own words:

At first, I was very wary of alcohol because alcoholism runs in my family. Luckily, though, I was put into situations in which I was able to become comfortable around alcohol, but was never pressured to partake in alcohol consumption if I didn’t want to. 

I guess I thought drinking was normal and did not really give it a second thought! It just seemed like it was making the environment more fun.

I was aware that the majority of students drank, but my roommates and I decided not to. While it seemed more difficult to find something to do on the weekends, I was able to find fun things to do without drinking.

As trust builds

A number of the students with whom I spoke mentioned the importance of establishing strong friendships built on trust before they felt comfortable taking more risks with alcohol. 

As friend groups form, students feel more confident that people are looking out for them and will not abandon them in potentially unsafe situations. As compared to the early days of college when parties tend to be crowded with lots of unfamiliar faces, most students who choose to drink seem to do so more comfortably as trust builds among their peers:

I did not drink until my sophomore year when I made closer friends whom I knew I could trust. I knew the people with whom I could relax and drink more, and still feel safe. 

Once I found my friend group, I felt that the pressure to drink decreased tremendously and I could just be myself in any social setting.

I enjoy going to a few parties a semester, as long as I know the people well.

Freshman year, I barely drank… Now that I have more friends, it has become a fun part of a social gathering more than anything else.

I’ve had a few bad nights, but those experiences have taught me my limits and, even in those times, my friends cared for me and made sure I was safe. 

Establishing personal norms

Over time and through experience, students gain more clarity about what sorts of behavior around alcohol are aligned with their own preferences, lifestyles, and values — and what behaviors are beyond their comfortable limits. Many students mentioned the desire to avoid drunkenness resulting in “blacking-out.” The emphasis was on safety for them and their friends — they had a desire to have fun while still maintaining authenticity and a sense of self-respect:

I let myself enjoy drinking and parties more, while still keeping an eye out for friends. I never wanted to drink so much that I blacked-out, and I never have. I like to remember my nights and not feel horrible in the morning.

I drink recreationally, usually on Friday or Saturday nights and sometimes on a weeknight. 

I would see my friends at parties get to a point where they needed help to get home. That has definitely contributed to the way I view alcohol and getting intoxicated. I love drinking with friends and having a good time, but it puts a bad feeling in my stomach when people get black-out drunk.

For safety, I never really drank much at bars, but I felt more comfortable with the people I was with to take care of me should I get drunk.

As priorities shift

College is a time of tremendous academic, professional, social, and personal growth and discovery. Unsurprisingly, students’ priorities do not remain stagnant in college. As they study abroad or dedicate time to a senior thesis or aim for a coveted position in a campus club or even just mature in the values they hold, their perspectives on alcohol and its role in their lives tend to shift, too:

I chose not to drink my first year of college, but then I studied abroad at the start of my sophomore year and became more comfortable with alcohol. It gave me a chance to try drinking in a calmer environment and see that I could have a drink without losing control. I was 21 when my junior year began.That year, I drank much more often than was healthy, but by senior year I was able to find a healthy balance.

I slowed down as my course load got intense and I needed to study more.

Once I turned 21 and got in my major, the idea of going out every weekend and drinking simmered down tremendously. My friends and I were satisfied staying in our dorm to drink wine and watch a movie.

Once my friends and I hit junior and senior years, we became more invested in our classes than going out every weekend.

The dominant narrative around alcohol on college campuses — that most students drink excessively and without self-awareness — does not reflect most students’ experience. Every student I surveyed named how their interactions with alcohol have changed over the course of their time on campus. From abstinence to moderate drinking, students are making intentional decisions around alcohol that support, rather than impede, their growth in becoming the people they hope to be.

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