The roommate issue looms large for most entering college students. Students and their parents worry about who their roommate will be, whether they will like each other, whether they will get along. Most students heading off to college have never shared a bedroom with someone else. When that bedroom is also your living room, kitchen, den and recreation room, the prospect of sharing that small space with someone else causes many students concern.
Much has been written to help students get along with roommates. We’ve written earlier posts on how roommates are matched, helping your student prepare for living with a roommate, and even the value of some conflict with a roommate. Much of what is written, however, focuses on what to expect from a roommate and how to react to potential problems.
We’d like to suggest a more proactive approach. Rather than focusing on how to deal with a roommate, we’d like to suggest 13 things your student can do to make sure that they are being the best possible roommate. Rather than thinking about what to expect from a roommate, help your student think about how their behavior might be perceived. Discussing some of these things with your student before they head to college may help them know how to take action to make their living situation better.
- Reach out to your roommate as soon as you know who they are. Send an e-mail, text, Facebook, or make a phone call. Make it your mission to get to know as much as possible about the person ahead of time so you’ll find ways to connect and things to talk about.
- Start out early finding out your roommate’s important ground rules. Students are often told that it is important to set ground rules at the outset. However, many students enter this discussion thinking only about what their ground rules need to be. Focus on learning what your roommate’s ground rules are first, then talk about yours. Let your roommate know right away that you want to make every effort to help make this relationship work and that you want to know what will make them feel better.
- Be careful on Move-in Day. It is a natural thing to want to get to the room first and make sure that you get the best bed, best side of the room, best desk — and maybe even rearrange the room to your liking. Think, rather, about waiting until your roommate arrives and asking what they’d like to do. Yes, it might mean that you lose out on that better closet, but you’ve shown an important attitude about this relationship right from the beginning.
- Learn to practice good listening skills. Listening is one of the hardest communication skills to do well. We are so often busy thinking about what we want to say next, or what we think the person is saying, that we miss the actual message. Really listen to what your roommate is saying and ask clarifying questions if necessary. You’ll not only get the message better, you’ll show your roommate that you want to hear what they have to say.
- Communicate directly, early and often. Yes, it is common sense that communicating will help the relationship, but don’t wait until something is an issue and don’t skirt around the issue. Speak up if something bothers you, speak frankly, speak directly (no nasty notes left on a desk or Facebook posts). Ask your roommate to do the same thing.
- Create a positive communication climate. It’s sometimes all about how you frame a question or respond to a question. Think carefully about choice of words, or whether responses sound judgmental or condescending. Try to establish a collaborative, work-together attitude in how you approach problems.
- Discuss your expectations of the roommate relationship. This is different from ground rules. Do you hope and expect that you and your roommate will spend a lot of time together? Do you expect that you’ll be best friends? Do you want a compatible person to live with, but hope to go your own direction? If your expectations are different from your roommate’s it will help to know that and to discuss that early.
- Understand that roommates do not necessarily need to be best friends. A friendship may certainly develop, and roommates sometimes do become lifelong friends, but that isn’t necessarily an important factor in sharing a room.
- Be realistic. Know that there will be problems. If you are prepared for some difficult days, and know that they will probably come and go, you will not be alarmed each time something comes up. If you expect that living together will be perfect all of the time, you will set yourself up for disappointment. Talk to your roommate about giving each other some space when a disagreement or misunderstanding comes up. Have a plan for getting past it.
- Be prepared to compromise. Be prepared to give in. Get comfortable with what the word compromise actually means. Plan to be the one that will go the distance to make this relationship work. Don’t focus on what your roommate will need to do, focus on what you can do. Hopefully, your roommate will meet you halfway, but if your attitude is on how you can compromise rather than on how your roommate should compromise, your attitude will make a difference.
- Expect the best. This seems obvious, but often is not. Students worry so much about potential roommate problems that they may enter into the relationship expecting that it will be difficult and may not work. They start out thinking about how they can change or get out of the room. Enter into this expecting that it is going to work and is going to be good and satisfying. Let this be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Be open-minded and open to new ideas and experiences. One of the wonderful advantages of attending college is the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas and people from differing backgrounds and beliefs. Your roommate may be very different from you. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it can be a wonderful experience to get to know someone different. You never know what you will learn. It doesn’t mean you need to agree, or change who you are.
- Show respect in everything that you do and say. Whether your roommate is similar to you or very different, whether you are having a wonderful time together or in the midst of a disagreement, whether you are angry or sad or tired or sick, try your best to show your roommate the respect that you hope that your roommate will always show to you.
Roommate relationships can be delicate things, and like any important relationship, it can take a lot of effort to make them work. As a college parent, you can help your student understand that they will need to be proactive in making this living situation the best that it can be. Of course, not every roommate relationship will work, and your student may encounter difficulties beyond what they can handle. If that happens, their residence life staff will be there to help. But whatever happens, your student will know that they have done everything they are capable of doing to establish a good relationship.