As you’ve no doubt seen in the many screen depictions of the college experience, having a roommate is often a fact of collegiate life. At some colleges, this is by design; at others, it’s because first-years get last pick of housing options and miss out on coveted single rooms. Either way, if you’re bound for college, it’s likely that you’ll find yourself sharing a room— and needing to figure out how to maintain a good relationship with your roommate.
Like everyone, I’ve had my share of roommate annoyances, incompatibilities, and conflicts. I’ve also been the annoying roommate more often than I generally like to admit. However, I’ve come a long way since my first year of college, and what I’ve learned may be useful to those of you who are newly encountering this challenge.
Trying to manage an adult-like life in the same room as another person who’s trying to do the same thing is not always easy, but it can be done! With a little thoughtfulness, you too can learn to survive and thrive with whatever roommate you get.
Sharing space in college: a primer
If you’re living on campus during your first year of college, there’s a good chance you’ll be sharing a bedroom with another person, and the space you’ll be sharing likely won’t be anything fancy. When you arrive, you’ll probably step into a boring white box filled with the kind of furniture that eschews style for durability.
In most cases, your roommate will be chosen semi-randomly by your college, possibly based on a short questionnaire about things like your neatness and sleep habits. You’ll likely find out who you’re rooming with and receive their contact information during the summer before you matriculate, so you’ll have some time to get to know them (and sort out who’s bringing what) before you move in together.
Even so, there’s only so much you can anticipate and prepare for in advance. For my own part, I realized late in the game that I had been wildly over-optimistic about my own habits when filling out the neatness section of my school’s survey, and therefore was paired with someone whose standards were much different from mine. (Sorry, former roommate.)
There will be a lot that you can’t figure out until you actually get to college, mostly because it’ll be an experience unlike any you’ve had before. Even if you attended sleep-away camp or boarding school earlier in life, that won’t necessarily prepare you to be one of two adults trying to live their lives out of the same room.
You may have shared a room at home before, but that’s not quite the same as having a college roommate. I come from a big family, and before I went away to college, I’d shared a room with various siblings at various point in my life. This did prepare me to some degree for the bustle and noise of dorm life, but sharing a room in college as I and my roommate both balanced busy schedules and the stresses of adjusting to college life was a distinctly different experience from what I’d done before.
On the positive side, in college, there were far fewer tantrums at bedtime. On the negative side, I couldn’t complain to my parents when my roommate did something I didn’t like. As young adults with minimal supervision, whatever happens, you’ll need to take on a lot of responsibility for what happens in your room and what roommate relationship you create.
Often, new college students aren’t sure how they should relate to their roommate or how much time they should spend together. You don’t have to be best friends with your roommate, get deeply involved in their life, promise them a bridesmaid spot in your wedding, and so on. Some roommate pairs become very close and stay that way. Others don’t, and it works well for them. There’s no one right way to manage that relationship.
However, whether or not you’re close to your roommate, you have an obligation to try and build a solid relationship with them. Some of the best roommate relationships I saw in my college experience were between people who had entirely separate, very different lives, but were equally committed to treating each other with respect and consideration—something to which every roommate pair should aspire.
Common roommate challenges
Are you on your way to college and expecting to room with a hitherto-unknown roommate? It helps to know what challenges you might come across as you settle into your college life. Here are a few issues I’ve personally encountered with my own college roommates and heard friends describe about theirs.
This is probably the most talked-about issue when it comes to having a roommate, and there’s a good reason for that. Everyone has their own standards for tidiness and their own quirks about what needs to be just so—or what can wait until some indefinite time in the future. (Spoiler alert: shockingly, that time may never come.)
Coming into college, you may not yet have a good idea of how much work it takes to keep your own space clean, especially if your parents helped (or did it for you) when you lived at home. Dirty dishes don’t wash themselves, no matter how hard you wish for it. Adult life is an endless parade of dusting things that you swear you just dusted yesterday. (Seriously, the dust never stops.)
Your parents won’t be around to push you to make the bed or vacuum the rug—you have to not only do it yourself, but motivate yourself to do it, or you’ll deal with the aftermath. Some people may enjoy the challenge of burrowing through piles of clothes and papers to find anything! Your roommate, however, may not, and that’s totally reasonable.
Sleep health is both highly important and frequently neglected, and of course, college students are notorious for their absurd sleep habits. Different schedules and preferences can make this a particularly frustrating point of contention among roommates, especially since people aren’t known to be at their most diplomatic and understanding when they’re sleep-deprived.
I myself once had a roommate who never seemed to sleep. On more than one occasion, I woke up at three in the morning because she was printing out long assignments on her clanky old printer, using an impossibly bright desk lamp that bored into my soul from across the room, and best of all, singing aloud to herself the entire time. It wasn’t at all malicious, and I don’t think she even noticed that she was singing! She’s a lovely person in many other ways, but you could not pay me to share a room with her again.
Maybe you’re a night owl, but your roommate has a morning class. Maybe you need absolute silence to get to sleep, but your roommate can’t wind down without their calming whale songs. Whatever the situation, it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself with a roommate whose sleep schedule exactly mirrors yours, so you’ll have to work through the differences in your schedules to make sure you both get the sleep you need.
