First Test for Freshmen: Picking Roommates
First Test for Freshmen: Picking Roommates

By TAMAR LEWIN - NYT, August 7, 2003 original

Ankith Kamaraju has never met Zachary Manfredi, but he is confident that on Aug. 23, when they move into the room they will share as freshmen at Emory University, they will get along smoothly.

At least, that's what the latest in computer matchmaking predicts.

This summer, for the first time, Emory let freshmen pick their own roommates in an online roommate-selection system that works on the same principles as computer dating.

Students, using screen names to hide their identities, posted profiles of themselves detailing personality attributes, work habits, music and food preferences, and answers to questions like whether they hoped to "do almost everything" with their roommate or "lead separate but compatible lives."

Mr. Manfredi, who is from Michigan, was in Mr. Kamaraju's top five list of closest matches. "I think we matched on 70-some percent of the questions," said Mr. Kamaraju, who lives in Durham, N.C. "So I e-mailed him and said I was looking for a roommate."

Roommate-matching is a summer ritual that plunges college housing offices into the most intimate realm of sleep patterns, cleaning habits, noise tolerance and sexual behavior and online matching is on the cutting edge.

The roommate-matching service that Emory is using, WebRoomz, costs a university $35,000 and up, depending on size. The software developed by WebRoomz, a company based in Atlanta, is already in use at several other schools and is expanding soon to the University of Washington and other large schools.

Housing officials at Emory, in Atlanta, say they expect that letting students pick their own roommates will increase the likelihood of compatibility. And there's little risk of hurt feelings if the e-mail exchanges do not lead to a match, since the initial round of contacts is done under screen names.

"We hope that empowering students to choose their own roommate will increase their satisfaction," said Lisa DeMik, Emory's assistant housing director.

Several studies have shown that roommates have an impact on the attitudes and social behavior of those they live with. And one recent study by two economics professors at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., found that a roommate's academic performance has a small, but statistically significant, effect on the other roommate's grade-point average. Other studies, however, did not find that effect.

The business of assigning roommates varies widely across the country, ranging from random assignment to careful hand-selection based on psychological profiles, questions about how students live, essays and intuition.

At Barnard College, for instance, Cristen Scully Kromm, a residential life official, spends days on the process, scanning the forms on which the 534 young women in the Class of 2007 have described their hopes and their habits. She has sorted them into piles, based on how they rated themselves, one to five, in wanting their room to be neat or disorderly, quiet or lively. She is looking for matches within the piles, pairing those who keep similar hours, like the same noise levels, and share some musical tastes and extracurricular interests.

"No, these two won't work," she said, shaking her head emphatically. "This one goes to bed at 11 and that one goes to bed at 2."

Sleep hours are a straightforward consideration. But Ms. Kromm also pays attention to what the incoming students said they considered the most important factor in assigning their roommate. The young woman who wrote "I really consider cleanliness a really important factor and I cannot study in a messy room" seems like a natural fit for the one who wrote, "It is important to me that my roommate is clean and keeps good hygiene." But Ms. Kromm is perplexed about how to handle the one who wrote: "I tend to be claustrophobic in confined spaces. My roommate needs to understand that I enjoy being social with people of the opposite sex."

Ms. Kromm said her only goal is to find pairs whose approaches to life will mesh nicely. She said she does not try to ensure racial or geographic diversity between roommates: "I try to be pure. I just look at lifestyle questions."

Occasionally, an incoming student asks to be paired with an Asian, or says she might not be able to get along with a Republican, or a lesbian. In such cases, Ms. Kromm calls them over the summer to remind them, as the form states, that Barnard does not accept roommate preferences based on race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

"I tell them this is a very diverse place, and we do not discriminate," she said. "No one's gotten mad. Mostly, they're surprised that someone actually read what they wrote. And it's not always what it seems. The one who requested an Asian roommate was not Asian herself. She said she'd been at boarding school, and had never had an Asian roommate and thought it would be interesting."

At Davidson College in North Carolina, every freshman takes the Myers-Briggs personality profile, which allows the housing staff to sort the students by personality type, then match them with complementary types. The matchmakers consider everything from geography to family size, and even read the students' applications essays.

"We had a match that seemed perfect, until we discovered that one was a cattle rancher's son and the other was a vegan," said Leslie Marsicano, the director of residential life at Davidson. "They should definitely meet, on the same hall. But we didn't want to put them in the same room."

The Davidson philosophy is that roommates should be as similar as possible, while halls should be as diverse as possible. "We wouldn't put a member of the Brady Bunch with the only child of a single mom," Ms. Marsicano said. "'But we'd love them on the same hall."

Davidson's care in matching pays off, she said. "By Christmas last year, we had only four requests for roommate changes out of 480 students. And we did one survey that found that 80 percent of our seniors were still living with their freshman roommates."

No one knows whether computer-matching works as well. But at Emory, so far, student reaction seems to be overwhelmingly positive, whether the students used it as Mr. Kamaraju did, looking at only about 10 or 15 profiles chosen by the computer's "auto-match" system, or whether they plowed through dozens and dozens of profiles and corresponded with more than a dozen potential roommates, as some more choosy students did.

"I think it's the best system I've ever heard of," said Jeanne Donaldson, an incoming Emory freshman from Melbourne, Fla. "I was online every day for weeks, looking for the perfect roommate. I must have gone through maybe 50 or 100 profiles." Ms. Donaldson said, contentedly, that she and her roommate-to-be, who is from North Carolina, both like to get their sleep, wanted a single-sex floor and are more interested in academic achievement than partying.

"We've e-mailed a lot, and talked on the phone a couple times, and I feel like I know her," she said. Some questions on the profile allow students to pick up, quickly, on likely trouble spots. Students must choose one of four responses to describe their reaction if their roommate had guests three nights in a row: "My roommate is not to invite anyone for the night," "It's fine occasionally but not every weekend," "It's O.K. and I would expect a reciprocal arrangement" or "It would be O.K. if I were gone for the weekend but not otherwise."

They are also asked how they respond to dirty dishes by cleaning them immediately, hoping someone else cleans them, or leaving them a while and then cleaning them?

"I think I said I'd leave the dishes and then clean them later, but I'm not sure," Mr. Kamaraju said. "Some of the questions were kind of hard to answer."