Unless you attended Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, or shared a room with a sibling growing up, college is probably the first time you’ve ever had a roommate. Whether you’re literally sharing a bedroom with another person, or just sharing an apartment, living with a roommate is a whole new world compared to living with your parents.
And, really, it’s not something anyone ever talks about until you get to college. Sure, there’s the odd glimpse in college movies or maybe a weird story from one of your parents, but nothing can truly prepare you for the experience of coexisting in close quarters with someone who’s quite possibly a complete stranger.
I can’t pretend I can take the mystery and uncertainty out of the roommate experience. But after living with roommates for three years of college, I can tell you what did (and didn’t) work for me.
My hope is that by the end of this article you’ll have a better idea of how to, at the very least, get along with your college roommate. Even if they’re a total rando. Who doesn’t shower for weeks. And leaves anchovy/pineapple pizza under the couch cushions (may or may not have happened to me).
So find a comfy spot somewhere your current roommate isn’t reading over your shoulder, and let’s get started!
Assuming that you can choose your roommate (which isn’t always the case your first year of college), I really have only one tip: Don’t room with your best friend from high school.
Living with your best friend sounds like a dream come true. But much like moving in with a romantic partner, living together can reveal some, well, less savory aspects of people’s personalities. And personal hygiene.
I’m not saying that rooming with your best friend will be a disaster, but often it can put a strain on the relationship at the very least. To paraphrase a popular joke about marriage, rooming with your best friend is like a month-long sleepover.
So although your friend’s messiness may never have bothered you when you spent the night at their house every couple of weeks, now it’s right there in your personal space. And the fact that they stay up till 4 am every night chatting with their significant other on Skype–that’s suddenly very relevant to your sleep schedule.
All this is to say, if you want to room with your best friend, hold off for at least your first year of college. Living with your friends can be great, but I’ve also seen it destroy friendships. Don’t let that happen to you.
Throughout my time in college, I lived with two random roommates, as well as a couple others that I barely knew. So I learned a lot about how (and how not) to live harmoniously in small spaces with strangers. Here are my most important takeaways:
1. Make a roommate agreement
Repeat after me: always make a roommate agreement. Even if things seem great now. Even if you’re BFFs. Because as fallible, illogical humans, it’s inevitable that some kind of disagreement will arise. And the moment you have a disagreement is the worst time to decide to draw up some house rules.
Now, a roommate agreement doesn’t have to be a formal, notarized, watermarked document. It doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. All it needs to include are a few standards the two of you agree to abide by, as well as the procedure for handling disagreements or violations of the standards.
That second part is the key. Don’t just make a list of what you should and shouldn’t do–make a plan for what you’ll do when things go wrong.
Here’s an example:
1. Lights out at 1 am.
2. Inform each other of overnight guests.
3. Take turns taking out trash when it’s full.
4. When conflicts arise, we will first talk about them with each other. If that doesn’t work, then we’ll ask for the help of our RA to mediate..
5. We’ll be open, honest, and polite when the other person does something that bothers us.
YOUR ROOMMATE’S NAME
Your RA will probably have some kind of template you can use for this, and there are of course dozens floating around online. Above all, what matters is that you make the agreement.
Ignore this tip at your own peril.
2. Treat it like a business partnership
In the same vein as making a roommate agreement, be realistic about the roommate experience. Despite what you see in movies, there’s no need for the two of you to be best friends or hang out a bunch (although having dinner together every so often can be good for keeping open communication).
Having a roommate is, at the end of the day, a way to make efficient use of limited living space while also saving money for both of you. It is, in essence, a business arrangement. As long as the two of you respect each other and live together pleasantly, that’s all you need.
3. Be aware
If you’ve never lived with someone before, it’s easy to take for granted that yours is the only way of doing things.
Your different lifestyle, however, could be a source of potential discomfort or annoyance for your roommate. Because of this, it’s important to remain aware of how your actions might affect your roommate. In practice, this is pretty simple stuff.
For example, if your roommate is trying to study, don’t blast heavy metal. If you come back and find them asleep, don’t turn on all the lights. Simple stuff, but it goes a long way towards getting along.
4. Practice empathy
It’s easy to get mad at your roommate and think that they’re some kind of villain put in your life to torture you. But no matter how incompatible the two of you are, no matter how much you may disagree, remember that your roommate is still a person with feelings, hopes, and dreams.
Practice empathy, and recognize that from their perspective you’re the one who’s in the wrong (which, in many cases, you probably are, at least partially).
Here’s a quick primer on empathy from Brené Brown:
5. Address disagreements openly and respectfully
Honest communication is built on truth and integrity and upon respect of the one for the other.
– Benjamin E. Mays
Roommate problems are a lot like a cold. If you address it early and give it the attention it deserves, it’s no big deal. But if you ignore it for too long, you could end up with bronchitis or even in the hospital.
The keys to resolving disagreements with your roommate are respect and open communication.
The respect part is especially key. Respect means being honest without being a dick. It’s the difference between “Hey, can you get your stupid dirty underwear off the floor?” and “I know you’re really busy with class and school, but you keep leaving your underwear in the middle of the floor. Could you find a different place for it?”
(Tone is also really key here. The second statement can still come off the wrong way if you say it sarcastically).
And if your roommate doesn’t understand your request, don’t get mad. Just explain how you feel.
Obviously, this goes both ways. Don’t brush off anything that your roommate brings up. In essence, follow the Golden Rule.
6. Appeal to a third party when necessary
If you and your roommate can’t work out a disagreement, don’t be afraid to go to your RA (or, if you live in an apartment, a trusted impartial third party). Sometimes it can be tough to work out a sensitive issue together, and these are cases when having an impartial mediator to hear both sides of the argument can make a world of difference.
Again, there’s a right and a wrong way to do this. Your RA is not the police or the teacher watching the playground. Don’t go to them for every single little problem that comes up.
And if you do have to approach them, don’t accuse anybody of anything. Just explain your problem as objectively as you can and listen to their advice. They (hopefully) have training in how to mediate conflicts, so be sure to actually let them help you.
7. Treat it as a learning experience
Some of the most important learning that you’ll do in college happens outside the classroom. College is kind of like practice for being an adult but with a large support system and safety net. And one of the most valuable skills you can learn is how to get along with other people, especially people who are very different.
Your roommate experience, for better or worse, is a chance to learn about conflict resolution, empathy, and how to have a sense of humor when life gets weird or unpleasant. This is a tricky thing to do in the moment, but it’s key to making your life a lot less stressful.
Having a roommate in college is inevitable for most people. I hope this article has given you a better idea of how to get along with your roommate, as well as some perspective on what a healthy roommate relationship should look like.
That being said, my roommate advice is heavily rooted in my own experience at a small, private liberal arts college in the Midwestern U.S.
To get some perspective on what things are like at a larger university, have a listen to the CIG Podcast episode How to Live With Roommates Without Losing Your Mind. And for more tips about how to live on your own, read this next.
Image Credits: dorm room bed