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Housing & Residential Life

An RA's Best Tips for Helping Roommates Get Along

Cambria Pilger

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Whether your student chose their roommate or is rooming with someone they never met, it can be intimidating to live in an unfamiliar place, away from home and surrounded by new people.

Some first-year roommates become best friends, from day one of college through graduation. Others just try to get through the year (and hope they score a single room as a sophomore).

My own personal experience fell in the middle. I got along with my freshman roommate but we didn’t interact a lot outside of our room and that was fine. I decided to apply to be a Resident Assistant (RA) for sophomore year because I wanted to be challenged in my relationships, organize fun and creative events, and support and dote on those living in my hall.

I learned a lot as an RA and am happy to share my insights!

A roommate agreement is easy — and essential.

Most schools pair roommates based on common interests, but even in the best matches there’s room for conflict. Not surprisingly, living, sleeping and studying a few feet away from another person can lead to irritation and misunderstanding. Perhaps one roommate doesn’t clean their half of the room, stays up super late in the room talking to friends, or never actually leaves the room.

In these situations, one of the best tools students can turn to is a roommate agreement. The object is to lay out, early on, the rules each person wants to have for the room. How late is too late to have friends over? Are roommates allowed to borrow each other’s stuff? If one person has a complaint about the other, how should they communicate it (tell them, write a note, etc.)?

Whenever I was called in to help roommates work through an issue, one of my first questions was whether it was covered by their roommate agreement. If there was a clear violation, we could use the agreement as a starting point to resolve the conflict.

Take Kate and Emily. At the start of the year, they discussed their sleep routines and found that they both went to bed around 10. They agreed they’d be quiet if one of them stayed up later than the other. However, as the weeks passed, Kate’s sleep schedule shifted. She stayed up late studying or hanging out with friends in the room when Emily was trying to sleep.

All I had to do was draw their attention to the roommate agreement. Kate and Emily talked it over and decided that, if either one of them stayed up later than the other, they should do so in one of the lounges or study rooms and respect their roommate’s sleep time.

My university’s Residence Life department passes out roommate agreements. If your student’s school doesn’t, they and their roommate can create one by discussing what’s important to them or use a template like this: Rules may need to evolve as the year goes on, so your student and their roomie should be ready to revisit this conversation.

Who is your student’s neutral support person?

It's key to start building supportive relationships early in college. When a problem comes up, whether big or small, it’s helpful for students to have someone to talk to outside the situation. Maybe it’s an older student they know from a club or team, an athletic coach, or a teaching assistant in one of their classes who’s become a mentor. They can turn to this person to share what they’re going through, unload some of their emotions, and brainstorm a solution.

One of my hall residents relied on me in this way. Adam got along with his roommate most of the time, but when they did fight or argue, he’d come to me to talk through the situation and get a new perspective on it. I could offer a listening ear and advice without getting personally involved.

Luckily, in my hall I didn’t have to intervene too many times because students resolved their problems on their own — and this was ideal. Although as an RA I was there to support and guide residents (and if a problem was serious, I was ready to step in), my job was to empower them to defuse conflict on their own rather than referee every squabble.

My top recommendations for dealing with residence life and roommate challenges:

  1. Use the resources. There are so many, from residence life leadership and student success programs to faculty and staff support, friends and family. Especially during the first year, encourage your student to take advantage of these resources to work through uncertainty or conflict.
  2. Make a connection. Your student and their roommate may be very different people, with different habits and backgrounds. Finding things they have in common will help them strengthen their relationship and be more comfortable living with one another.
  3. Talk honestly about disagreements. Your student shouldn’t be afraid to talk to their roommate. After all, this is new territory for both of them. The flip side of this is being open to criticism or feedback from the roommate. A willingness to listen needs to come from both sides.
  4. Don’t fume silently. Address issues promptly instead of ignoring them. This could mean talking to the RA to design an action plan, being straight-up with their roommate about how they feel and suggesting a compromise, or learning to accept things as they are.
  5. Know that there is never a single solution. Every student and situation is unique. Remembering this is always the first step to solving problems and keeping peace with one’s roommate.
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Cambria Pilger is a recent graduate of Whitworth University. She studied journalism and mass media communication, with minors in Spanish and business. She is a freelance writer and a Communications & Development Admin at a local ministry. Cambria is passionate about understanding humans, exploring the world, thinking deeply, developing skills and getting to know people.
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