7 Ways to Stay in Touch with School Friends When You Go to University

One of the hardest things about going to university is leaving your school friends behind.

You might have known them since the start of secondary school or even since primary school, but going to different universities makes maintaining any friendship difficult. There are the challenges of distance, whether you’re a couple of hours apart, at different ends of the country, or even on different continents. But possibly greater are the challenges of maintaining a friendship that’s based on proximity and shared experiences at school when those shared experiences are coming to an end, and you’ll be meeting new people and making fresh memories instead.
It’s not all bad news, of course; one of the great things about university is the speed with which you get to know new people and make new friends. It’s been claimed that a fifth of British people meet their future spouse at university. It’s bittersweet, but you might find that your university friendships come to be built on stronger foundations than your school friendships were.
All the same, if your school friendships survive your years apart at university, then you’ve got a good shot at keeping them for life. If you’re heading to university soon, or you’re a brand-new fresher trying to figure out how to stay in touch with people who are already drifting apart, here are our tips.

1. Visit them in their university cities

It might seem obvious, but visiting our friends where they’ve moved to is something we often neglect when we first go to university. Rail fares are expensive, coaches take a long time, and weekends can seem too precious to give up. But travelling to see your school friends is one of the best ways to keep in touch with them, because then you have the opportunity not only to see them and spend time with them, but to get to know the new context in which they’re living. You’ll get to see their student halls, try out their attempts at cooking, see how they spend their free time now and above all – get to meet their new friends. That means that when you text or email each other, their new friends won’t just be a list of names that are meaningless to you; they’ll be people you’ve met and (hopefully) like as well.
We’ve written before about how to travel for less as a student, so take a look at that article for some brilliant money-saving ideas. Make your trip to see your friend as stress-free as possible by booking well in advance and making sure that you bring a sleeping bag if you’re planning on staying the night, in case the alternative is topping and tailing in a narrow single bed. And if your friend invites you to stay with them, be sure to return the favour. Aside from anything else, it can be a great opportunity to see your university city from a tourist’s perspective.

2. Go away together

One of the problems with staying in touch with school friends when you’re at university is that you’re probably more used to spending time with them as a group than as individuals. There may be some in the group who you’re closer to than others, including some whose company you enjoy but where it would be awkward to go and visit them to spend time one-on-one. Coordinating visits to one friend’s university as a group can be tricky, especially if you’re very spread out, and it can become unfair to those of you who have much further to travel.

One solution is to pick a destination where none of you now live, and visit it together. Discount flights can be great for this, especially if you’re not too picky about where it is that you go; it can help to focus on the company, rather than the destination. Particularly cheap places to fly to can include Ireland, the Netherlands and for some reason Oslo, though it can be expensive to stay there. If you’re happy to fly to a smaller airport and rent a self-catering holiday home for a week, you might well find that the costs of your stay, split between the group, are not significantly greater than the train fare might have been to visit your friends on the other side of the country. It’s best not to decide too much of this by committee, but simply to trust one person to organise it, who in exchange for the hassle of making the plans, gets to make choices on behalf of the group about locations and destination.

3. Start a group on social media

This is a suggestion to be careful with – while some chatty, close-knit groups of friends will get on very well with something like a WhatsApp group, for others it can represent a rapid descent into Notification Hell, where they have to decide between more notifications than they have time to read, or being shut off from the group by opting out. This can be unkind, especially to your more introverted friends, those with full university schedules or those who dislike typing on their phones.

A Facebook group, or something similar, can be friendlier, especially if you make a rule that nothing really important gets discussed there without your friends getting some other form of heads-up. Funny stories, photos and memes are in, alerts that someone’s had a break-up or that you’re planning a holiday together are out – because it won’t help you stay friends with people if they miss out on those things just because most of you are studying humanities but they’re in sciences and have therefore been in labs with no access to their phone.
For a very old-fashioned option, try a Yahoo group where you can all email a single address to get your emails sent out to everyone. It’s easier than social media, where you might not all use the same apps, and you don’t need to worry about accidentally missing someone out of a long list of cc’d email addresses.

