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Strangers or Squad? How to Live With Your College Roommate

It's not hard to get along with your college roommate (we swear). All you have to do is follow this advice from a student who's been there.

It’s not hard to get along with your college roommate (we swear). All you have to do is follow this advice from a student who’s been there. 

Imagine: it’s move-in day, your freshman year of college. High school was eons ago (meaning, you know, three months). You’ve grown and experienced so much since graduation, and it’s hard to fathom how your life is about to change. But you finally feel it in your bones: you are a college student. Armed with independence, drawers full of Ramen noodles, and no one telling you to make your bed in the morning, you think nothing can stop you from having the time of your life. Then you meet your college roommates…

We all hear the campus horror stories: the roommate who throws shade on Twitter, the roommate who parties in your room the night before finals, the roommate who takes your last Oreo without asking (is nothing sacred?!?!). It feels like an endless list of bad luck and incompatibility. How, you ask, do you avoid these R.L. Stine nightmares and get along with your college roommate(s)?

If you’ve come here to gather suggestions for how to woo your future roomies into becoming your college best friends, I regret to inform you that life isn’t so simple. Suggesting any different would belie the complexities of friendship. It would be like saying you watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and are therefore equipped to perform open-heart surgery.

However, although you may not be able to reverse-engineer a BFF out of your college roommate, getting along with one or more roommates is definitely an achievable feat. They, just like you, want to have an enjoyable semester—and you’ll be well on your way to do just that if you follow this advice:

The roommate agreement

When my roommates and I moved into our campus suite, our proctor (or as other schools might say, an RA) suggested we create a “contract” amongst ourselves to square away typical living situations—and it was great advice.

It may seem daunting and uncomfortable to sit down with people who are still essentially strangers and hash out your collective bathroom routines on paper, but this step is so important when you begin living with someone. Plus, making your own a roommate agreement really isn’t that hard, and it’s a great opportunity to start the year off understanding each other’s idiosyncrasies and living habits.

Maybe one of your college roommates is an athlete who wants quiet time before important games. Maybe one of your roommates has a sensitive nose and would appreciate it if you sprayed your cologne or perfume after leaving the room. Maybe one of your roommates has a significant other and wants to be able to spend time with them in the room one weekend a month. Maybe you have two singles and a double in your dorm room and you want to discuss who gets the single (definitely a hot commodity in college, so if you get one, congrats!) and if/when exactly you’ll switch throughout the year. These are all things that should be discussed briefly in your roommate agreement.

Although what you write down in a roomie agreement may not be law, it does give everyone general guidelines of how to keep up with the “room” part of roommates.

Far from home but close together

Leaving home for college is hard for most students, but it can be especially tough for those who have traveled very far from home to study. From Colorado and Georgia to South Africa and Singapore, my roommates all traveled a considerable distance. With this comes varying levels of homesickness, especially during the first month of freshman year, where everything is so shiny and new and scary. In fact, you and your roommate might not know anyone else on campus.

Whether you go to a close-to-home state school or travel far away, you will definitely encounter homesickness in college, whether within yourself or with your roommates—maybe both. The best way to handle these situations is always with compassion. If you feel comfortable enough, offer an ear to listen or shoulder to cry on. It’s hard for everyone to adjust to such a different lifestyle, and providing your roommates this space to express their feelings (and you yours) will only help you grow closer.

Wording woes—and avoidable embarrassments

Did you know that flip-flops in South Africa are referred to as “slip slops” and flashlights are “torches”? No? Well, I didn’t either—and I had to learn the hard way when our school had a power outage and my roommate rushed to light her “torch.” As I panicked and rushed to stop her from lighting the dorm on fire, she returned with a flashlight innocuously strapped to her forehead, looking—understandably—confused.

Though our miscommunication was comical, sometimes these phrasing faux pas can get out of hand if you are not sensitive to what your roommate is truly saying. This is something unique about the college roommate experience that most people overlook, and it could potentially cause problems. Whether it’s a colloquialism from their hometown or country or a saying unique to their political orientation or religion, they may say something to you with a completely different definition than your own understanding.

To avoid misinterpretations and possibly offending one another, try to be clear in your intentions and patient in your explanations. Also, give them the benefit of the doubt if they say something offhandedly that rubs you the wrong way. If a disagreement does arise from different views or opinions, it’s best to be respectful of the other person’s perspective, even if you do not agree with them.

To sleep or not to sleep?

Ah, the age-old question. Sometimes Father Time’s relationship with your roommate is very different that his relationship with you. If your roommate is a morning person but you’re prone to staying up into the wee hours of the night (same here), then you might run into problems regarding keeping lights on or waking the other person up at inopportune times.

The key to this common college roommate issue is communication and reciprocation. Taking turns and compromising is often the most efficient way to overcome conflicting sleep schedules. For example, some nights you might study at the library rather than keep your roommate awake with the lights. Other nights, your roommate can be respectful of your sleeping by being quieter in the mornings when they wake up or not turning on all the lights. If you talk out your problems instead of letting them stew and boil over one night, your living situation will be much more accommodating. (And the roommate agreement described above can work wonders for avoiding these problems in the first place!)

Netflix nights or party prep

Between college classes, extracurriculars, and jobs/internships comes the hidden curricula of your college experience: your social life. Of course, what defines this particular facet of college depends on the type of person you are. If you are more of a homebody, you might prefer to spend your Saturday nights staying in, watching movies with friends. If you are outgoing, you might spend those same Saturdays at parties. Maybe you want to do a little of both!

Whether curled up with Netflix or dancing with a red cup in your hand, either version is a valid college social life (provided you’re not doing anything harmful, of course). However, if your roommate’s version of a social life conflicts with your own, this does not guarantee total warfare. Again, discussion and open communication are truly key to getting along with your college roommate. Making sure there is a clear delineation between work time and socializing that doesn’t infringe on either of your choices is essential to keeping problems at bay. Also, this provides the perfect opportunity for either one of you to travel outside of your social comfort zone. Maybe the two of you could trek to a party together or stay in and catch up on The Office another night. Doing these group activities can definitely foster a bond and ease in your living arrangements.

Having roommates is a foundational part of the college experience. They might simply be cohabitants, or they can be your confidants and best friends at college. In either case, they are going to be a large part of your school year, and you want to develop a working relationship with them, based on the terms that the two (or more) of you have agreed on. If you’re communicating, open to change, and respectful of your roommate, you can strike a balance in your dorm and have a great year doing so.

What are your top questions about living with a roommate in college? If you’ve already been there, done that, what did you learn? Leave a comment or get in touch!

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About Jessenia Class

Jessenia is a first-year student at Harvard University pursuing a concentration in Psychology: Cognitive Neuroscience. If you're looking for her, she's in a coffee shop writing articles for The Harvard Crimson or doing problem sets.


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