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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 05/10/2010

How to get the right college roommate

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Eileen Wilkinson, a college counselor for almost 25 years and former associate director of admissions at Marymount University in Virginia. She has also served as an admissions consultant for major colleges and universities and currently works in education counseling for PrepMatters.

By Eileen Wilkinson
High school seniors heading to college in the fall will soon receive a questionnaire designed to ferret out a student’s preferences related to campus housing. These neophytes in the realm of campus housing should not take this form lightly. It is often the opportunity for students to shape how they will live for the next semester (presumably, the year), so there is terrific incentive to get it right.

Back in the day when I was a freshman in college, roommate selection seemed hardly a scientific process....

Curlers in her hair and sporting dark, purple eye shadow, she opened the door to my tentative knock with a look that was hardly welcoming. Years later, I still remember that sinking feeling in my stomach when I realized that, yes, this was my room, and—oh my!—this must be Mary Magdalene from Milwaukee, my freshman roommate.

From both of our perspectives at the time, this was clearly the work of some malevolent administrative-type from deep in the bowels of the Residence Life office.

Mary Magdalene was a flamboyant artist who reveled in heavy metal until her desired “lights out” at 10 p.m.; I preferred the Eagles, a palette of pastels in my wardrobe, and a self-imposed 3 a.m. curfew. Not exactly a match made in heaven.

Nowadays, there is significant evidence that residential colleges are recognizing more of a connection between student retention rates and residence life bliss. Still, freshmen can find themselves with an incompatible roommate if they are not honest in their self-assessment.

I think of one boy I worked with valued a clean living environment, but was able to enjoy one because his mother was his personal maid, though loudly objected to the role. He, of course, was not able to sustain it on his own—to the great annoyance of his fastidious roommate.

In addition to the question of a roommate or suite-mates for consideration, many colleges are doing much more to cater to their students’ broader lifestyle preferences. In that effort, a wide variety of “living-learning” communities have blossomed on campuses in the last couple of decades.

A surprising number of schools offer their students a seemingly endless range of housing possibilities, from cultural or language-based residence environments, to an anime-themed center, to communities focused on specific lifestyles, such as ones for vegans or those adhering to substance-free living.

As an example, check out the numerous options available at the University of Maryland, College Park.

These dedicated living-learning communities frequently offer the benefit of living with similarly-minded students, and, at some schools, have the added perk of better housing accommodations.

While Facebook or other social networking devices can be valuable tools for searching for a prospective roommate, students should understand that they need not search for a “best friend forever,” but instead a person with whom they can live compatibly within the small confines of a typical dorm room.

It’s true that a Facebook profile can give you a heads up about a potential roommate’s music preferences (where was it when I needed it?), but it most likely will not divulge important, yet mundane information about a roommate’s studying, sleeping and hygiene habits.

And if the profile is that revealing, well, that says a little something, too, doesn’t it? In short, sometimes what someone looks for in a social companion is different from what one needs in a roommate.

Despite everyone’s efforts to plan carefully, at times, freshmen still find themselves paired with the “roommate from hell.” There is likely a way out, but it won’t happen over night. Students should tell their resident director or advisor that they want a change.

Typically, the college representative will insist on waiting some time—weeks or perhaps even a full semester—to have roommates work on disagreements and see if they can be mitigated.
In the meantime, they should take heart.

Even Mary Magdalene and I, despite our initial distaste for one another, ended up being good roommates. She still laughingly accused me of having a “beige” personality (guilty), and I never fully embraced every aspect of her musical taste, but we learned through the months how to live together in relative harmony.


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 10, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, College Life, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  campus housing, college admissions, college dormitories, college dorms, college housing, college roommates, dormitories, getting a college roommate, getting along with a roommate  
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For many of these incoming freshmen, this fall will be the first time they have EVER had to share a room. Is the adjustment easier for those students who have not had their own bedroom growing up?

Posted by: destinysmom | May 10, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

I cannot speak for everyone, but it would seem that any reasonable amount of time spent sharing space with another helps in preparation for the college roommate experience. This may also include summer camp, or an academic program providing an introduction to "dorm" life. If they're not sharing a room already, I doubt that many rising college freshmen could be happily convinced to take the top bunk in their 9-year-old sibling's room-- even if it would make the transition to college smoother sailing in the roommate department.

Posted by: EileenWilkinson | May 10, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

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