Roommates: Early Conversations for a Better Freshman Year

Sharing a room is not easy. Particularly when you’re launching into freshman year and so much in your life is changing all at once… roommate relations and a positive “home life” are incredibly important.

But many of us out there (myself included) end up with…complicated roommate experiences, to say the least.

Back in March, I wrote a blog post for titled “Living with a Terrible Roommate.” In this post, I hope to offer guidance to keep you from having that experience.

This was my desk space Freshman year. My back is against my roommate's desk. Now... looking back, I'm sure my sense of decor was quite annoying. To my freshman year roomie, wherever you are, I sincerely apologize. 

First, some thoughts on the conversations you should have early in your life as roommates. Take the early-days awkwardness and “getting to know you” as an opportunity to talk through some guidelines and communicate some preferences. Whether your roommate is an old friend or a complete stranger, sharing space will make the relationship an intense and potentially volatile one. Try to build a pattern for how you like to communicate and what balance you’ll create together.

As you get used to living in a space that’s (most likely) smaller than the solitary bedroom you left behind at Mom and Dad’s, here’s what to bring up with your new closest companion.

1. Schedule

This is probably information that was collected when you were assigned a roommate in the first place. Find out (more or less)

  • What time they go to bed on weeknights
  • What time they go to bed on weekends
  • How often they will be in the room

In a perfect world, your schedules will match in some ways (particularly in bedtime and waking up), and will be different in other ways, which will allow you both time to yourselves in your shared space. Some scheduling things can be worked around. Because I’m a deep sleeper, a mismatch in sleeping times doesn’t actually bother me that much. But I’m also a bit of a homebody, and cannot concentrate on anything else if a TV is on in the room. So scheduling homework and leisure time in a small room is a complicated process to say the least.

The best way to make your schedules work is to talk them through early on. Let the other person know when you’ll be gone and when you’ll be around. Ask for the same in return.

Knowing each other’s schedules should hopefully help to reduce conflict around noise, activity, and expectations of privacy in your room. Communicate this early, and continue to share your plans and preferences in this way as your time continues.

2. Establish some expectations

Talk through how you like to use your space, and how you will deal with chores. Recognize that no one else in the world shares your exact sense of cleanliness, organization, communication, sleep schedule, or social calendar. You will have to compromise. But this will be easier if you talk through

  • How messy the space will be
  • Where each person’s things will be stored
  • How cleaning chores will be divided
  • What noise levels are expected in the room (music, TV, and phone conversations)
  • Whether you’ll have visitors in the room, and how often (and if they will be allowed to stay the night)
  • What of yours is shared, and what the expectations for borrowed items will be
  • How issues of drinking and drugs will be handled in your room

This is a lot to talk through with someone, particularly with a stranger. But the first time you have this conversation should not be when your roommate arrives back with four drunk friends at 2 in the morning on a Wednesday. Nor should it happen after you borrowed their umbrella and this casual act caused your roommate distress. Or after you’ve passive-aggressively stacked the garbage four feet high in your little dorm trashcan because both of you think they took the trash out last time.

Have these conversations early. Know that rules change, and that both of you will be adjusting to college life and adult freedom at the same time as you’re sharing a bedroom. This is not an easy transition, and makes for some inevitably complicated roommate relations. But talk these things through early. Revisit often, but lay the groundwork for understanding your mutual expectations.

3. Establish mutual activities or interests

I met my roommate for senior year in a rock climbing class. It was a great start to a really fun living situation. 

This can save a roommate relationship. Particularly if this can be in a place outside the room, or in a way that can provide some relief from tensions or disagreements. Establish some similar interests, or some handy overlap in academic schedules that will allow for a shared meal. Sign up for a sport or club.

Getting out of the room and holding space for connection and conversation that doesn’t take place in your shared territory can be massively helpful. It can also help you feel more comfortable around each other in the room if you know each other better as fellow students, teammates, or just friends.

4. Establish separate activities, friends, and interests

At all costs, avoid creating an artificial competitive/sibling relationship with your roommate. Make sure you build some areas of life that are completely unrelated and, ideally, uninteresting to the person you’ll be sharing your space with over the coming months. Perhaps they’re wildly into rock climbing and you’ve decided to join the chess club. If you’ve already developed some mutual activities (see #3 above), then you should feel free to not invite your roommate to chess club, and perhaps let rock climbing wait until the following year.

It is easy to slip into spending way too much time with your roommate. You want to foster natural areas of overlapping interests and friends—particularly the friends who develop in the dorms. But you are far less likely to have the kind of petty conflicts over space and friends if you also have planned and consistent social schedules that have nothing at all to do with each other.

5. Acknowledge differences

One of the hardest things about living with someone new is realizing that everyone is truly different. It’s like going abroad in some ways—things you’ve always taken for granted about how “everyone is” turns out to not be as universal as you thought…and this can easily drive you absolutely crazy when confined to a tiny shared bedroom.

You will find differences between you and your roommate. For anything you take for granted in life—from organization to temperature to food storage to the volume of alarm clocks or the duration of phone calls. Things will be different.

Try to find a non-judgmental approach to talking about these things. Learn to say “this is so weird, but we always did things this way in my family, and I never even realized some people didn’t…” Embrace the learning that can come from these kinds of differences, and try to keep an open mind. Also learn to acknowledge when things are different. It might mean things are uncomfortable, but if you can articulate why that discomfort exists, it might be easier to find compromises and move on from there.

Good luck to you and this year ahead! As I wrote at the beginning of this blog, I did not enjoy a congenial roommate relationship—in fact by the end of the year, my roommate and I probably spoke about ten words to each other a week. It was unpleasant. Not terrible, but unpleasant. We might have been able to avoid some of that unpleasantness if we’d had real conversations at the beginning of the school year.

Or maybe not. Sometimes roommates just don’t get along. And on that happy note, good luck to you and I hope this is the start of a fabulous year! 

Also check out "Life in a Dorm Room" and "The Transition from High School to College."