From music to technology to even how they communicate, today's college first-year students have little in common with their parents' undergraduate experiences. In my discussions with students and their parents, both groups are often surprised to think about another point of differentiation -- the fact that while Mom or Dad likely shared a room with a sibling (or two) for the 17 years leading up to going away to school. In contrast, many of their sons and daughters did not, and must now quickly learn how to adapt to not only living with someone, but living with a total stranger -- often in a small space.
Navigating this transition is easier for some new college students than for others, but in order to prepare, there are several things I recommend in the days prior to arriving on campus and once there.
First, parents should coach students on the skills needed to survive successfully in a roommate situation. These include two key abilities -- maintaining respectful communication and learning to compromise -- that they can carry with them into many other personal and professional situations later in life, so it's a good idea to start honing in on them now.
Next, as a subset of these two vital skills, recognize that it's always better for new roommates to set ground rules and establish expectations early in the semester, and to do so face-to-face. If you are a morning person or prefer to listen to loud music while studying, it's a good idea to let your roommate know early on and to inquire about their preferences and habits. Once you have communicated what areas you can adapt to and what's "non-negotiable," you can work to find a mutually-beneficial compromise.
Another potential pitfall concerns the massive surge in social media and how it has become so infused in the lives of college students. While tools like Facebook and Twitter can provide a helpful channel in putting a face with a name or helping to provide a cheat sheet of someone's likes and dislikes, these only provide a snapshot into who a person really is. Because of this, incoming students should not rely on them exclusively when trying to learn about a roommate, nor should they use what someone tweeted or a Facebook photo to make an early, quick judgment. There is no replacement for an actual telephone or face-to-face conversation to really start getting to know someone.
Finally, it is a good idea to moderate expectations about the role that a roommate serves. As Mom or Dad can likely attest, this new roommate is someone with whom you need to share a space for the next nine months and to do so in a respectful manner. The person across the room is not required to be your future maid of honor or best man or even best friend for life. If it happens, that's great -- but it does not happen all the time, and realizing this may help to alleviate some of the pressure. Oftentimes, the best roommates aren't necessarily best friends.
Embarking on a college career is an exciting time, and one that introduces new students to a broad range of new opportunities, like learning how to live in a new kind of community. Being aware of possible trouble spots and being mindful of how to be ready for these encounters can only serve to enhance the overall experience -- including the opportunity to create a terrific, positive roommate relationship.