Preparing Your Freshman for Life with a Roommate

The challenges of living with a stranger.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

A friend emailed me the other day worried about the fact that her soon-to-be college freshman appears to have nothing in common with the girl who will be her roommate. My friend is not alone. A normal concern among parents of resident college freshmen is whether their teen will get along with their roommate.

For some of us, we relive our own bad freshman roommate experience or recall the complaints we’ve heard from friends and family about their teens’ roommate conflicts. Sure, there’s always the risk of the roommate from hell, but it’s more likely that the two or four or six kids will find a way to live together, eventually. And that’s all they need to do.

Here’s how to help your student transition to life with a college roommate.

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Lower expectations A college roommate doesn’t have to be your teen’s best friend, and probably won’t be. That said, your freshman wants someone she can share space with, who she can talk to, feel comfortable around and not want to leave the room as soon as she walks in.

No matter what the arrangement, college dorm rooms are small spaces and living with a complete stranger in such cramped conditions means everyone will need to learn to compromise, including your teen. This is not home and unfortunately, no one on campus really knows how she functions yet, like whether she needs to talk about her day or keep that between her and her journal.

Hopefully all parties involved were honest when they filled out their roommate questionnaires. I remember a friend complaining when her daughter, normally a slob, checked the box for “neat.” Her reasoning: she didn’t want to end up with a messy roommate.

Understanding how colleges pair roommates Some colleges allow freshmen to pick their roommates, even setting up Facebook groups or directing students to apps where they can “meet.” Teens also find roommates at orientation, where they get to know each other, although briefly, in-person.

Colleges that pair freshmen use the roommate questionnaire and the experience of the residence life staff, or a computer program, to put teens together. At some of these schools, freshmen may not have the option to choose whom they live with.

Roommate contract Customized by each college, this contract helps prevent misunderstandings between roommates, covering important issues like study styles, noise tolerance, sharing of personal property, cleaning, visitors, overnight guests, privacy and more.

Resident Advisers (RAs) usually review the contract with all the students on the floor in advance, presenting sample scenarios for freshmen to consider. Roommates usually have only a week or two before they must complete, sign and turn in the contract. Addressing the important issues up front and early on can avert problems down the road. Remind your student honesty matters on this form, too.

The advantages of not picking your best friend If your teen and a good friend are heading to the same college in the fall, they may want to room together. Besides preventing both teens from moving out of their comfort zone and meeting new people, it can hurt their friendship as they learn that living with someone 24/7 is a lot different than just hanging out together. By living separately, they have another dorm room to go to when they need space or want to see a familiar face, plus they get to know each other’s roommates and make more friends.

Dealing with the bumpy moments Your freshman shouldn’t anticipate that she and her roommate won’t get along, because it’s more likely they will. Sure, they’ll have moments when they get on each other’s nerves, but that happens normally to people who live together. It helps when both roommates are willing to be introduced to new things like going to a concert for a band one of them has never heard of or trying a different topping on their pizza.

If your freshman starts running into issues with her roommate, remind her of these opportunities:

  • Campus is filled with students, so go out and meet them: in her dorm, in her classes, by joining clubs or checking in with the teens she met at orientation.
  • Her RA was a freshman once and has received training in conflict resolution to help roommates work through problems as they arise. The RA is a resource.

Also reinforce the idea of picking your battles. Because no two people do everything exactly alike, she must decide what’s worth addressing—the wet towel regularly left on the floor or the smelly food in the roommate’s garbage pail that doesn’t get emptied for days.

The bottom line Your teenager is about to embark on a new experience, living with a complete stranger for a long period of time—almost a year. No doubt it’s scary, but it can also be exciting. Remind him that his roommate is in the same boat. Getting to know each other and surviving their first year of college may ultimately bond them together.

Share your thoughts and advice on freshman year roommates in the comments section below.

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