Roommates: A Big Part of College Life

By Patricia Gorden Neill - June 13th, 2013

If you’re nervous about living with a roommate in college, you’re absolutely in the mainstream. Naturally, all incoming freshmen are fretful about this, but try to relax. Millions of college kids for decades upon decades have lived with roommates and enjoyed themselves and so will you. Like all new things, this sharing a room with a total stranger can cause anxiety, but within a month or two, it will seem like the most natural thing in the world and you’ll wonder why you were so nervous.

Most colleges have tried a number of methods of hooking up roommates, and have found over the years that random assignment of roommates works as well or better than any other method. When you apply for residential housing at your college, you’ll receive a form to fill out that includes some information on your preferences such as if you are substance free or a smoker, when you prefer going to bed and getting up, your approach to cleanliness, whether you are an introvert or extrovert, your preferred study habits and whether you prefer your room as a hub for socializing or for studying. Be honest answering these questions. The housing folks will use your answers to line you up with a roommate with approximately the same habits and preferences.

If you grew up with brothers and sisters, you already know about the potential hot spots in a roommate relationship, such as using each other’s stuff or eating each other’s last snack. Roommates are different from siblings, of course, but a lot of what you’ve learned dealing with your brothers and sisters will also apply to your new relationship with your roommate. If you are an only child, all of this may be new to you, but rest easy, it’s all doable.

You and your roommate may become the best of friends, establishing a strong relationship that lasts your lifetime. Or you may not. That’ll depend on the two of you. Chances are that you’ll get along with some bumpy spots and you’ll end up being pretty good friends, but there’s no telling at the beginning. You have to play it by ear as you go along and see what happens. Don’t go into it thinking you’re bound to be best friends, though. That’s setting yourself up for disappointment if it doesn’t work out. Just be open and friendly and do your best.

Here’s some initial tips for establishing a good relationship with your roommate.

Set up Ground Rules

In the beginning of your relationship, spend some time with your roommate talking about basic rules for sharing your space. Discuss the things that might make you angry. Most people want to be asked before someone else borrows or uses their stuff. If this describes you, say so. Not respecting each other’s things is a perennial conflict in roommate relationships and it is best to settle the ground rules right off the bat. Discuss visitors to the room and how often. If you like studying time to be quiet, say so. Your roommate might like to study with a group and want to invite her group over every night. Obviously, you two will need to talk about this preferably before it becomes an issue. Do either of you stay up late or go to bed early? Is one of you a clean freak and the other a slob? Find out and set the rules. While you’ll still run into conflict areas, at least try to discuss ways of dealing with it.

Talk Things Through

When something starts to bother you, that’s the time to discuss it. You may find this uncomfortable at first, but it is better to sort things out when it’s a small issue rather than let it blow up into a larger, angrier quarrel. The key to avoiding really rough conflict is to talk about it with your roommate. Getting through the initial awkwardness is part of growing up, so speak up in an open friendly manner. Try not to accuse; at this time you’re merely pointing out minor things that are bugging you. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Don’t blame or get defensive if you can avoid it. This is the time to talk openly and calmly.

The Golden Rule

Respect each other’s stuff and each other’s way of doing things. Treat your roommate as you would like to be treated. This simple behavior pattern will head off more conflict than any other, but of course, it is not as easy as it sounds. Keep trying; believe it or not, it gets easier as you continue doing it.

Expect Change

As you get used to your new situation, being on your own away from parents, having to be responsible for yourself about everything, dealing with the stress of papers and tests and meeting many new friends, you’ll start changing and growing. Where you might have been shy at first, now you’re much more open to meeting new people. While you might have been wild in high school, you now find yourself settling down and really getting into your academic studies. Everyone changes somewhat during their college years, and these changes begin taking effect soon after you come to school.

Take it to the RA

Your residence advisor lives in your dorm and is a student just like you except maybe a little older and a bit wiser. If you and your roommate run into a difficulty that the two of you can’t resolve, then go and talk to your RA. He or she is there to help you, and they are trained in conflict resolution. They’ve been there, had the fights with the roommate and can help the two of you find a solution. If your conflict can’t be reconciled, your RA can help you start the process to find another living arrangement. However, it is unlikely you’ll need to go that far. Conflicts between roommates are a common factor in college life, one that nearly everyone learns to handle. As often as not, roommates get to be much better friends once they’ve worked through a conflict or two.

Enjoy Yourself

Even if you never become best friends, you and your roommate will share many special times together, giggling madly over something dumb, eating brownies at 3 a.m. in the morning, helping each other when one of you gets the flu and turning in each other’s homework when one of you can’t make it to class. This is a relationship to cherish; it is the one that will help you grow as a person more than any other whether you become best friends or not. Being a roommate is a big part of college life, so enjoy it and learn from it.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.