Know Roles, Responsibilities in Roommate Relationships

Getting along in a small space doesn't have to be a chore.


Greetings, U.S.News & World Report readers! I'm a big fan of this site and am honored to begin writing this blog. I'm always open to hearing from readers and look forward to receiving feedback and ideas from you. Thank you for letting me be a part of your—and your students'—college lives and for starting the new academic year on such an exciting note.

As nearly every administrator knows at a college campus, the start of another academic year always brings questions on a hot topic: roommates. While there are many unknowns for a student transitioning from high school to college, the roommate situation often seems particularly worrisome for students (and their parents).

But then again, at what other point in someone's life are they expected to leave everything they know, move into a very small room, and live with someone they've never met before for nine or 10 months? No wonder administrators field so many questions and concerns from parents and students alike!

[Get expert advice on packing for college.]

So, then, what's the best approach when dealing with roommate situations? Know everyone's roles and responsibilities. A seemingly complicated situation can be made much simpler with this very basic understanding.

1. Students, be clear on what you want—and need. This means being clear with a roommate—from Day One—on what kind of living environment you'd like. Do you like your room neat? Do you mind if your roommate uses your printer? Borrows your new skirt? Takes your basketball out for a pick-up game? Eats the last of your cereal? Leaves his dirty clothes on your bed? Stays up late with the lights and music on? Has overnight guests?

Being clear with a roommate early helps to eliminate problems down the road. If you are clear on what kinds of expectations you have about the major things in your life– space, privacy, stuff, sleep, noise, visitors—then roommate problems are much less likely to occur.

Talk with your roommate early, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Discuss and sign a roommate contract or roommate agreement. Be clear on what works for you, and listen to what your roommate says works for him or her. After all, you don't have to be best friends and spend every minute with your roommate. But you do need to learn how to live together in a respectful, positive way.

[Read more tips for getting along with your roommate.]

2. Parents, be a supporter. Parents, of course, often hear about all the stress of their students' roommate situations but have no control. Your student may tell you horror stories of what the roommate has done. Your student may also call you upset, wanting a new roommate but not sure what to do about it. So when it comes to being clear on roles and responsibilities, your role as a college parent is to play the role of supporter. Support your student by listening if there are problems, and by sharing their excitement if they have a great roommate (as most students do!).

On the same note, support your student if there are roommate concerns that you think need addressing. The key here, of course, is to support—not to step in. That being said, if you feel your student is in an unsafe living situation, call the school as soon as possible. Know, however, that those kinds of extreme situations are rare.

[Learn how to ease the transition to college.]

The best way for you to support your student is to help them learn how to support him or herself. Encourage him or her to set ground rules with their new roommate. Challenge your student to step outside of their comfort zone and participate in the events and activities in the residence hall. And most importantly, if there is a conflict or problem, help brainstorm ideas about where to go for help (like the hall staff) and how to find a solution on his or her own (like talking with the roommate directly).

How have you dealt with a roommate? Did a particular strategy or approach work well—or not at all? Let us know in the comments below.