College Relationships: Roommate tips for dorm life

The scene: Boxes are scattered all over the floor, contents spilling out.

The closet is packed with clothes, and the rest are hanging on the bathroom shower rod. Stereos, televisions, CD storage boxes and computers crowd desktops, dressers and even the beds. A futon blocks open the door, also piled with boxes and clothes.

Four college freshmen survey the utter confusion, each thinking, “Now what do we do?”

The months of college preparation are over and it’s finally moving day! This fall, 75 percent of you college freshmen will have moved into dorms, the majority living with a roommate for the first time in your lives.

Strangers thrown together from different worlds, you need to adjust to each other’s quirks, habits and schedules without driving each other crazy.

Adjusting to roommates and dorm life is easier when expectations are realistic, explains Paul Bradley, dean of residence life at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minn. “So many times we’ve seen students come into the dorm believing their roommates will be their friends for life, their best buddies. The roommates, on the other hand, may see the room only as a place to sleep since they already have a social network. Then it’s a mess; there’s hurt, confusion and tension.”

While some colleges attempt to match roommates based on information gathered on housing forms (majors, hobbies, regions of the country), a match is never guaranteed. It’s not unusual to end up with roommates who are stiff and structured, social butterflies and nose-in-the-book academics — all in one room.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

A key to successful adjustment is communication, Bradley says. “Communication is vital to any relationship, even roommates. They need to share openly on such issues as cleanliness, visitation, music, study time and lights out.”

“It’s best to talk about issues early,” says Joy Santee, a 2000 Northwestern graduate who lived in residence halls for two years. “Agree on perimeters and talk through issues before they become problems and get out of control.”

Resident hall assistants (RAs) sometimes provide opportunities for roommates to meet with each other to discuss expectations and issues. If not, Bradley advises, take the initiative and have an informal meeting with your roommates.

Once perimeters are established, it may be necessary to make adjustments as new issues arise. “We had a roommate who never did dishes, so we sat down as a group and initiated a policy about doing dishes,” Santee explains.

Bradley says another key to successful communication is setting up protocol for information exchange. “I suggest a message board near the phone with a calendar that can be filled in with who’s going to be gone on weekends or overnights, when visitors are coming, parties, work schedules. Be sure to write legibly all messages from visitors and phone calls.”

When There’s a Problem

A big part of the college experience is learning effective confrontational skills and initiating communication when there are problems. Bradley says most students don’t like to confront others. “Often they try to live with the problem or ignore it, but it can go too far and usually someone gets hurt,” he says.

Common aggravations include sloppiness, dividing food, visitors, personal space, music tastes and quiet time. When problems arise, try to solve them as a room first, Bradley explains. “Don’t beat around the bush or drop hints. Talk as a room, not belittling or ganging up on anyone. Be factual. Set or reiterate policies. But if problems persist, you may need to ask the RA to act as a liaison.”

However, incompatibility does happen. When you believe it is best to switch rooms, go through the proper channels with the RA. Be honest, yet tactful, with your roommates as to why you are leaving.

“Ask what their plans are because others could be thinking the same thing, which could eliminate the problem and you won’t have to move,” Bradley says. “Give some advance notice. It’s rude to announce at the last minute you’re moving out. It leaves others with guilt, confusion and a feeling of failure.”

Practical Advice

Whether it’s your first roommate arrangement or your fifth, Bradley and Santee do have practical advice to make dorm life harmonious.

1. Practice common courtesy when it comes to visitation. Establish policies or schedules, setting aside nights for quiet and study time. “This is where having a calendar on the message board really comes in handy,” Bradley emphasizes. “It minimizes surprising the roommate who comes home at midnight after a full day of classes and work wanting to get some sleep only to find a party going on. Planning ahead makes it possible for arranging other places to study or spend the night.”

2. Keep a balance of rights and compromise. Be flexible, but not at the expense of your studies or health. Honor your roommates’ rights to guests and socializing; after all, they are paying for the room, too.

3. Express issues and develop tactful, effective confrontation skills. Such skills will pay off in the future.

4. Whether you or your roommate has a car, set policies on borrowing the car or giving rides, taking into consideration gas, mechanical expenses and scheduling.

