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How to 'train' your college roommate, and why you don't need to be friends

Many students over the next few weeks will be getting to know that stranger who shares their dorm room. Here's how to cope.
/ Source: TODAY

It’s no secret that freshman year of college presents a whole new set of challenges. From finding your classes to resolving conflicts, struggles go way beyond which Greek society to pledge, the occasional zit or gaining the dreaded “freshman 15.”

According to Debbie Lehr-Lee, founder of, the College Board estimates that 25 percent of kids in college will be back home before their sophomore year, and only about 56 percent graduate within six years.

One obstacle many students will face over the next few weeks is getting to know that complete stranger with whom they'll be spending a great deal of time: the roommate.


Mike Taberski, dean of students at New England College, said that often, what makes headlines are the nightmare scenarios — like that clueless roommate who prefers to run around naked and eat everyone’s food. But from experience, good stories outweigh the bad.

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Lehr-Lee and Taberski shared these tips on how to work with your new roommate to make college a great experience:

1. Remember: The people you live with don’t have to be your new best friends.

Instead of trying to BFF it up, Lehr-Lee advises students to think more like a team. Sit down and ask how to make the relationship a win-win for everyone. “If a deeper relationship develops out of it, that’s great,” she said. “But think bigger picture.”

2. Everyone’s expectations are different, so set up rules you can agree on, but be flexible.

Discuss the ground rules upfront. Find out what everyone agrees on and then commit even further by writing everything down and posting it someplace visible. Taberski suggests making it a living document that can be changed as needed. “At first, you might want to share everything,” he said. “But as time goes on, you [may need to check in and revisit the rules].” When discussing housekeeping issues, Lehr-Lee recommends setting up a chore chart. Also, remember to discuss day-to-day topics including daytime and overnight guests, room temperature and music volume, but keep it as fun and light as you can.

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3. You’re probably going to piss your roommate off, and since you’re not BFFs, you can still get through it if you communicate.

“I’ve found that it’s little issues — something like sharing shoes and turning lights on and off — that snowball into big ones,” said Taberski. From the start, make sure you can communicate with your roommate honestly and openly in a safe space. Start by asking for his or her thoughts on conflict resolution. This indicates you’re open to discussing things, no matter how uncomfortable or awkward the topic.

4. Succeed together — there’s an app for that.

Make time to sit down with your roommate and discuss individual goals for the semester and the year. Find out what he or she is trying to accomplish, and ask how you can help. One challenge many first-time students face is waking up on time. Lehr-Lee says one smartphone app that can help with this is Habit RPG, which tracks your goals and rewards you accordingly. And remember, “Hold each other accountable and reward yourselves with incentives like a Starbucks card,” she said. “Make it a game you try to win together.”

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5. When the going gets tough, the tough don’t call home.

Some matches aren’t going to work. Taberski says that one fascinating thing he’s encountered during his career is that the success factor for roommate compatibility lies less in background similarities and more in each person’s willingness to commit to the agreed upon rules. Even so, if things go awry, don’t pull your parents into your conflicts, said Lehr-Lee. Instead, go to your resident adviser to air your grievances.

And for parents should also resist intervening. "Listen, that's part of life and we have all been through it," said Lehr-Lee. "Don’t try to fix everything for your kids — it’s really not helping them.”