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Living in a college dorm can be a fun and exciting new living situation, but it can also be difficult if your adjustment and roommate situation don’t seem to be working. There are steps you can take to improve your student housing situation, as well as resources available to you.

We talked to Dr. Vicka Bell-Robinson, Director of Residence Life at Miami University. She shared the ways students can work to prevent issues, what to do when problems arise, and how to take next steps if necessary.

See also: Making the College Transition

Why it’s a transition

College freshmen living in a shared residence building encounter many transitional hurdles. The most obvious being a confined space they probably aren’t used to, shared with someone they don’t know. A typical suburban or middle class family that may be sending their student to college may have lived in a house with multiple bedrooms and other spaces for that student to spread out and get some alone time. This is not the case in a residence dormitory.

“For a lot of students who are going to college, of course not everyone, they’re coming from places, homes, where they haven’t necessarily had to share rooms or really a whole lot of space,” said Robinson.

Robinson explained how students have to adjust to a difference in space size as well as the fact that they now must be around another person or people all the time. She also pointed out that there is a socialization aspect of adjustment based on the household a student grew up in.

“I also think that parents try to do a good job of establishing routine and socializing their children to whatever the rules and practices are in their families, but when you join a residential community there’s a whole other socialization process that has to take place,” said Robinson.

She used the example of one student who came from a family that shared everything living with another student who came from a family that had different rules around sharing. These students had to establish new norms and cooperate with each other on their roommate relationship.

Preventing issues

Robinson expressed that the first step in a good roommate relationship is a conversation about living styles and expectations. At many colleges, the school attempts to facilitate this in some way. At Miami University, new roommates are expected to undergo a roommate agreement process, which is an online agreement that students access and work through with their roommate. If your school does not provide this, simply write down different talking points and what you and your roommate come to an agreement on. Robinson provided the following as examples of important talking points for establishing roommate rules and expectations:

  • When can we have guests over, and how many guests?
  • What is our rule around cleaning?
  • When will we have a regular check in to talk about how our relationship is going?
  • How and when should we communicate with each other if one of us has an issue to talk about?
  • How and when should we communicate with each other if something is going on in the room that makes one of us uncomfortable?
  • What time do we want to have the lights out during the week?
  • What shared belongings do we have? How will we share them?
  • What temperature should we keep the room?

While it may seem tedious to new students that may never have had a roommate experience, these are important topics to go over so they don’t become issues later on. So, be honest with one another and take the process seriously. Robinson explained that since students tend to go through these agreements early on in their relationships, students will often act more flexible than they actually are.

“They’re trying to be nice and they want to make friends, but then somebody eats somebody else’s Cheerios and it’s world war three because [they] never talked about it.”

Another important thing to consider is living with someone you already know.

“I caution people to think about rooming with somebody that they already know because inevitably there’s going to be some sort of difference in living experience, so it may not be a huge conflict, but they haven’t lived together. Even if they’re best friends, they haven’t lived together and when your best friend is your roommate and you have a roommate conflict, you don’t have a best friend to talk to about that roommate conflict and that can be challenging,” said Robinson.

This isn’t to say that friends or siblings shouldn’t be roommates, but simply to encourage students to think through whether or not this will be the most ideal situation.  

“Sometimes going with a random roommate and really working through that roommate agreement is the best way to approach a roommate selection process,” said Robinson.

She went on to say that people who know each other tend to take that process less seriously, so if you do decide to room with someone you know, to keep this in mind and work through the process as meticulously as you would with a stranger.

As for advice to parents, Robinson encourages positivity and understanding around their student’s roommate.

“It’s important that folks don’t expect the worst of their student’s roommate. We’re talking about another person who is also getting acclimated to the college experience, so assuming the worst is not helpful,” said Robinson.

Steps to mediate conflict

Of course, the first step in a conflict should be to talk to the other person. However, you’d be surprised how often this is not the case due to discomfort in confrontation and assumptions that the other person either should just know better or is doing whatever is bothering you on purpose.

“There are examples of two roommates where one roommate doesn’t know they’re in a conflict because the other roommate hasn’t mentioned it yet. Sometimes a behavior is really minor and completely adaptable for the student,” said Robinson, who used an example of a roommate that is turning on the lights. “If you don’t tell them that you’re having that problem, it just festers because people are creating their own narrative around what the reaction will be and how unaccommodating the other person’s going to be. And then by day 15, they can’t take it anymore and they’ve got to move out and it’s like, did you mention that turning the lights on is bothering you?”

While this is a comical explanation, this is a situation that happens time and time again. Making assumptions that the other person understands what exactly bothers you is impractical. Talking to the other student is the easiest way to get your point across, but if you aren’t comfortable with this, you can always consult your residence assistant to talk through the conflict and consider way to approach the situation. She may be able to walk you through the conflict and offer suggestions on how you can work through it on your own, or can step in and intervene if necessary. The RA can mediate conversations and help you and your roommate work through issues as a third party if things escalate.

When to stay and when to split

“What we say at Miami University is about 70 percent of our students have zero issues that they would classify as significant with their roommates. Most people get along and like their roommates,” said Robinson.

Robinson said that from there, they don’t do 30 percent room moves. In some situations, there are things the roommates are able to work out and cooperatively live together for the remainder of the year.

“But, after some conversations, after we’ve given it the good college try, if we can’t do it then sometimes people should just not live together and that’s okay,” said Robinson.

Housing and roommate situations shouldn’t be a distraction to your academics and college experience, so if the problem has escalated and after attempts at mediation doesn’t seem to be resolved, requesting a room change may be the solution.

“We want to help students get to a space where they can sleep, live, and really focus on why they’re here which is their academic success and persistence towards graduation,” said Robinson.

Communication, compromise, and working through conflict are part of college residence life, but there are situations that are not suited to a pair. This may be a non-personal issue of scheduling, such as if one student has classes or other commitments early in the morning while the other is coming home late at night. Or this may be a lifestyle issue, where one roommate is more studious and the other is more social, resulting in a living conflict. And, there are personal issues people have with each other that would create conflict.

“Students are human beings and human beings aren’t always nice to each other, so sometimes if someone says something about someone or gets physical, those kinds of situations are going to not allow a student to feel safe and comfortable in their space and [will] serve as a distraction,” said Robinson.

In these cases, Robinson believes it is important to get the student into a space that allows them to focus on their academics and commitments as soon as possible, rather than be in a space that is stressful and distracting to them.

If you are in a situation that isn’t working, try working through the mediation steps and reviewing (or creating!) the expectations for your living space. But, if all else fails, switching rooms may be what you need to feel comfortable and focused.