In a college dorm room, it can be easy for conflicts to arise — especially if a roommate is messy, steals personal items or has guests that overstay their welcome.
But learning conflict resolution and how to live with someone are important life skills to develop to prepare for the real world, residence life experts say.
“Conflict is uncomfortable, but it’s inevitable whether you’re in a roommate relationship, a group project, in a student organization or on a team,” says Jana Valentine, assistant dean of residential life and community standards at Bryant University in Rhode Island. “We want to provide students with the skills to work through things that they can then take and have with them.”
Here are eight tips from experts on how to resolve an issue with a roommate.
1. Aim for a Roommate With a Similar Living Style
Many freshmen are assigned a roommate based on their responses to a residence life questionnaire that asks about sleeping habits, cleanliness and interests. Be honest while filling out the form, says Katie Burns, academic advisor and college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based education consulting company.
“Don’t fill it out aspirationally,” she adds. “If you’re not a super clean person, don’t say that you are, even if you really want to be.”
Some first-year students prefer or feel pressure to find a roommate on their own through social media or a mutual friend. But Monique Bates, director of residential life at Longwood University in Virginia, says not to “assume that how that person presents themselves to be on social media is who they actually are” and to meet in person to learn about their habits and interests. If you live in close proximity, try to get together a few times, otherwise you can connect at orientation.
For upperclassmen, it’s tempting to live with friends. But be sure that your living expectations align beforehand and that you would feel comfortable bringing up any potential problem.
“Sometimes your best friends don’t make the best roommates,” Valentine says. “And sometimes a really good roommate is a great person to live with, but maybe you’re not best friends outside of the living situation. And that’s okay too.”
2. Outline Expectations Upfront
Before the semester starts, go over living expectations with your roommate. Make sure to discuss things like chores, overnight guests, cleanliness, quiet hours and sharing items. You might even want to create a written agreement. And have regular meetings throughout the year.
“The best way to avoid any sort of conflict is to address it before it even occurs,” Bates says.
3. Communicate Your Frustrations
In order to find a solution to a problem, both roommates must be aware that there is an issue. Don’t just make plans to move out, for example, without bringing it up to your roommate first, experts say.
Communicate right away and let your roommate know what’s bothering you rather than letting it fester. If feelings of frustration are left unaddressed, they can build up over time and escalate the conflict.
“When you’re living in close quarters, it can be hard and tensions can be high,” Burns says. “There’s a lot of emotions that happen in college, but you can always work things out with good communication.”
4. Find Your Own Space
Dorms are small, so try to find a spot on campus — like the library, coffee shop or study rooms — to visit on a regular basis as a way to not be stuck in your room all the time. You can use that space to have alone time and study, watch a show or eat a meal.
“So many dorms are overcrowded, you’ve got forced triples happening,” Burns says. “There’s not a lot of room for anything.”
5. Beware of Venting to Other People
Try to avoid complaining to other people, other than a residence life staff member, about your roommate problems.
“Especially for first-year students, at any institution, there’s only so many degrees of freedom between you and the next person,” Bates says. “If you’re speaking with friends, colleagues and peers, you never know how that game of telephone will transpire. Word might get back to that person and it appears as if you’re speaking negatively about them without speaking to them directly.”
It’s also important to stay away from parental intervention, as parents likely hold partial views about the situation.
6. Ask Your Resident Assistant for Help
Talking to a roommate about a problem can be intimidating, so use your resident assistant as a resource. RAs are student staff members who live in college residence halls and act as peer mentors.
You can conduct mock conversations with that person to practice what to say to your roommate. RAs are trained to serve as unbiased mediators, so they can also help with the actual conversation if requested.
7. Reach Out to Other Support Staff
Sometimes a problem is more serious, such as worries about a roommate’s mental health or a physically dangerous situation. Students should talk with their RA to learn about other support options, or reach out to other professional residence life staff members or counselors themselves.
“College can be stressful enough,” Valentine says. “Know that there are resources and support available. Students are not in it alone, we can help them work through that conflict.”
8. Request a Room Change
If it’s not possible to resolve the situation, students can request to move. Policies vary per institution, but residence life staff typically investigate the conflict to determine whether a change is appropriate. Staff members then help students look for openings in other housing communities or assign them to a new space.
“A lot of it depends on if space is even available to move,” Valentine says. “But in order to be able to move, you do have to go through the mediation process. College campuses, especially a campus like Bryant University, we’re a smaller institution. So we may be able to move someone in certain situations, but you’re gonna see that person again. We want people to feel comfortable and be respectful to each other.”
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