Starting college can be a tumultuous experience. You have to deal with new responsibilities and growing independence, a challenging course load — and, of course, the social scene. When a roommate is thrown into the mix, it may feel like you're juggling all that stuff while living in a 6' x 6' box with a virtual stranger.

But having a roommate doesn't need to be one more thing to worry about. When students go into their living situations with realistic expectations and a willingness to compromise, things can work out just fine.

Great Expectations

For many people heading off to college, movies and books are their only reference for the whole roommate experience. So they might think a roommate will be either (a) a complete freak who makes living at the library seem attractive, or (b) a BFF who will be by their side every step of the way as they traverse the world of parties, finals, and crowded laundry rooms.

The truth is, roommates tend to fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

So try to keep your roommie expectations realistic. And do your research: If your school gives you information about who your roommate (or roommates) will be, try to talk to or meet each other before move-in day. This gives you a chance to paint a picture of what living together will be like.

Talk about the practical stuff — like who's bringing what so you don't show up on move-in day with two microwaves and two refrigerators. And try to get a feel for what your roommie's goals and lifestyle are — ask what he or she did in high school and talk about what you both expect from college.

Talk Early, Talk Well

When you first meet your roommate, chances are you'll be on your best behavior. You want to get along, since this is the person who's going to be sharing your living space for the next year. But try to think ahead to potential worst-case scenarios, too.

For example, imagine it's 2 AM and you're working on a paper that's due in 8 hours. Your roommate comes in from a party and wants to continue the party in your room. At times like these, you won't be feeling particularly benevolent. That's why talking about issues that might come up ahead of time — and respecting each other's wishes when the time comes — is so important.

Talk about the things that are really important to you, and make sure your roommate understands. Then encourage him or her to do the same. For instance, does it drive you nuts when people take things without asking first? Does perfume trigger your asthma? Let your roommate know these types of things from the start.

Here are some things to talk to your roommate about so that each of has a feel for the other's likes, dislikes, and habits. Think about additional questions to ask that are important to you (a sibling or friend who knows you well may be able to help out if you're looking for ideas):

  • Are you a morning or night person?
  • Can you sleep if music is playing or the lights are on?
  • Are you a neat freak or is the floor your laundry basket?
  • How do you feel about sharing food, clothes, or school supplies?
  • How do you feel about overnight guests of the same sex? Of the opposite sex? How long can they stay?

The key is to be honest, and to realize that you'll both have to compromise on some things. Let's say you usually don't go to sleep until 2 AM, but your roommate is counting sheep by 11 PM. Respect that — have a lights-out at midnight rule, and use a focused-beam desk light and headphones if you really have to study or listen to tunes.

When you have these conversations about your expectations, write down what you both decide so that it's clear later on if you need something to refer to.

The Day-to-Day

In the beginning, the urge for many roommates is to stay close. They eat their meals together, attend activity fairs together, and go to the campus parties together. Neither roommate knows that many other people, and so they stick together.

But as the semester continues, things may change. After a while, you may feel comfortable enough with each other to show the true you and drop the best-behavior façade you maintained to make yourselves get along. You might start hanging out with fellow classmates, or join a sorority or fraternity. It is perfectly normal for you and your roommate to drift apart as you both learn to stand on your own two feet.

Whatever ups and downs your relationship goes through, maintaining respect for each other is vital. Respect is especially important if your relationship with your roommate doesn't have that many ups. Stick to your roommate agreement. Respect your roommate's space and needs, and chances are your roommate will respect yours.

But even the most respectful roommates have spats. Anytime you guys can't resolve things on your own, don't hesitate to get your resident advisor involved. RAs aren't there to just bust people for breaking the rules — they'll help out with the small stuff, too.

Big Problems in a Little Room

Sometimes there are problems above and beyond your roommate eating your last pack of noodles. If your roomie starts getting into trouble and brings it back to the dorm, it can affect you negatively.

Here are issues that some college students deal with, and tips on how to get through them.

Your roommate breaks dorm rules. If a roommate does drugs or drinks alcohol in the room, you're at risk of getting in trouble, too. You don't have to make your roommate stop — you often can't. But you can encourage him or her not to do it in your room. If your roommate blows you off, it's a good idea to go to your RA.

Your roommate has unhealthy habits. Living in such proximity often means getting to know more about each other than you might want. Some people bring bad habits to school; others develop them once they're there. Students who can't handle the extra pressures of college may start smoking, develop eating disorders, injure themselves, abuse drugs, binge drink, or become depressed.

Although no one is their roommate's keeper, you do your roomies a favor by getting help if you notice signs that they're hurting themselves. You don't have to be the one to get a roommie to stop or to take him or her to the student health center. But you can tell your RA, who'll take it from there.

You and your roommate are too different. Many colleges are pretty diverse places. Your roommate may be very different in terms of religion, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, values, or countless other things. Most people are uneasy at first when faced with new situations and people. It's completely normal to be uncomfortable with your roommate's differences — he or she probably feels the same way.

Before you freak out, though, give yourself some time to get used to things. The key is to respect each other's differences, keep an open mind, and try not to let any preconceptions prevent you from seeing your roommate for who he or she is — just another college student, trying to navigate through the world.

It's also a great opportunity to get to know someone who is different. After you graduate, when you are on the job, you can't control who you work with. If you allow yourself to learn about and be open to new types of people in college, you'll find it can prepare you for the real world.

You simply can't live together anymore. Sometimes, people are just incompatible. Depending on your school, it may be possible to change roommates. Often, you have to meet with an RA and/or a dean before you can move. And then you'll have to relive move-in day all over again in the midst of your classes, activities, and the bustle of daily life.

Think about changing roommates as a last resort, and be prepared for it to not work out. There are very few instances where it's easy to get a new roommate; short of your roommate coming at you with scissors, you will probably be encouraged to just talk things through.

Life with a roomie can be both a blessing and a curse. You'll have moments when you're glad to have someone to procrastinate with. On other days, you might wish you could lock your roommate in the closet with his or her semester's worth of ripe laundry.

The secret to having more blessings than curses is compromise, maturity, and respect. Even when you're going through tough times with a roommate, look at it as a learning experience that will help you deal with challenging coworkers, bosses, and other people later in life.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: March 2009

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