5. Set a policy about borrowing each other’s clothes to avoid problems when clothing is borrowed without asking.

6. Try not to get caught in the middle of roommates’ family issues. For example, a parent may call seeking “investigative” information about the roommate or the other parent. Avoid sharing information that could create tension, leading to further conflict. In most cases, it’s best to refer the parent to a more appropriate person, such as a college staff member.

As for the state of confusion and bulging dorm room on moving day, avoid this by contacting your roommates ahead of time to see who is bringing what (furniture, electronic equipment, recreational items).

Contact the college to determine the size of the room, what furnishings are provided and number of electrical outlets. Wait to bring seasonal items such as winter clothes and skis until holiday breaks to avoid overcrowding.

And remember, you aren’t the only one who is homesick, disoriented or undergoing roommate conflict. There is help available, so seek it through your RA, housing coordinator or better yet, your roommates!

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9 thoughts on “College Relationships: Roommate tips for dorm life

  1. College Verse

    Dorm life can be a sudden change to a student’s life due to the introduction of a roommate, especially for someone who has never shared a room with a sibling. The most important thing ti remember is that you MUST make compromises in order to live together successfuly.

  2. Doris BeckDoris

    Living together successfully is definitely a challenge and always involves some compromise on the part of everyone involved. Thanks for taking the time to post.

  3. Frank Graff

    My daughter will be going to college soon and I’m starting to read blogs about college life. This is good advice, and it fits with a survey I saw recently about roommates. It was done by CORT, a company that rents furniture to college students.
    When asked to list their biggest roommate complaints:
    29.2% said the chore wheel on the refrigerator was more of a decoration than an action plan. Cleaning was never shared
    20.7% complained their roommate ate their favorite cereal and never replaced it.
    10.7% said their roommate wasted water, electricity and other utilities which made the bills higher than expected.
    9% complained their roommate sang Justin Bieber songs off key in the shower!

    So the company put together what it calls the five “C’s” for getting along with your roommate.

    1. Communicate: Your roommate may have a lot of talents, but reading your mind is not one of them. Talk about what you want to share, what level of cleanliness you prefer (and how to achieve this) and even your favorite pizza topping.
    2. Clean: Maybe you and your roommate decide you don’t mind an apartment that is closer to a pig pen than a penthouse, but messiness in shared spaces is still a boiling point for roommates nationwide. At the very least, keep your belongings tidy in shared spaces and take out the trash regularly, unless you want your next roommate to be a cockroach.
    3. Be Considerate: Whenever you are making a decision that impacts your roommate, consider the situation reversed. Would you want them to host a Mariachi band the night before your big exam? Prioritize your roommate’s needs like you prioritize your own and your relationship will flourish.
    4. Coordinate socializing: Your college roommate can be more than the person you pass on the way to class. Grow your relationship with them outside the four walls of your apartment or house by inviting them on social outings and including them when you have guests. Minor disputes can be quickly resolved when your roommate is also your friend.
    5. Compromise: For every potential squabble, there is a potential compromise. Offer to take your late night socializing to another location during the week, as long as guests are allowed over during the weekend. In every situation, look for the opportunity to meet halfway and you will almost always find a common ground.
    Some good advice we should all follow after college as well!

  4. Jim

    I lived in a dorm in the 1960’s. Back then all young guys wore only white briefs for underwear, and my roommate always left his dirty ones on the floor. Each week he would buy a new six pack rather than wash the ones he had. Needless to say they accumulated, and I can recall actually kicking a path through them from the door to my side of the room. I may have even washed them for him at least once, but I can’t recall that far back. What I do clearly remember is that we never argued about it. I was taking anatomy that semester and had my own preserved cat to dissect. I once left it out on the floor, and that made him mad, but even then he never raised his voice, not ever. I read in the paper that he died in the early 90’s. Even today so many years later I still miss that time that I roomed with him. He was one of my best college roommates and friends. You either like your roommate and overlook the trivia, or you don’t care for him, argue about everything, and are both miserable.

  5. Shelley

    Dear Father God.
    Lord I lift all who will be living in a dorm a=or have a roommate, that You will help them find themselves in a different environment away from home. Lord I know it may not be easy for some, as we all have differences in our lives and we are all human. I pray that any who read this article will take it too heart. In jesus Mightyname amen

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