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Questionnaires play key role in freshmen housing decisions

For those of you who have wondered where your initial room preference forms went, read on.

Did anyone ever read your carefully planned answers, or were you instead tossed together with three incompatible people?


While no one will call freshmanyear assignments an exact science, those involved do pride themselves on their work.

"Many people thank me for the lifelong friends they've made (from their freshman-year roommates)," said Linda Mahler, Butler College Administrator.

However, there is also another side that is not so rosy. Your prospective roommate may not have taken the full-disclosure approach.

"People aren't going to admit to drinking a fifth of Scotch a day in their first communication with Princeton," Wilson College Master Miguel Centeno explained.

The process

Director of Undergraduate Housing Joseph Plaksa said the questionnaires filled out by incoming freshmen are first sent to the Registrar's office, where they are fed into a computer that randomly assigns students to one of five residential colleges.

This data is then sent to the housing department, where college assignments are reviewed for any students' special needs, Plaksa said. Assistant Dean of Student Life Sandra Silverman is in charge of handling special needs, for which a student needs medical documentation, she said.


"By far the largest category of special needs is allergy and asthma," Silverman said. "Some housing suits these conditions better than others."

As a result, some students with severe allergies might be moved from one residential college to another, but Silverman said her office tries to avoid transplanting students after they have been assigned to a college.

"We try to stay with the computer-designated process," Silverman said.

Disability would also necessitate moving a student or assigning him or her a specific room, Silverman explained.

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For example, some rooms are wired for hearing-impaired students, and fire alarms in these rooms include flashing lights in addition to the alarm sound, she said.

Single-sex requests

Primarily the residential colleges handle single-sex housing requests, Plaksa said.

"We try to accommodate them within the colleges," she said. "We try to give the Registrar information dealing with the number of requests (for single-sex housing) we get and how many we can accommodate."

Some colleges, such as Mathey and Butler, have gender-specific housing, making the process somewhat easier.

"We start (the housing process) by placing single-sex housing requests," said Mathey College Director of Studies Steven Lestition. "Questions about compatibility must be answered within that pool."

In Wilson College, single-sex housing blocks are "not architecturally feasible," Centeno said.

"We'd need to make a single-gender building, and I've never seen that kind of demand," he said.

Residential colleges

Plaksa added that before the forms are sent out to the colleges, the housing department's computer works within each college to divide the forms into groups of students with similar characteristics.

Once the forms arrive in the residential colleges, the nitty-gritty of assigning roommates begins. In Butler, the forms go directly to Mahler, who spends three days in the summer grouping people together.

"I literally read every single one of the forms," Mahler said. "The computer matches people together based on their living habits, and I put suites together by this. I'll maybe get a group of 12, and from that, try to pick six or seven of them for a room," she said.

"I try to find a good group of people, to find a good blend," she said, adding that she also tries to create a wide array of interests in each room.

"The living habits are the most important criteria," Mahler said.

In Forbes College, the process is a collaborative effort by the college staff, said Alison Cook, the college administrator.

"It's not something done by one person at all," Cook said. "We all meet for one day in the master's house, spread the forms on the floor, and read them all."

"We try to get some geographical opposites (in the rooms)," Cook said. "For example, a person from California might be paired with a person from New Jersey."

Mathey College's placement process is similar to Forbes, Lestition said, explaining that the process includes the director of studies, the college administrator and others in the college office.

Lestition said that in Mathey, as with the other colleges, "the criterion of lifestyle is important; smoking or nonsmoking, neatness, whether or not they want a quiet zone."

He added, however, that the "quiet zone" criterion poses a problem at times.

"With Mathey, where's the quiet zone?" he said.

According to Lestition, other zoning measures in Mathey include the number of males and females in any given area because of bathroom availability. This is a problem shared by both Rockefeller and Wilson colleges as well.

Pat Heslin, administrator for Rockefeller College, said the college has "a pretty good system" for handling the bathroom problem. She said Rocky has instituted zoning restrictions for sophomores drawing into rooms to help ease the job of the college master, director of studies and herself as they pair up freshmen.

In Wilson, certain rooms, including all of Wilcox Hall, are set aside beforehand for freshman RA groups.

Incompatible results

After the process has been carried out, those involved take a step back to see what kind of a job they did grouping incoming freshmen together.

"It's really funny," Mahler said. "Sometimes I'll put people together, and maybe they'll have the same first name, for example. That happened this year, and I wondered, 'Should I split them up?' But everything else looked so good together so I left them as they were."

Those involved in the process in other colleges agree. "Some pairings are obvious," Centeno said. "Two students might ask to be paired with a smoker who likes Pink Floyd, for example."

However, Wilson College Frank Ordiway added that "the form we get sometimes bears little or no resemblance to the student who arrives."

Student experiences

"I'd said I wanted to keep my room neat," said one sophomore, who asked to remain anonymous. "Maybe my roommate's mom made him say it, too, because he had a lot of cleaning products with him but never used them."

"What concerned me was that we had no common interests," he continued. "The only thing that interested him was sports, and the only thing that did not interest me was sports."

Another student had a similar story. "It's not that we didn't get along," she said. "It's just that she was more of a go-out-five-nights-a-week person, and I wasn't."

Another student took a different angle. "Two people can be great friends but have completely different living habits," she said. "(My roommate) and I had completely different sleeping patterns, tastes in music . . . I had to get up for nine o'clock classes, and she didn't have them till noon. Our whole schedules were off."

"The preference forms they send you over the summer are useless when they ignore what you put on them," she said.

Students may also express frustration when their basic requests are not accommodated.

"One of the more disturbing things I learned was that while I'd requested a single and been put in a double, there was another student in a single who had requested a double," a student said.

Tales such as these are not uncommon among first-year students. Those who determine the roommate assignments, however, maintain that mistakes such as these are unavoidable since some students are not always honest on their housing forms.

Unusual results

In addition to a few roommate disasters, the college offices also witness a handful of unusual results.

"We had one instance where we had put two students together who had attended the same high school in Singapore, but we caught it before it was set in stone," Heslin said.

Perhaps the most amazing example of an unforeseen consequence of the roommate-assignment process took place this year in Butler. When Graham Spence '01 received his letter over the summer informing him of his roommate assignment for the upcoming year, he was somewhat shocked to read that he had been paired with Nate Callahan '01.

"It took five to 10 minutes to sink in," he said. "I saw that he lived in Boston, and I had lived there when I was younger. I just thought we'd have something in common to talk about for the first few days. Then it hit me: This was my best friend from elementary school in Boston."

"I tried to get in touch with him over the summer," Spence said, but it did not work out. The first time they actually met again was on move-in day.

Granted, reunions such as these are uncommon, but those behind the process like to think they have more successes than failures.

"Our usual criterion of success is who draws to live together for their sophomore year," Lestition said. "If a four-person suite opts to live together again, we know we've done a good job."