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College's Toughest Test

Getting along with a roommate can rival any midterm exam

SATURDAY, Aug. 18, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Kids going off to college at this time of the summer usually find themselves challenged by one of the toughest lessons even before classes begin: how to get along with a new roommate.

And for the increasing numbers of freshmen from only-child or two-child homes, where they probably had a room of their own, that test can be even harder.

"More than ever before, students have a 'my own' mentality," says Connie Carson, the director of residence life and housing at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "It's 'my own room' [and] 'my own shower' at home, so when they come to college and have to share a smaller living space, problems can arise quickly."

Dr. Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist and chairman of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's media committee, agrees that the home environment can be a stark contrast to dorm life.

"There will be students who were only-children and perhaps come from homes where family life was very well structured and where the parents told them what to do every minute," he says.

"Furthermore, it would likely have been quiet in the house so they could study, and then they go to a dormitory and it's complete chaos for them," Brody says. "They can't deal with the noise, the rooms aren't large and the lack of privacy is a huge issue."

Although dorm life adjustment issues usually range from the type of music played to messiness to unwanted boyfriends or girlfriends becoming almost-third roommates, Carson says the overriding factor typically behind the big roommate riffs is something else: communication.

"A big part of [communication problems] is that it's simply the human condition to avoid conflict so students let the little things go," she says.

"They'll have all of these minor differences and they'll kind of let them go and won't talk about them," she says. "But then it snowballs, and next thing you know they have a big blow-up, and then all kinds of little things come out."

Perhaps the most important step in communicating, Carson says, is simply not being presumptuous.

"The key is not making assumptions -- not assuming how your roommate's going to feel about something or how they're going to think," she says.

For those who've never had to establish boundaries with a roommate, the prospect of doing so with a complete stranger can be daunting, but Carson says that's where parents come in.

"Parents can help ease this transition by simply discussing these things with their child before the student comes to school," she says. "This prepares students for the learning experience they're about to embark on, both in and out of the classroom."

"The roommate situation," Brody adds, "is without a doubt one of the most important subjects in terms of a child's success in making the transition to college."

"The way it can go right is to prepare yourself for the fact that it's not going to be perfect," he adds.

"In addition, the parents should perhaps ease up on keeping the house so quiet during the kid's senior year in high school and give a little more free rein since the student will be on their own the following year," he says.

What To Do

For more tips on dealing with new roommates, check out or Then, if you're in the mood for some roommate war stories, visit

SOURCES: Interviews with Connie Carson, director of residence life and housing, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Richard Brody, M.D., child psychiatrist, Silver Spring, Md., and chairman, media committee, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Washington, D.C.
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