The scene: Boxes are scattered all over the floor, contents spilling out. The closet is packed with clothes, and the rest are hanging on the bathroom shower rod. Computers and digital devices compete for limited desktop space or simply hang out on beds or nightables. A futon blocks open the door, also piled with boxes and clothes.

Four college freshmen survey the utter confusion, each thinking, “Now what do we do?” The months of college preparation are over and it’s finally moving day! This fall, 75 per cent of you college freshmen will have moved into dorms, the majority living with a roommate for the first time in your lives.

Strangers from different worlds thrown together, you need to adjust to each other’s quirks, habits and schedules without driving each other crazy.

Adjusting to roommates and dorm life is easier when expectations are realistic, explains Paul Bradley, Dean of Residence Life at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. “So many times we’ve seen students come into the dorm believing their roommates will be their friends for life, their best buddies. The roommates, on the other hand, may see the room only as a place to sleep since they already have a social network. Then it’s a mess; there’s hurt, confusion and tension.”

While some colleges attempt to match roommates based on information gathered on housing forms (majors, hobbies, regions of the country), a match is never guaranteed. It’s not unusual to end up with roommates who are stiff and structured, social butterflies and nose-in-the-book academics — all in one room.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

A key to successful adjustment is communication. Bradley says, “Communication is vital to any relationship, even roommates. They need to share openly on such issues as cleanliness, visitation, music, study time and lights out.”

“It’s best to talk about issues early,” says Joy Santee, a 2000 Northwestern graduate who lived in residence halls for two years. “Agree on perimeters and talk through issues before they become problems and get out of control.”

Resident hall assistants (RAs) sometimes provide opportunities for roommates to meet with each other to discuss expectations and issues. If not, Bradley advises, take the initiative and have an informal meeting with your roommates.

Once perimeters are established, it may be necessary to make adjustments as new issues arise. “We had a roommate who never did dishes, so we sat down as a group and initiated a policy about doing dishes,” Santee explains.

Bradley says another key to successful communication is setting up protocol for information exchange. “I suggest a message board with a calendar that can be filled in with who’s going to be gone on weekends or overnights, when visitors are coming, parties, work schedules. Be sure to write legibly all messages from visitors and phone calls.”

When There’s a Problem

A big part of the college experience is learning effective confrontational skills and initiating communication when there are problems. Bradley says most students don’t like to confront others. “Often they try to live with the problem or ignore it, but it can go too far and usually someone gets hurt,” he says.

Common aggravations include sloppiness, dividing food, visitors, personal space, music tastes and quiet time. When problems arise, try to solve them as a room first, Bradley explains. “Don’t beat around the bush or drop hints. Talk as a room, not belittling or ganging up on anyone. Be factual. Set or reiterate policies. But if problems persist, you may need to ask the RA to act as a liaison.”

However, incompatibility does happen. When you believe it is best to switch rooms, go through the proper channels with the RA. Be honest, yet tactful, with your roommates as to why you are leaving.

“Ask what their plans are because others could be thinking the same thing, which could eliminate the problem and you won’t have to move,” Bradley says. “Give some advance notice. It’s rude to announce at the last minute you’re moving out. It leaves others with guilt, confusion and a feeling of failure.”

#Practical Advice

Whether it’s your first roommate arrangement or your fifth, Bradley and Santee do have practical advice to make dorm life harmonious.

  1. Practice common courtesy when it comes to visitation. Establish policies or schedules, setting aside nights for quiet and study time. “This is where having a calendar on the message board really comes in handy,” Bradley emphasizes. “It minimizes surprising the roommate who comes home at midnight after a full day of classes and work wanting to get some sleep only to find a party going on. Planning ahead makes it possible for arranging other places to study or spend the night.”
  2. Keep a balance of rights and compromise. Be flexible, but not at the expense of your studies or health. Honor your roommates’ rights to guests and socializing; after all, they are paying for the room, too.
  3. Express issues and develop tactful, effective confrontation skills. Such skills will pay off in the future.
  4. Whether you or your roommate has a car, set policies around it. You will need to discuss borrowing the car or giving rides, taking into consideration gas, mechanical expenses and scheduling.
  5. Set a policy about borrowing each other’s clothes. This will avoid problems when clothing is borrowed without asking.
  6. Try not to get caught in the middle of roommates’ family issues. For example, a parent may call seeking “investigative” information about the roommate or the other parent. Avoid sharing information that could create tension, leading to further conflict. In most cases, it’s best to refer the parent to a more appropriate person, such as a college staff member.


As for the state of confusion and bulging dorm room on moving day, avoid this by contacting your roommates ahead of time to see who is bringing what (furniture, electronic equipment, recreational items). Contact the college to determine the size of the room, what furnishings are provided and number of electrical outlets. Wait to bring seasonal items such as winter clothes and skis until holiday breaks to avoid overcrowding.

And remember, you aren’t the only one who is homesick, disoriented, or undergoing roommate conflict. There is help available, so seek it through your RA, housing coordinator, or better yet, your roommates! And if you want to talk about it confidentially, you can also fill in the form below after clicking on the contact tab to have one our mentors contact you.

This article was written by: Issues I Face

Photo Credit: Matheus Ferrero