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How to Choose a Roommate for College: Friend or Random Stranger?

It’s second semester senior year, and if your high school senior is college bound, they will most likely know where they are headed to next fall. It may seem as if all the big decisions have been made, but another consequential decision is also looming: how do you find a roommate for college?

Committing to a college and choosing the college roommate for the next entire year is a little bit scary but also very, very exciting. You might be meeting your best friend for life, your future bridesmaid, your golfing buddy for the next thirty years.

Or you might be meeting that weirdo who will haunt your dreams for the next twenty years, the one who wore the same clothes for an entire semester and hoarded rotting food under their bed.

For many, you’ll find something in between.

No matter what, your roommate experience has a significant effect on your academic, mental, and social well-being. When deciding how to choose a roommate for college, is it better to live with a friend, or to be matched with a stranger?

“The best answer I have is this: it depends on your kid,” says Beverly Low, Director of Guidance & College Counseling at Manchester Essex Middle High School in Massachusetts. “Each student should look at themselves objectively and try to answer a few basic questions,” says Low.

“First, what am I like to live with; and second, what will be the most supportive environment for me, academically, socially, and personally?”

If your teen is an introvert or prefers to play it safe, she may prefer to live with someone she already knows. Even if they sat in calculus together for a year, it’s still a good idea for your daughter to have an informal interview with her friend. And she should be honest about herself. “Ask your close friends how they would describe you,” says Low. Are you loud? Would they say you’re messy? Be friendly, but upfront about any deal breakers. The more information they share about each other in advance, the more successful the rooming situation will be. Try to come up with 3-4 ground rules upon which both roommates can agree.

What if your freshman doesn’t know anyone at college, or decides to reinvent himself in college and room with someone completely new? Most colleges now send a rooming survey that will ask a series of lifestyle questions to match students with compatible lifestyles, study habits, and sleep schedules. “Parents should not fill this survey out for their kids,” says Low. “Your idea of the hours that your child will keep, or whether they intend to go out a lot may not match their plans.”

If your senior is wondering how to choose a college roommate and a random match seems scary, consider going to an accepted student day at the school which your student will attend. “Students who come to an accepted student day often make a connection with someone they meet that weekend,”notes Low. “If you can swing it, it’s a great way to meet someone who is also looking for a roommate.”

And then there’s social media. Many colleges have an “Accepted Students” Facebook page where students can connect. Now is an excellent time for your senior to look critically at her own social media presence. “We sometimes joke that freshman orientation is actually more like a reunion because students have already met each other virtually,” says Low. Your rising freshman may have stalked someone on social media and gained an impression of their interests, lifestyle, and personality. Remember: they’ll be doing the same to your student. “You may have something in your profile that doesn’t really match up with who you really are, or similarly, you may see something on someone else’s profile that doesn’t fit your expectations. There’s that Brad Paisley song ‘So Much Cooler Online’ which is a good warning about when who you are on social media doesn’t add up to who you really are,” cautions Low.

Should your son choose a roommate solely because he has the same major? Some students may feel that living with another engineering student, for example, would mean a similar lifestyle and workload. But that can also be a bad idea. “In my experience, it’s a mistake. I’ve seen too much unintentional plagiarism, borrowing lab reports, stress, and competition over grades from living with someone who is in all the same classes.” There can also be a saturation point being in class all day with someone and living with them. Your room is your home base which should be a safe, comfortable, stress-free place. “I would recommend instead choosing a roommate based on a compatible lifestyle,” advises Low.

Parents, what’s your role in this process? Step back, even if you want to help.

“If you’ve raised your kid for 17-18 years and done a reasonably good job, it’s time to let your student make their own decisions,” says Low. “It can be hard living with another person—even when you’re married to them! But don’t deprive them of the learning opportunity by trying to remove messy situations for them. If you’ve done a good job, in most cases they will be able to work through this themselves.”

Often the most successful rooming situations are those where roommates don’t necessarily hang out with each other, but get along well together in their room. These relationships are “usually characterized by respecting each other’s space, physical and mental, setting basic ground rules upon which they both agree, and being open-minded,” says Low.

Getting ready for a first roommate? Here's more advice:

Helping to encourage the right attitude is definitely something parents can do.

Jane Parent, former editor at Your Teen, is the parent of three.

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