Learning at college goes well beyond coursework. New students have to deal with greater responsibility, more independence, managing a demanding course load — and, of course, the social scene. When a roommate is thrown into the mix, it may feel like you're juggling all that stuff while living in a 10' x 10' box with a virtual stranger.

But having a roommate doesn't need to be one more thing to worry about. When students go into their living situations with realistic expectations and a willingness to compromise, things can work out just fine.

Great Expectations

For many people heading off to college, movies and fiction are their only reference for the whole roommate experience. So they might think a roommate will be either (a) a complete freak who makes living at the library seem attractive, or (b) a BFF who will be by their side every step of the way as they traverse the world of parties, finals, and crowded laundry rooms.

The truth is, roommates tend to fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Keep your expectations realistic with a little advance planning:

Talk Early, Talk Well

When you first meet your roommate, chances are you'll both be on your best behavior. You want to get along, since this is the person who's going to be sharing your living space for the next year. But try to think ahead to potential problem scenarios, too.

For example, imagine it's 11 p.m. and you're working on a paper that's due in the morning. Your roommate comes in with friends who want to hang out in your room. Talking ahead of time about how to handle situations like this can help you respect each other's wishes when the time comes.

Talk about your likes, dislikes, and habits. Encourage your roommate to do the same. For instance, does it drive you nuts when people take things without asking first? Does perfume trigger your asthma? Let your roommate know these things from the start.

Think about additional questions to ask. A sibling or friend who knows you well may be able to help out if you're looking for ideas. Here are a few:

Be honest, and realize that you'll both have to compromise on some things. Let's say you usually don't go to sleep until 2 a.m., but your roommate is counting sheep by 11 p.m. Respect that — have a lights-out at midnight rule, and use a focused-beam desk light and headphones if you really have to study or listen to tunes.

When you have these conversations about your expectations, consider writing down what you both decide so that it's clear later on if you need something to refer to.

The Day-to-Day

In the beginning, many roommates tend to stay close. Neither knows a lot of other people, and so they stick together — eating, signing up for classes or activities, and going to parties together.

As the semester continues, things may change. After a while, you may feel comfortable enough with each other to drop the best behavior you maintained early on. You may not enjoy each other's constant company. As your circle of friends widens, you or your roommate might start hanging out with classmates or join a sorority or fraternity. It is perfectly normal to drift apart as you both learn to stand on your own two feet.

Whatever ups and downs your relationship goes through, maintaining respect for each other is vital. Stick to your roommate agreement. Respect your roommate's space and needs, and chances are your roommate will respect yours.

Even the most respectful roommates have spats sometimes. Anytime you can't resolve things on your own, ask your resident advisor to help you work out the conflict.

Big Problems in a Little Room

Sometimes there are problems above and beyond your roommate eating your last pack of noodles. If your roomie starts getting into trouble and brings it back to the dorm, it can affect you negatively.

Here are issues that some students deal with, and tips on how to get through them.

Your Roommate Breaks Dorm Rules

If a roommate does drugs or drinks alcohol in the room, you're at risk of getting in trouble, too. You don't have to make your roommate stop — you often can't. But you can encourage him or her not to do it in your room. If your roommate blows you off, it's a good idea to go to your RA.

Your Roommate Has Unhealthy Habits

Living in close quarters often means getting to know more about each other than you might want. Some people bring bad habits to school; others develop them once they're there. Students who can't handle the extra pressures of college may start smoking, develop eating disorders, self-harm, abuse drugs, binge drink, or become depressed.

Get help or advice from an RA if you notice signs that a roommate is struggling with unhealthy or harmful behaviors. You don't have to be the one to get a roommate to stop or go to the student health center. But you can tell your RA, who'll take it from there.

You and Your roommate Are Too Different

College campuses are pretty diverse places. Your roommate may be very different in terms of religion, economic background, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, values, or other things.

Some people are uneasy when faced with new situations and people. You may feel uncomfortable at first with a roommate who is very different from you — and your roommate might feel the same way.

Give yourself some time to get to know each other. Keep an open mind and you'll probably find you have some common ground.

Getting to know people who are different from you is one of the opportunities you get from going to college. After you graduate, you may work with lots of different people from a variety of backgrounds. Interacting with new types of people in college can prepare you for the real world.

You Just Can't Live Together Anymore

Sometimes, people are just incompatible. Depending on your school, you may be able to change roommates, but it can be hard. You'll probably have to meet with an RA and/or a dean before you can move. Then you'll have to relive move-in day all over again — but this time in the middle of classes, activities, deadlines, and the bustle of daily life.

Think about changing roommates as a last resort. It might not be easy to get a new roommate. You may be encouraged to work things out as best you can until the semester is over.

Roommates Teach Life Skills

Life with a roomie can be a challenge at times — even when your roomie is your BFF. You may have moments when you're glad to have someone to procrastinate with. On other days, you might wish you could lock your roommate in the closet with his or her semester's worth of ripe laundry.

People who grew up sharing a room with a sibling may have an easier time adjusting to roommate life than someone who's never had to share a space. But if you've never shared a room before, don't worry. You can learn how to be a roommate just like you can learn anything else in college.

Three skills help people live together comfortably: compromise, maturity, and respect. Building these skills now can help you get along well with coworkers, bosses, and other people later in life.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2013

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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