The Art and Algorithms of Freshmen Roommate Assignments

Would waking up to a table full of warm, half-empty bottles of beer, overflowing ashtrays, and chewed-up chicken wings get your day started on the wrong foot? Or would you just ignore the mess and head to class? Would finding a stranger in your room startle you? Or would you offer him a cup of coffee? With freshman classes now beginning to take shape, housing administrators at colleges nationwide are asking questions such as these in their effort to find the best roommate matches.

At the University of St. Thomas, roughly two thirds of incoming freshmen do not pre-select their roommate. Once they have submitted their housing deposits, these students are given a six-part questionnaire to determine roommate compatibility. Bryan Helminiak, associate director of residence life at the St. Paul school, said that “there really aren’t too many deal breakers when it comes to what students will accept in a roommate,” but the questionnaire tries to find out what those are.

Helminiak said that the first question asks students how important cleanliness is. Tidy students won’t long tolerate living with slobs. Typical times for going to sleep and waking up are the second and third questions. Night owls and early risers tend not to see eye to eye. The fourth question asks whether the student will likely spend most weekends on campus or away. Loneliness can make life tough for students living on their own for the first time, so St. Thomas hopes to pair individuals whose days away from class can be enjoyed together.

Questions five and six cover smoking and drinking. The school recognizes that smokers and non-smokers would likely not get along in close quarters; similarly, steady or heavy drinkers and those who drink little or no alcohol would also make for incompatible roommates. St. Thomas uses residential management software to sort through each student’s answers and computer algorithms help to select which students will room together.

While St. Thomas houses about 1,300 freshmen, the University of Wisconsin places nearly 6,000 new students in its 19 residence halls. Slightly more than half of incoming freshmen there use Facebook, specifically an application called RoomSync, to determine who their roommate will be. Brendon Dybdahl, director of marketing for university housing, said that RoomSync works something like an “online dating service,” which removes the college from “acting as a matchmaker.”

RoomSync gives students themselves the “tools to make the best matches,” Dybdahl said. Its questions go into further detail than those of the St. Thomas questionnaire. The Madison campus has many housing options to choose from, including building location, size and age, amenities such as air conditioning and extra closet space, proximity to classrooms based on a student’s major, and other factors in addition to roommate compatibility. By taking away from university housing staff the task of roommate selection for thousands of students, Dybdahl said that associating with RoomSync is well worth its $9,000 annual fee.

Freshmen roommates can become lifelong friends. Be honest when filling out student questionnaires, whether online or through housing offices. Help your college help you to find the right roommate.