By Jane Parent
Wearing clothes without permission. Eating their food without asking. Leaving dirty clothes on their side of the room. Using their bath towel. Turning the light on at 1:00 a.m. because you needed something out of your dresser. Common sense would tell any freshman that this is all bad college roommate behavior, right?
Not necessarily. Most American freshman have no clue what being a good roommate means because they’ve never been a roommate before. According to the 2012 US. Census, the average American family only has 1.8 children under eighteen living in their household. Household density—the number of persons per room—has been steadily declining over the last century. American homes are more spacious than ever. In 1995, the median size of a new single family home was 1,950 feet. In 2015, the median size increased to 2,600 square feet, an all-time high. Forty-one percent of new homes now have four bedrooms or more. American families are getting smaller while our homes have more living space and more bedrooms—and that means that fewer children have ever shared a room with a sibling.
What Makes a Good College Roommate?
Today most American college students arrive on campus never having shared a room at all, let alone a shoebox-sized room with a complete stranger they might not even like very much. “For some kids, it’s incredibly stressful when they are used to having a room all to themselves,” says Beverly Low, Director of Guidance & College Counseling at Manchester Essex Regional High School in Massachusetts, and former Dean of First-Year Students at Colgate University. “It’s the first time many of them have ever lived away from home, and then add the fact that campuses are becoming more and more diverse with an increase in international students from very different backgrounds and life experiences.” Many students simply aren’t equipped to live with a roommate who may have different habits, cultural practices, even personal hygiene expectations.
Expectations may collide with reality before a student even sets foot on campus, as many colleges make housing assignments using complicated Match.com-style lifestyle surveys. Students may think that they’re rooming with someone who has similar habits and attitudes—but those questionnaires aren’t always accurate. “We found that a big problem with these housing surveys is that the parents were filling them out instead of the student, and they simply weren’t honest. The parent’s perspective was often based on how they WANT their child to live or behave in college, when in reality their student might secretly smoke cigarettes, enjoy having a messy room, and actually like to get up early for school.” And students themselves may have “romantic notions of the perfect college roommate—the instant best friend for the rest of my life,” says Low. “And while it’s nice when it happens, best friend roommates are pretty uncommon.”
College Roommate Tips For Freshmen
So before college starts, how can parents prepare their student for a successful college roommate experience?
Talk to your son or daughter about having realistic expectations of their rooming situation. “Have an open mind and practical expectations,” says Low. How do you see yourself using your room? Do you want to study there? What is your daily class schedule? Before they get to campus, discuss with your future freshman what his or her non-negotiables are. Is it someone touching their stuff? Is it their roommate having lots of friends over to hang out when they want to sleep? “Many of these issues are not going to be real to your student until they are actually sharing space and living in that room. But talking these things over in advance helps them at least to start thinking,” points out Low.
Talking clearly with your roommate about what you need is one of the best ways students can eliminate little problems before they become big problems. Many colleges encourage students at the beginning of the school year to sit down with the help of residential staff and work out a rooming agreement together. “Parents can coach their students to self-advocate and to identify those things that are most important to them, to talk about differences, and to encourage them to be open and direct about those things from the outset,” advises Low.
Be open to growth and change, even if it’s uncomfortable. Learning to interact effectively with others is a life skill that will be a central element for success as an adult. “I always encourage students to embrace what they can learn from each other,” Low comments, “as they will enrich their own lives by learning about different cultures and having their own stereotypes of people challenged by living with someone who is different from them.”
So when your student calls to complain about their roommate—and they will—what should parents do? “Listen very thoroughly and resist the urge to swoop in and try to fix things,” advises Low. “You will get phone calls from college when things are awesome and when they’re awful. Wiithin twenty-four hours your student is fine and has moved on while you feel sick with anxiety.” Instead, guide your student to finding solutions with questions such as “What do you think you should do next?” If your student isn’t getting along with his or her roommate, encourage him or her to make social connections with students on his floor, in classes, through clubs and activities. And remember, parents, to take the long view: even a lousy college roommate can be a growth experience that teaches your son or daughter essential life skills.
Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.