Picture this: You walk across campus in the rain and with a bad test score in hand. All you want to do is change your clothes and take a nap. But when you walk into your dorm room, your roommate is having a little party. A few random kids are sitting on your bed. One is watching your TV and another is eating your food. And is that your sweater your roommate is wearing?
College roommates can range from thoughtful to inconsiderate, bossy to bashful. But no matter how your freshman-year roommate acts, you can choose how you respond to roommate problems.
Most roommate problems can be solved either by talking to the roommate or asking the residential adviser to mediate. But bad roommates do exist.
“If you’re being ignored; your rights are being ignored; you are being demeaned in some way; physically abused, verbally abused, intimidated; if things are being stolen; then it’s time to get out of the situation,” says Susan Fee, author of My Roommate Is Driving Me Crazy (Adams Media, $9.95).
Almost all roommate conflicts can be solved, Fee says. Setting boundaries early can help you get along. Here’s how to deal with roommate problems before they start—and what to do when the situation gets tense.
The first contact
Your college will likely send you your roommate’s contact info during the summer. Roommates often e-mail each other or visit each other’s MySpace pages to get a first impression.
“This part is a lot like online dating; they put their best face forward. They will e-mail back and forth, and the conversations are like, ‘I have a fridge, do you have a microwave?’ They aren’t asking other questions,” Fee says.
Put it on your checklist for college to take those summer chats beyond a basic information exchange. Ask whether your roommate has a significant other or a group of friends attending the school. Decide in advance if you’re comfortable with overnight guests or parties.
“You have to know what you are willing to bend on and what you are not,” Fee says.
Set the room rules
Setting boundaries in advance as part of your checklist for college can help you each be better roommates. Fee says many students want to please and don’t set limits early in the roommate relationship.
“As soon as you have your roommate, try to start a dialogue,” Fee says.
In your first few days together, suggest likely scenarios, such as, “My best friend is visiting for the weekend. Can she bunk with us?” or “Where do friends sit when visiting the room?”
“It’s much easier to have those conversations upfront than when the situation is happening,” Fee says.
The beginning of the semester
Many roommates go through a honeymoon period—a peaceful time when both are eager not to offend. Then, slowly, your roommate begins to grate on your nerves. It starts with a missed phone message and spirals into a full-on fight.
Senior Laura Parisi is in her third year as a residential adviser at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “I think the most common problem stems from a lack of communication in the room,” Parisi says. “Usually it starts with small problems that escalate.”
Students who complain to Parisi usually haven’t addressed the issue with their roommates. Parisi says too many students complain to their friends and don’t bother to talk with the roommate.
Addressing an issue can stop a conflict before it starts. Parisi recommends using “I” statements instead of “you” to be less accusatory. So if a roommate’s friends are always lounging on your bed, simply say “I’m real weird about my bed; could you ask your friends not to sit on it?” instead of “You and your friends are so disrespectful!”
Fight! Fight! Fight!
Your university can help if you and your roommates aren’t getting along.
“The best support is the RA on the floor because that person is a peer, it’s another college student,” says Maureen Blair, director of university housing for Illinois State University in Normal.
RAs can choose to involve the dorm director or someone from university housing if mediation isn’t working.
But you shouldn’t expect to be best friends with your roommate. Parisi says it’s more about getting along and being respectful than being best friends. “I think some of the best roommates don’t really hang out outside the room but live together really well,” she says.
Should you room with your best friend?
Some colleges allow students to choose their own roommate, and many friends think it will be a great idea to live together.
Residential adviser Laura Parisi says she has only had to mediate three major roommate conflicts in her two years as an RA. “Of those three, two of them chose their own roommate,” Parisi says.
Friends don’t always make the best roommates. “I’ve seen a lot of friendships damaged,” says author Susan Fee.
Students often assume living with a friend means they can escape the usual roommate problems. But friends need to talk and discuss boundaries, even if they think they already know each other’s limits, Fee says. “I always remind students that if you are having a bad day with your roommate, it’s nice to have another place on campus to go,” Fee says. “If you’re having a bad day with your roommate and she’s your best friend, you’re just out.”
Many colleges give roommates contracts to review and sign during the first week of school. Roommates agree on guests, sleepovers and privacy. If a problem arises, the RA might pull up the contract as a reminder of the original agreement.
No roommate contract at your college? Here’s a checklist for college of important issues to discuss during the first few days of school:
• Guests: Can guests spend the night? Can a guest sleep in your bed if you’re gone? During the day, are guests allowed to sit on your bed?
• Food: Will food be shared?
• Significant others: Can a significant other spend the night? How often? The sleepover issue can be a huge source of conflict. Don’t be afraid to say “no sleepovers” if you aren’t comfortable with the idea.
• Studying: Do you plan on studying in the room? What kind of environment do you need for studying?
• Sleeping: Do you need the lights off when you sleep? Does your alarm blare for 10 minutes before you wake up?