There’s no getting around it: sharing a room means sacrificing privacy. It’s no fun knowing that your door may open at any moment, and that your roommate may return to disturb your concentration and disrupt whatever you have going on. It’s even less fun when it’s your roommate and eight of their friends who burst in while you’re changing.
People come up with a lot of different strategies for managing privacy in roommate situations, from artfully arranged furniture to sending a heads-up text in advance. What works for you will depend on your individual needs, as well as the physical layout of your dorm room.
Some people care more than others about who touches their stuff, as well as when and how it happens, and the boundaries can be difficult to anticipate without an explicit discussion of where they lie. One roommate might freak out if your friend sits on their bed, while another might take a “what’s mine is yours” approach to shared living spaces, so it’s best not to make assumptions about what’s okay until you come to know your roommate better.
As a roommate, it’s your responsibility to listen to and respect your roommate’s wishes when it comes to their stuff, whether it’s rifling through their closet, eating their snacks, or hogging the TV they contributed to the room. If in doubt, ask directly—as I’ll discuss below, direct communication is always best.
Building a great roommate relationship
As you can see, your most valuable tool in building a good roommate relationship will be communication. Being direct and open about your needs and what’s bothering you can be difficult, particularly if you’re shy or nonconfrontational by nature, but learning how to do it is absolutely worthwhile.
Below, you’ll find a few tips for building your communication skills with your roommate and using these skills to improve your day-to-day interactions. Like many college students, I’ve learned the hard way how important these skills are, and my experiences can help you avoid the same missteps.
Manage your expectations.
There’s no way you’re going to end up with a college roommate whose needs and habits are exactly the same as yours, so you’ll need to be flexible in order to make your roommate relationship work. It’s fine to have needs and set boundaries, but you can’t expect to get everything you want.
Besides that, both you and your roommate will have a lot on your plates during your first year of college. Habits are hard to make and break; just because one of you forgot to turn the lights off before they left the room, for example, doesn’t mean you or they are a huge jerk. Give your roommate—and yourself—room to be human.
Passive-aggressive comments and a meaningful side-eye at your roommate’s overflowing recycling bin can feel good, but they don’t really do much to help. In fact, your roommate might legitimately not notice that you’re hinting around an issue—not everyone picks up on that sort of thing.
Asking for what you need and speaking up about what’s bothering you aren’t rude or intrusive acts. In fact, they’re the opposite, as long as you temper your honesty with civility. Being direct gives you the best chance to work out a solution before things become really strained, and helps prevent roommate problems that could threaten your academic focus, health, or overall happiness. If something is important to you, say so!
Learn to negotiate and compromise.
Like I said, you’re most likely not going to get the roommate who would be absolutely ideal for you. That’s normal and okay! You’re going to spend the rest of your life interacting and working with people who, like everyone, are not absolutely ideal matches for you, and this experience will help you practice the skills you’ll need to be a functional adult.
The reality of living with a roommate is that you’re not going to get your own way all the time. What’s important is that you be able to craft reasonable compromises that both you and your roommate can live with. This means coming into disagreements with an open mind, and sometimes, getting creative about finding solutions that actually work for you both.
Make an effort.
Living successfully with a roommate, particularly one who’s significantly different from you, takes work—there’s no way around it. In order to be a reasonable roommate, you’re going to have to do things that you’d rather not do and put in some amount of effort to live peaceably together.
Think carefully about what you can commit to. Then, do what you need to do to keep your commitments. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take out the garbage. Invest in good earplugs to accommodate differences in sleep schedules. Hold a weekly planning session with your roommate if it helps. If one approach doesn’t work, try another. Almost anything that makes it easier for you to be considerate and have a good relationship with your roommate is a good idea.
Choose your battles.
Making an effort isn’t just about working harder on tasks that you don’t like. It also means working harder to accept your roommate’s differences and overlook their less serious faults. Of course, you shouldn’t tolerate behavior that threatens your safety or is wildly inconsiderate, but otherwise, there’s a lot to be said for chilling out.
Being tolerant of your roommate’s more minor quirks and foibles goes a long way toward keeping the peace in your room. Like I said, you can’t have your way all the time, and you’re going to have to compromise somewhere. Make sure you figure out which battles are really worth it for you before you dig in.
Consider talking to your RA or another mediator to deal with major problems.
The good news is that most roommate problems don’t require intervention. If you’re both willing to compromise and communicate, day-to-day issues usually can (and should) be resolved on your own. That is, after all, how mature adults generally do things.
Sometimes, however, you’ll have to escalate to the next level, whether because your roommate is being intractable or because you two simply have totally incompatible lifestyles. RAs and similar advisors are trained to deal with situations like these, whether that involves acting as a mediator, helping you find resources to deal with particular issues, or facilitating a change of residence.
If you can only remember one rule for being a good roommate, let it be this: don’t be a jerk. Treat others with the consideration and tolerance that you’d like to experience yourself. You don’t have to be lifelong besties, but you do have to be adults, talk over any issues that come up, and find a way to live together amicably.