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How to Drink Less in College

Reading Time: 10 minutes

For many college students, drinking alcohol is a central part of college life, not to mention a central part of early adulthood. Drinking can feel like a liberating and exciting activity for young adults branching out on their own. But excessive drinking as a young adult can have dangerous consequences, in both the short and long term.

When college students drink too much, they’re vulnerable to risky behaviors, mental and physical health problems, poor academic performance, and even alcohol use disorder. With intention and forethought, however, it’s possible for college students and other young adults to monitor their drinking so it doesn’t get out of control. Read on to learn how to drink less in college.

Key Takeaways

  • College students engage in peer pressure drinking and also drink to reduce stress or self-medicate mental health issues.
  • Students who drink to excess can experience a range of negative consequences, such as poor academic performance, physical injury, health problems, and sexual assault.
  • To control their drinking, college students need to focus on why they want to drink less, identify their drinking triggers, and develop strategies for drinking less in college.
  • If college students can’t stop drinking even when they try to, they may have alcohol use disorder, which require professional treatment. 

Stats on College and Drinking 

Despite its many risks, drinking is one of the most common social activities among college students. According to a 2022 National College Health Assessment report, 71 percent of undergraduate college students have drunk alcohol in their lifetime. And the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 1 in 4 college students between the ages of 18 and 22 engaged in binge drinking. 

Binge drinking involves consuming an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time. For men, binge drinking equates to drinking five or more alcoholic beverages in two hours. For women, binge drinking equates to four or more standard drinks within the same time frame. 

While binge drinking has historically been more common among young men, the tide is turning. The NSDUH survey showed that 1 in 4 males and nearly 1 in 3 females engaged in binge drinking during the same one-month period. Alcohol abuse among women is clearly on the rise, but all genders are at risk. 

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Why Do College Students Drink So Much?

Some young people abuse alcohol in high school, and begin drinking even more heavily in college. An especially vulnerable time for harmful underage drinking is the first six weeks of a young adult’s freshman year in college. Little to no parental oversight, the widespread availability of alcohol on college campuses, and inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws are some of the reasons why college students drink so much.

In addition, many young adults drink because of peer pressure. That’s especially true for those attending schools with strong Greek systems (fraternities and sororities). Alcohol consumption becomes a way to fit in, gain acceptance, and cope with social inhibitions. Drinking can also be a negative way to cope with the effects of stress and academic pressure. Moreover, students suffering from anxietydepression, or emotional issues like perfectionism may self-medicate with alcohol rather than dealing with their issues head on. 

One study found that college students drank more when they were anxious and depressed. They also drank more when they saw their friends drinking heavily. Drinking week after week causes young people to build a tolerance to alcohol. As a result, they need to consume more and more for it to have the same effect. 

Negative Consequences of Drinking for College Students

Many college students believe college and drinking go hand in hand. Partying with friends feels like an ideal way to blow off steam and have a good time. While most students don’t expect alcohol to be a problem, the negative consequences of drinking too much in college often become apparent before they know it. Here are some of the reasons why young adults should learn how to drink less in college.

Poor Academic Performance

It’s tough to remember facts for a mid-term exam or write an essay when you’re hungover. Moderate to heavy drinking can affect students’ ability to think clearly and recall what they’ve learned. It can also drain the of the energy they need to perform at their best. Excessive drinking in college can lead to sleep deprivation, or sleeping too much rather than studying or attending class. Ultimately, how much drinking college students do can ultimately affect whether they pass or fail their courses. Those who fail may have to pay thousands of dollars to retake courses, and may even have to graduate late.

Physical Injury

As blood alcohol content rises, so does the risk of injury. When they’re unsteady on their feet, young people might fall down and break bones or get concussions. And when they’re drunk, college students are more likely to make poor decisions. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over 3 million college students between the ages of 18 and 24 drive under the influence of alcohol each year. In so doing, they putthemselves at risk for injury and death. Drinking and driving not only endangers drivers and passengers, but everyone on the road. 

Becoming a Victim of Sexual Assault

Because alcohol lowers inhibitions, it makes people vulnerable to physical or sexual assault more easily. Victims are sometimes too drunk to fight back. They may even black out before they know what’s occurred. According to the NIAAA, nearly 700,000 students between 18 and 24 are assaulted every year by another student who had been drinking. And that estimate may be low, as alcohol-related sexual assaults are underreported. NIAAA also reports that 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault during college. Most of these assaults involve alcohol or other substances.

