The canon of freshman-year roommate horror stories is as old as dorm life. Gruesome tales of ludicrously ill-conceived cohabitation have been anxiously repeated by countless high-school seniors, embellished (though not always by much) for maximum drama, and immortalized in movies like Animal House and PCU.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW OUR GALLERY OF FAMOUS COLLEGE ROOMMATES
To get a sense of just how strange it can feel to be paired with a roommate by a large bureaucracy, The Daily Beast tracked down the former college roommates of future celebrities. From Barack Obama's air-conditioning quirks to John Kerry's odd sleeping habits to Madonna's penchant for risk-taking, their former roommates' anecdotes say a lot about how to navigate your freshman-year living situation.
But such navigational skills are becoming less necessary, as the increasingly sophisticated science being used by colleges in matching up roommates is making horror stories a thing of the past. Today, many schools are using social-networking techniques to make sure there are no surprises come move-in day. So this year, whether your freshman roommate ends up as your best friend or your worst enemy, chances are fate won't be to blame. As first-year students flood campuses over the next few weeks, the annual mating dance of who gets matched up with who in the dorms looks more like online dating than luck of the draw.
Consider Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University. More than three-quarters of its freshman this fall will move in with a roommate they themselves selected via an Internet matchmaking service. Students post a profile, complete with a detailed questionnaire and photos, and can then browse other potential roommates.
After submitting their profiles, a courtship of sorts ensues as the teens use a messaging system to pair off. “We understand that this is a generation that uses the Internet to have a say over every aspect of their life,” says Joel Quintong, director of residential life at Sacred Heart. “Why would picking where they live or with whom be different?”
It's a far cry from the days of perfunctory questionnaires that went no further than questions about smoking habits and bedtimes. Dozens of colleges this summer employed do-it-yourself systems similar to Sacred Heart’s, and most others allow students at least some hand in choosing their roommate. “In reality, they were doing it already via Facebook or MySpace,” Quintong says. “This just gives a little more structure.” For better or worse, social networking has forever changed dorm-mate matching. Even at schools with more traditional pairing processes, students and parents log on as soon as room assignments go out, Googling and Facebooking the name of their roommate-to-be before they've even spoken to them. “The problem arises when they make snap judgments before ever even talking to the person,” says Jennifer Frank, Duke University’s assistant director of accommodations for residence life and housing services. Frank remembers one such call shortly after the roommate assignments went out. “There was a picture of a girl, complete with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a slutty outfit. Her roommate saw it and told us, ‘I can’t live with a person like this,’” Frank recalls. “It turned out to be her Halloween costume and they lived perfectly fine together.”
The worst-case scenario, say school administrators, is when parents get involved. Some go as far as filling out the housing questionnaire to ensure their offspring get the roommate they want for them. “Helicopter parents have overseen every part of their child’s life since birth, so why not this?” says Emily Glenn, librarian for the Association of College & University Housing Officers. “Unfortunately, their idea of their child is sometimes based more on fiction than fact.”
But students can be equally picky. “This is very clearly a group of kids raised on reality TV and comfortable with self-disclosure,” says L.E. Stokes, housing-assignment coordinator at Malibu, California-based Pepperdine University. On its simple housing form, Pepperdine tries to minimize conflicts by asking standard questions about religious beliefs, borrowing habits, and neatness concerns.
But then it goes beyond that, asking students to include details about anything they deem significant. “They see things like what restaurants they like to eat at as telling,” Stokes says. “We’ve had students ask for roommates of a certain Christian denomination, not to be placed with a gay student, even one who wanted a roommate that liked to keep the door shut at all times—things I have no way of knowing.”
There are still holdouts: At Princeton and Stanford, freshman don’t know who their roommate will be until move-in day. “This policy is rooted in the belief that the relationship you and your roommate have with each other will be more positive and successful if it begins from the point of face-to-face interactions,” explains Stanford’s charmingly anachronistic handbook, “rather than being shaped by any preconceived notions stemming from limited information or online communications.”
As this year’s crop of freshman arrive in their new homes, many have never shared a bedroom, a bathroom, or even a TV. To help ease the transition, The Daily Beast compiled advice from the former roommates of celebrities, politicians, business titans, and sports figures about how to survive your first roommate—and maybe even like them.
Kathleen Kingsbury covers education for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health, and education since 2005.