4. Pick a day to see them every year

Right now it might seem impossible that you’d go a year without seeing some of your friends, but it’s likely to be something that will creep up on you quite soon. There are excuses every month: September, you’re settling in; October and November, you don’t want to miss out on the parties; December is full of Christmas; January and February are too cold; March, you’re catching up on essays; April, revising for exams; May and June, sitting exams; July and August, away on holiday – and then it’s September again. You might not even intend to make excuses, but it can still be remarkably hard to find the time.

One way to beat this is to pick a day every year that you and your friends will be in the same place (most likely, the town where you went to school), and you’ll spend time together there. Around Christmas is a good bet, because you’re likely to all be home visiting your parents at that point anyway. But don’t just say ‘we’ll definitely see each other at Christmas’ – pick an actual day, whether it’s Boxing Day, or whatever the last Sunday before Christmas Day is, or something along those lines that you can remember without needing to check your diary. If Christmas doesn’t suit, try picking a bank holiday when you know no one will be in lectures; while something like Valentine’s Day might seem like a cute ironic choice, it stands much less chance of becoming an enduring tradition.

5. Write letters to them

Letters are a lovely way of staying in touch. There’s not much you’d say in a letter that you wouldn’t say in an email (and unlike the email, the letter will be out of date by the time it arrives) but when the majority of what you and your friends are getting through the post is bills and notices of flat inspections, a handwritten letter from a friend is deeply enjoyable.

But writing letters is something that can easily go wrong, as well – for instance, if you spend too much time on them. A 16-page letter, enclosed with a small, deeply meaningful gift, with prose that will make your friend feel as if they’re in the room with you – this is lovely, but you can really only do it once or you’ll be running out of things to say. It also piles on the pressure on your friend to write something just as good. If writing a letter starts to feel like a chore rather than a pleasure (because, for instance, they’re trying to write as much as you did) then there’s going to be procrastination, and they won’t be able to answer your original letter any more because it’ll have been three weeks and most of the things you’ve said in it won’t be relevant any more.
Instead, keep your letters reasonably short and don’t try too hard if you want the letter-writing habit to stick. Because we send and receive proper letters so rarely, there’s the temptation to use them to show off – but if you want to maintain a friendship by letter, you need to remember that communication is the primary goal.

6. Try quirky ways of staying in touch

One great problem with trying to stay in touch with your school friends is that it’s usually less fun to spend time with someone who’s far away than someone who’s right there with you, as your university friends are. Another is that, as we discussed above, the shared experiences that a friendship is built on have mostly come to an end. But there are ways of getting around both of these while staying in touch; it just requires a little bit more planning.

For instance, you might want to set up a book club among your friends. Or you could try watching films with a Skype chat open, so you can chat while the film is playing (you probably don’t want to do this with a film you’d really like to concentrate on). There are lots of other possible shared hobbies that you can enjoy long-distance like this, such as making crafts and sending them to each other, or going on photo scavenger hunts in your respective cities and sharing the pictures with each other.
These are also the kinds of activities that you might be able to get your new friends at university to be involved in, which can be very helpful in retaining old and new friendships. If you can blend your university and school friends into a group who are all happy to spend time together, it makes staying in touch a lot easier, since you don’t need to worry about neglecting one set of friends in order to hang out with the other.  
There are lots of articles out there filled with ideas for couples in long-distance relationships, like choosing each others’ dinners or playing board games online, that work just as well for people trying to maintain friendships over a distance. If you’re doing something that means that when you next see each other in person, you’ll be able to say “remember when we…” without resorting to an anecdote from school, then it’s good news for your friendship.

7. Meet them at ORA

If you want to ensure you stay in touch with school friends even if you’re not in the same city or even the same country as them, an excellent way of doing that could be to meet them for two weeks on a summer course in Oxford. Surrounded by students from over a hundred different countries around the world, you’ll get to study a fascinating new subject or explore a subject you already know and love from a brand new perspective. With lots of activities going on, there are plenty of chances to catch up with your friends even if you’re not studying the same course. You can go every year and be sure of getting two weeks to catch up with old friends – and make some new ones.