Developing Alcohol Use Disorder

Frequent heavy drinking significantly increases the chance of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD), also referred to as alcoholism. People with AUD aren’t ablet to drink less or stop drinking—despite the negative impact on their grades, jobs, finances, health, safety, and relationships. And young people who binge drink are more likely to develop the disorder. 

Know the Facts

13% of full-time college students between 18 and 22 meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Mental Health Problems

Drinking in college can make existing anxiety and depression worse, and even trigger depression. There’s even a condition known as “hangxiety,” referring to the feelings of shame and worry that often plague young adults after a night of heavy drinking. According to one study, college students who drink excessively have lower life satisfaction and more mental health problems. Research also shows that indicates that college students who drink alcohol more frequently and in higher quantities are at an increased risk for suicide. The researchers stated that “alcohol use is a strong risk factor for suicidal ideation and behaviors.” And this was true even when the student hadn’t experienced depressive symptoms prior to the problematic drinking. 

Criminal Activity

Law-abiding, conscientious students can behave quite differently under the influence of alcohol than they would otherwise. In addition to driving under the influence or committing sexual assault, those who drink too much or binge drink may engage in battery, vandalism, property damage, and other criminal activities. Consequently, they may find themselves in trouble with their school or the police. That can lead to large fines, suspension, expulsion, probation, or even jail time. 

Serious Health Problems

The effects of heavy drinking aren’t always immediate. Months or years can pass before the damage is apparent. Long-term alcohol abuse, however, can lead to liver damage, high blood pressure, heart and vascular diseases, and some cancers. In the short term, excessive alcohol intake can cause alcohol poisoning, which can lead to death. Hence, deciding to drink less in college can be a gift to your future self.

10 Tips for How to Drink Less in College

What starts out as a casual and light-hearted way to socialize becomes problematic for some college students. As they begin to drink alcohol more regularly, they may notice they’re consuming larger quantities. Before they know it, one drink has become two. Three drinks have become four. Pacing themselves becomes harder. At times, they may even struggle to stop drinking altogether. 

To drink less, it’s important to think it through and have a plan. Here are some ways for college students to reduce their alcohol consumption. 

#1: Identify Your Motivation

It’s easier to monitor your alcohol intake if you know why you’re doing it. Think about your short- and long-term goals. Do you want to play college sports at a high level? Maintain a good GPA so you can keep your scholarship? Get into medical school? Maybe you want to drink less to improve your mental health or because drinking interferes with an important relationship. Get clear about what matters to you and identify how alcohol gets in the way.

#2: Understand Your Triggers

Certain people, places, things, and feelings can make you want to drink, or drink to excess. Anger, sadness, and loneliness are common triggers. If your relationship with a particular friend usually involves alcohol, you might feel the desire to drink anytime you see them. Bars, certain restaurants—even specific rooms within a house or dorm—can trigger the urge to drink because you associate them with alcohol. Using another substance, like marijuana, can also heighten the craving. When you understand your triggers, you can take steps to plan for them or avoid them altogether.

#3: Set Firm Guidelines

Setting guidelines around how much you’ll allow yourself to drink in different situations can help you stay on track. You may decide not to drink on weeknights. You may choose not to drink in certain settings, like a frat party. Or you could try what’s known as low-risk alcohol use. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines low-risk alcohol use as no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. (A five-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce bottle of beer, or a shot glass of hard liquor is considered a standard drink). One option is to follow the 20-minute rule—taking a 20-minute break after you’ve finished one drink before buying or consuming the next one.

#4: Tell It Like It Is

Whether you’re abstaining from alcohol or you’ve decided to stop at one drink, be honest about your decision. If someone asks if you’d like a drink, simply say, “No, thanks. I’m all set.” If they probe further and ask why you’re not drinking, you’re not obligated to offer a detailed explanation. You can say, “I’m not drinking tonight,” “I’ve had enough,” or “I’m sober.” Steer clear of anyone who gives you a hard time. Others may want to join you in learning how to drink less in college. 

#5: Prepare an Excuse

If you feel uncomfortable saying no to alcohol when it’s offered, give yourself permission to tell a white lie. You might say you have an early class in the morning. Or you could blame it on medications you’re taking, like antibiotics, painkillers, or cold and flu medications that interact negatively with alcohol. You could also blame it on your budget. Do what you need to do in order to reduce your alcohol intake.

