How to deal with a terrible college roommate



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Managing Editor

Myles Ma is a health care expert & personal finance writer for Policygenius. He edits the Easy Money newsletter.

Published September 21, 2017|3 min read

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Your freshman college roommate is often the first and most important relationship you form at school. But it’s a crapshoot.

This person might become a lifelong friend. Or they’ll just become another stranger after that first year, someone you finally delete off Facebook a few years after graduation.

In any case, it’s important you get along. Having a solid relationship with a roommate may not be the ultimate goal of college. But a stressful dorm life can potentially hinder you academically and keep you from accomplishing the true mission of college: getting a degree while consuming an ocean of light beer.

Here is some advice for how to manage your roommate relationship.

Before you meet

Don’t base your expectations on social media, said Susan Stubblefield, associate director of resident life at the University of Minnesota.

“Many of our students get their housing assignments and they’ll immediately go to social media to try to investigate,” she said.

Social media doesn’t tell the whole story. For instance, your soon-to-be roommate likely won’t share their dislike for bathing or their habit of eating soup in bed on their Facebook page.

Better to talk on the phone or in person, Stubblefield said.

The most important thing

Kate Baier, senior director of residential life at New York University, has seen many roommate conflicts over the years. In her experience, most stem from a lack of communication.

Most can be solved or avoided by communicating early and often. When you move in, remember to share.

Share your sleep schedule. Share your class schedule. Explain what “clean” means to you. Tell your roommate whether it’s cool for her share in your giant jar of jellybeans.

If an issue comes up, like your roommate insisting on watching “Fuller House” every night until 3 a.m., voice your concerns. You can’t let 90s nostalgia keep you from getting a good night’s sleep before a big test.

Keeping your resentment inside may spare your roommate’s feelings, but it will build up, distract you in class and won’t solve your lack of sleep. The problem will only grow until you have a conversation about it.

At NYU, residence life staffers teach students to hear out the other person in conflicts. They teach them to use “I” statements to talk about how they feel and prevent their roommates from getting defensive. And they ask roommates to write out living agreements in writing to address potential points of tension like sleep schedule and guests.

Why this matters

Of course, you can grit your teeth for a year to get through a bad roommate situation. In particularly toxic situations, a college may allow students to change rooms.

But dealing with roommate adversity is valuable experience, Baier said. That’s why switching rooms, especially mid-year when options are limited, is a last resort for her staff.

“Working through conflict is one of the things that’s going to happen throughout adulthood,” she said.

In life, adults must often take stock of difficult interpersonal situations and find ways to communicate what they’re feeling to come to a solution. It’s a skill people need to deal with conflicts at the office, at home with their families or at the bar with their friends.

After freshman year, you will likely end up living with roommates again. And after school, roommates will likely be your destiny as well, only with the added complications of leases, rent and bills to negotiate. Some people may end up living with a spouse, which comes with its own set of conflicts. The ability to talk through these conflicts comes in handy.

Many students, having never had to share a room with someone who wasn’t their family member, come into their new living situations with a sense of entitlement, Stubblefield said. Freshman year is an excellent time to lose that sense, especially with residence life staffers on hand to help referee.

“It’s very much about learning to negotiate, learning to have patience with other people and learning to compromise,” Stubblefield said.

It may make you a better adult.

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