15. Getting What You Need: Identifying Which of Your Needs Are—and Aren’t—Being Met in College

Before you can start working towards achieving what you want, you have to make sure you are getting what you need to be your best. Here we look at psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and apply that rubric to your college experience. You won’t be able to focus on shaping your identity or building your personal brand unless all your needs are being met. If you determine yours aren’t, this module suggests resources for changing your life so that all your basic needs will be fulfilled.

Knowing your needs

In order to brand yourself, and to understand what matters to you, it’s crucial to examine your needs.  Abraham Maslow developed a theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which states that you must have your basic needs met before you can worry about your higher-level needs. Starting at the bottom, each level of need must be met in order for someone to be able to consider—and work toward—meeting the next level.

Maslow’s theory illustrates that if you have physiological needs—you are hungry, tired, cold, or hot, for example—you won’t be able to concentrate on much else. If your physiological needs are met but you have safety needs — you don’t feel safe in your environment—you can’t worry much about fulfilling your need for belonging and love.

If all three of the lower levels of need are being fulfilled, then you can start to focus on esteem, which is where personal branding can really start to take place. This level of need involves being able to feel that you do your job well, respect yourself and others, and can align the work you do with your sense of self. This alignment is absolutely necessary in order to authentically build your personal brand.

The highest level of need is self-actualization. Maslow described self-actualization as the act of becoming everything that you’re capable of becoming. Striving toward fulfilling self-actualization is the goal of personal branding. If you achieve that goal, you get to be who you really are, and you’ll shine brightly.

To help connect the hierarchy of needs with what happens in college, We’ve created the table below, which illustrates what needs fall into each of Maslow’s categories and then looks at the hierarchy through a college-specific lens.


Considering Your Current Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Hierarchy of College Needs

Food, shelter, sleep, water, oxygen, freedom of movement, a moderate temperature
College Physiological Needs: 
Can pay tuition and expenses, have nourishing food, breaks to eat or rest, and study hours that provide time to concentrate
Security, stability, safety of body and family, freedom from violence, rituals and routines
College Safety:
Grade security and no threat of flunking out; campus safety including a space free of physical violence, psychological abuse, and hazardous toxic exposure; property safety; regular and predictable class and study hours
Belonging and Love:
Friendships, family, community, romantic or sexual intimacy
College Belonging:
Having positive relationships with fellow students, professors, and college administration; feeling you fit in with the college culture; having an affinity to the mission of the university
Self-confidence, respect of others and respect for others, achievement, recognition
College Esteem:
Positive feedback in class, good grades, new levels of responsibility in work or internships, respect for fellow students, a feeling of being respected, alignment of studies with sense of self
Knowledge, understanding, peace, self-fulfillment, life mission, pursuit of inner talents, creativity, beauty
College Self-Actualization:
Fully using your talents in your chosen area of study, contributing to the greater good, knowing your purpose, finding meaning in your work, having a sense of mastery

Needs direct your feelings and influence your values and motivation. People often stop themselves from trying something new or taking risks for fear of putting their basic needs in jeopardy. For example, you may wonder, “Can I add this extra commitment to my schedule, or take this challenging class and not flunk out of school?” or “If I join this club, will everyone laugh at me?” Use this chart as a tool to help you next time you’re figuring out which goals to set or extra responsibilities to go take on. 

Determining what you need will help you understand what you value and where you want to set your goals. Take some time to answer these questions, all of which fall into one larger inquiry—What needs of mine are being met, and which aren’t?

  • Are my physiological needs being met? Am I getting good nutrition, sleep, rest, and a comfortable place and time to study?

If you answered no to any of these, before continuing on to the next question, stop and consider what you can do to solve your problem and have one of your needs met. For example, if you can’t sleep because your roommate parties around the clock, try to talk to him or her and set ground rules. If that doesn’t work, turn to your residential advisor to request a room change or reassignment. You may even have to get creative—get a note from your doctor documenting your lack of sleep, or move in with a friend until the college can accommodate your needs.

  • Is my need for safety being met? Is my life free of the threat of physical violence, psychological abuse, are my belongings safe, and is my academic career at risk?

Again, if you answered no to any of these—or yes to your academic standing being at risk—work out a plan to change that situation. Start a petition to insist that the college put a streetlight on the shortcut home from the library, for example, or if your academic career is at risk, meet with your professors or advisor to see what you can do to turn that around as quickly as possible. You are more capable of instigating change than you know! 

  • Is my need for love and belonging being met? Do I have friends, people who share my interests and support my efforts? Do I feel I fit in to this school? Do I feel I can talk to my professors?

If you answered no to any of these and would like to build more of a social network, join some new clubs or pursue some new activities, reach out to likeminded students, go to professors’ office hours. If you answered no to these questions and you feel lonely and isolated, seek out the mental health counseling options available—for free!—on your campus.

  • Is my need for self-esteem being met? Do I feel good about myself and others?

If you answered no, and can identify the behaviors or circumstances that are making you feel less than great about yourself, seek out ways to change them. If you don’t feel good about your academic performance, for example, can you find a study buddy, tutor, teaching assistant or professor to help you master the material that’s giving you trouble? If you feel your problems go deeper than a circumstance you can change on your own, again, this is an opportunity to utilize the many free counseling options available at your university or college.

  • Is my need for self-actualization being met? Do I feel I’m making the most of my talents and abilities every day? Do I have a sense of purpose or mastery?

It’s ok if you can’t wake up every day and answer yes to all of these questions; few people can. Striving towards satisfying our needs is a section most of us will be working on our entire lives.

Checking in with your needs hierarchy regularly to see where your needs are being met and where they’re not is an exercise that can help you see where you are and, by making adjustments when your needs aren’t being met, can also help you get where you’re going.