#6: Switch to a Mocktail

If you’re concerned about going overboard, have one drink and then switch to mocktails, non-alcoholic drinks. Or skip the alcohol altogether and start with mocktails. Mocktails are a wise choice if you tend to give into peer pressure. You’re less likely to be offered a drink if you’re holding one. No one needs to know you’re drinking club soda and lime, cranberry juice and soda, or an alcohol-free beer. The truth is, most people won’t care. What’s important is that you won’t drink to excess. 

#7: Be the Designated Driver

If you’re the one driving everyone home after the party, you have to stay sober. Your friends won’t try to convince you to drink because they know you’re looking out for them. But if you find yourself struggling with not drinking even after you’ve committed to driving others home, you may have gotten to the point where your drinking is a problem. 

#8: Socialize with People Who Aren’t Drinkers

One way to drink less in college is to hang out with people who drink little or not at all. While many college students drink, it’s still possible to find college students who don’t. A survey conducted at the University of Florida found that approximately 42 percent of students had either never consumed alcohol or had not done so within the past two weeks. If most of your friends drink, look for activities that don’t involve alcohol. Play a sport. Join a photography club. Get involved with a dance or theater troupe. Look for activities that will provide fun things to do at night besides drinking. Plus, you’ll meet peers whose social life doesn’t revolve around alcohol.

#9: Manage Your Stress

When they’re overwhelmed by academic pressure or want to loosen up in social situations, some students grab a drink. Young adults often use alcohol to reduce stress or numb difficult feelings. For some students, drinking less in college may require finding new ways to manage stress. Exercise is one of the best options because it promotes the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Mind-body approaches such as meditation, tai chi, or yoga also alleviate stress. Here are some ways to reduce stress in college.

#10: Seek Professional Help

For some college students and other young adults, understanding their triggers and setting guidelines aren’t enough. They continue to engage in risky behavior, neglect their responsibilities, and damage their relationships. If you can’t curb your drinking no matter how hard you try, you may need professional help. Seek out a mental health counselor, a 12-step meeting like Alcoholics Anonymous, or an alcohol treatment center. For people with alcohol use disorder usually can’t quit drinking on their own.

Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol addiction looks different for different people. Some people can drink just once a month but can’t stop when they start. Others can drink more often but have no problem monitoring their intake. Essentially, people with an alcohol use disorder can’t control their alcohol consumption, even when they try to. And they keep drinking despite the negative impact on their relationships, grades, health, and other aspects of their life. 

There are specific criteria for alcohol use disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Whether your disorder is characterized as mild, moderate, or severe depends on how many criteria you meet. Some of these include:

  • Drinking more alcohol than you intended to drink on more than one occasion
  • Cutting back on or giving up activities you enjoy in order to drink
  • Continuing to drink alcohol even though it makes you feel anxious or depressed, or makes a health problem worse
  • Craving alcohol—wanting a drink so badly you can’t think about anything else
  • Suffering from withdrawal symptoms like shakiness, nausea, sweating, or trouble sleeping when the effects of alcohol wear off

If you find yourself repeatedly on a “college binge,” experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms, or can’t stop drinking even though you’ve tried, you might need professional treatment. Reaching out for help is an act of courage and one of the strongest things you can do. 

Treatment for Young Adult Alcohol Abuse and Mental Health Issues at Newport Institute

At Newport Institute, we treat the underlying causes of alcohol use disorder and the mental health issues that typically accompany AUD. Our clinical team doesn’t just address symptoms. They help young adults come to grips with the internal and external conditions that set the stage for their alcohol problems in the first place. 

Our alcohol rehab programs are located across the country, with more programs in development. We utilize an integrated approach to help young people process past trauma and develop healthy coping skills. Our alcohol addiction and mental health treatment can include individual therapygroup therapyfamily therapy, life skills programming, and experiential activities like Adventure Therapy, yoga, art, and music. 

Our residential treatment programs serve young adults between the ages of 18 and 32. Stepping away from stressors and triggers into a supportive environment is the first step in finding long-term recovery. Contact us today to find out more and schedule a free assessment. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is drinking in college okay?
  • Is it normal for college students to drink a lot?
  • Is it possible not to drink in college?
  • How do I train myself to drink less?
  • What is the 20-minute rule for drinking less?


National College Health Assessment, 2022.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2021.

American College Health Association. 2020.

Front. Psychiatry. 2021 Feb; 12.

Addict Behav. 2018 Sep; 84: 151–159.

Ment Health Subst Use. 2014; 7(1): 59–72.

Co-Occurring Disorders / August 16, 2023

Newport Institute

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