How to Help Your College Student Prepare for Living with a Roommate

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One of the exciting, and sometimes terrifying, aspects of the college experience is living with a roommate for the first time.  Most soon-to-be college students are anxious about beginning their residence hall experience.  Some students have thought carefully about what the experience may be like, and others may have an extremely idealized vision of living with a new roommate.  As a college parent, there are a few things that you might do to help your student prepare for this new experience.  This may provide a wonderful opportunity for some conversation with your student as you give her some things to think about and possibly help her explore her thoughts and expectations.

  • Many of today’s college students have never had the experience of sharing a room or a bathroom with others.  Although your student knows this will be different, remind him that sharing a living space may involve some unexpected challenges and situations.  Remind him that his roommate may also be sharing space with someone for the first time.  This new situation is going to involve learning, listening, compromising and negotiating.  Your student should be ready to experience a range of feelings.
  • Encourage your student to be completely honest on any housing forms she is asked to fill out.  Most colleges work very hard to try to match up roommates with similar lifestyles and to honor housing requests when possible.  If your student is not honest on her forms about her lifestyle – sleeping habits, study habits, drinking, drugs, smoking, neatness, music preferences, etc., then she will not have any chance of being matched with someone compatible. 
  • Remind your student that even though colleges try to match roommates, this is not a science.  Some matches are very successful and others are not.  However, even matches that seem very unlikely may result in a good experience for both roommates.
  • Your student should try to have realistic expectations.  Some experiences with her roommate may be very good and others may not.  A roommate does not need to be your student’s best friend.  It is more important that a roommate have a compatible lifestyle and that roommates are able to comfortably live together than that they be best friends.
  • Your student should be prepared for a possible honeymoon or hell period during the first few weeks.  It takes a while for students to get to know each other and to settle in to routines.  The first few weeks of the semester may not be typical of the more routine life that will follow.  It may seem at first as though everything is wonderful or that nothing will work.  Encourage your student to be prepared to give things a chance before drawing conclusions.
  • Although your student’s roommate will most likely be someone that she has not met, most colleges will send roommate information ahead of your student’s arrival on campus.  Encourage your student to contact her new roommate – either online, by phone, or in person – to get acquainted.  They may want to discuss some expectations as well as who will bring what for their room.
  • Remind your student – and remind yourself – not to make judgments about the new roommate based on partial information, where the student is from, information gleaned from Facebook, or hearsay.  Appearances and assumptions may be very misleading.  Remind your student to keep an open mind.
  • Encourage your student to give some thought now, before heading to school, to what his absolute non-negotiable limits are.  Encourage him to be realistic.  What is his bottom line in his living situation?  Is he comfortable with overnight guests in the room?  Of either sex?  Is he OK with drinking or drugs in the room?  How does he feel about a roommate borrowing belongings?  Does the roommate need to ask first?  Must he have absolute silence after 9:00 p.m.?  Absolutely need to sleep with the windows open – even in the winter?  Encourage your student to expect to make compromises, but to think about those areas which he might consider the bottom line.  Help him think about how to talk about these issues with a new roommate.
  • You might ask your student to think about some “what if” situations.  What will he do if this happens or that happens?  From whom will he seek help?  What might he say?  How will he handle it?
  • Finally, remind your student that he will gain much valuable experience from living with a roommate.  He may gain a new, good friend, or he may not.  But he will learn much about himself and about others.  He will learn his own limitations.  He will learn to compromise and to negotiate. He may learn tolerance.  He will broaden his base of knowledge and experience.  He may learn not to judge others. 

For many students, the roommate experience is one of the best parts of living at college.  Although a new experience for many, and a challenge to live in tight quarters, the experience of getting to know someone else through living with her is a unique, positive experience.  Many students who have the most rewarding experiences may be successful because they come to the experience prepared.  They have realistic expectations and they have skills to deal with issues.  You can help your student be prepared. 

Remember, too, that your job is to help your student prepare for her living situation and then to allow her to experience it on her own.  If she encounters difficulties, encourage her to work through them on her own – possibly with the help of residence life staff – but not to turn to you to help her out.  Although you can provide a sounding board, learning to deal with her living situation is going to be one of those important steps toward independence and responsibility that college life will provide.

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