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In many ways, university is about independence. Ironically, though, there’s little alone time since most students live with other people. The majority live cooperatively and peacefully with roommates, floormates, and suitemates. Here’s how you can do that, too.

Where’s Home?

The majority of students live on campus, especially during their first year at school. You and your roommates or floormates will need to adhere to certain policies about alcohol, noise, and more. This might feel constricting, but there are plenty of benefits, too. Most Residential Assistants (RAs) are trained to help students sort through conflicts. “Our staff get to talk with the director of the counselling centre,” says Teresa Clounch, associate dean of students at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. “[They talk] about issues that students might be dealing with while they’re transitioning to their first year at university.”

Living off-campus offers different freedoms, but you’ll also need to be prepared to try a little harder to find a mediator if conflict erupts, and sharing an apartment might involve splitting utility bills and communicating with a landlord. If you do need help, you can still contact your school’s student housing services office for guidance.

No matter where you live, the basics of successfully sharing space include cleaning up after yourself, being mindful of how much noise you make, and not hogging the TV. Not only is this considerate, but it will also set a precedent that your roommates will want to follow, and reduce the potential for resentments.

Do Good Friends Make Good Roommates?

There are two schools of thought about how to select a roommate. Some people argue that living with a friend is the best route. Others say to go with a more casual acquaintance or a potluck pairing.

Larissa W., a senior at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, decided to give potluck a try after experiencing a few small issues with friends-turned-roommates.

“I thought living with “randoms” would be better than living with people I knew,” she says. Unfortunately, “There was a lot of disagreement and anger.” So the next year, Larissa went back to living with a roommate she already knew. This has been her best experience yet because they have an agree-to-disagree philosophy and are respectful of each other.

Clounch notes that regardless of whether you choose to live with an old friend or an unknown person, it’s important to discuss expectations. “It’s always good to sit down and get to know that person,” she says. “That can help alleviate conflict.”

Dirty Dishes, Stolen Food, and Loud Noises… Oh My!

According to a recent Student Health 101 survey of more than 1,600 students, nearly 75 percent say they have clashed with a roommate over cleanliness. Other top issues include noise, privacy, and sleep schedules.

More of the most common roommate issues

Student Health 101 recently asked students, “Which of the following issues have caused you conflict in a shared living space? Choose all that apply.” Understanding what might cause you and your shared-space-mates frustration can help you plan ahead and prevent conflict.

Here’s what students said:

74% = Cleanliness
59% = Noise
38% = Privacy
36% = Waking/sleeping schedule
32% = Food and/or cooking
30% = Borrowing (using other people’s stuff)
20% = Bills
11% = Personal beliefs and/or views (political, religious, etc.)

Students also noted the following concerns:

  • Room temperature
  • Boyfriends/girlfriends/significant others visiting
  • Having visitors spend the night without asking
  • Drinking, other drugs, and smoking
  • Partying
  • Hogging the bathroom
  • Homophobia
  • Harassing or “ganging up on” a disliked roommate
  • Respect for other people’s belongings
  • Snoring

All of these issues can be calmly solved. Annie L., a first-year student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, attributes the success of her living situation to the rules she and her roommates determined early on.

Communication Is Key
Annie says she and her roommates communicate regularly. “If there’s an issue, resolve it as smoothly, maturely, and as soon as possible,” she advises. Make sure that everyone is present for conversations so that they don’t become an opportunity to blame the absent person.

Be sensitive to differences of opinion and cultural background; not everyone has the same expectations. Each person will need to compromise a bit.

If there is conflict, be up front and respectful, rather than passive-aggressive. Larissa recalls a situation when her roommates left sticky notes about various gripes. “It was meant as a joke, but that was not how it came across. We sat down and discussed what needed to change, and I stated that I felt sticky notes weren’t an effective means of communicating, and that we should do it face-to-face [to discuss our] different viewpoints.”

Establish a Plan
Consider writing a roommate contract within the first few days of moving in together. If you live on campus, your RA probably has a template you can follow. Figure out your expectations for cleaning, social gatherings, cooking meals, and paying bills. Have all the roommates sign the agreement so there will be no room for discrepancy if a question arises.

Sample roommate contracts

But sometimes it’s hard to stick to an agreement that you made in the beginning of a semester or a school year. One week you might have a major assignment due, or you might have an exam to study for. During exams and project submissions, washing dishes may be the last thing you want to do. Jessica E., a second-year student at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario, believes that it’s essential to be considerate while getting the chores done. “We have an agreement, but if we notice the room is messy, one of us will clean it. If the dishes are piling up, one of us will do them. It just depends on our schedules and how much homework we both have. If I realize [my roommate] has an exam or a project due tomorrow, yet our dishes are crazy, I’ll do them,” she says.

It can help to make sure everyone knows what the expectations are for each responsibility. Label tools for different chores and specify how to handle things like mail, vacuuming, quiet hours, and visitors. Write down the details. Consider adding in some incentives. For example, if every chore is completed on time during the week, everyone could pitch in for some ice cream. Or if one roommate takes the trash out a few times in a row, someone else could vacuum his or her bedroom as a thank you.

In a best-case scenario, roommates can be live-in best friends. At worst, they can be people you have to tolerate.  Although you can’t always decide whom you’ll live with, or how other people behave, you can control what you do. Approaching issues with patience and understanding can give you and your shared-space-mates a head start on peaceful living.

Take Action!

  • Think about your living preferences. What are your cleanliness, neatness, and noise standards? How do you feel about visitors?
  • Establish rules early on. Get to know your roommates and their expectations.
  • Write a roommate agreement or contract.
  • Choose your battles and be patient with others.
  • Communicate in a calm, mature manner.
  • Agree to disagree about certain issues.
  • If you’re having trouble resolving conflicts, consult your RA or housing services office.

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Get help or find out more
Your campus likely has many people who can offer help with roommate issues. Residential Assistants (RAs) are trained to provide guidance about living with other people. The housing director can assist, too. University health and counselling centres typicaly offer group sessions or can arrange for a mediated roommate meeting. Also look for workshops that focus on conflict resolution and communication or listening skills.

Mount Royal University, Roommate Starter Kit

University of Saskatchewan, Roommates

Sarah Lawrence College, Roommate Conflicts: Confrontation, Communication, Mediation

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Emily Glover is a recent journalism graduate from the University of Kansas. She writes Pursuit of Healthfulness, a wellness blog.