Stanford's freshman roommate matching secrets revealed

Stanford has a unique way of assigning freshman roommates. Students have no idea who they will be bunking with until move-in day. The process of assigning roommates this year was in the hands of Kelsey Davidson and Daniel Miller. How did they do it?

L.A. Cicero Kelsey Davidson and Daniel Miller

Kelsey Davidson and Daniel Miller handpicked the roommate matches for the entire Class of 2014.

Meeting your freshman roommate for the first time is a highlight of New Student Orientation for Stanford students. Unlike at some colleges and universities, Stanford freshmen aren't told whom they will be living with in advance.

Once they are introduced, rumors abound about what made theirs the perfect match: Were their birthdays the same? Was their hair color similar? Are they the same height?

No one knows for sure, except the new undergraduate housing coordinators – two students who determine every room assignment for the incoming class. For the Class of 2014, they are junior Kelsey Davidson and sophomore Dan Miller.

Davidson and Miller spent their summer handpicking freshman roommates. According to Director of Housing Assignments Sue Nunan, this process is unique to Stanford.

"At most other universities, it's either done by computer or residential or housing staff," said Nunan.

But students, she said, know best. Having just lived with roommates, they have firsthand knowledge of what issues are important when coexisting in the dorm room.

"And when looking at music groups or preferences, they know what it means," she said.

The process

With 1,675 freshmen joining the Stanford undergraduate population, the freshman housing coordinators have a lot of ground to cover. To simplify things, freshmen are first put through a freshman assignment program, through which they are assigned to dorm complexes.

"The picking of the specific roommates is done by hand, but the assignment program is an algorithm," said Miller.

Students express in advance their preferences for coed or single-gender floors and whether they prefer to live in all-freshmen or four-class houses.  The program gives as many students as possible their preferences when assigning them to complexes.

All-freshmen houses are the most popular among incoming students. Last year, Student Housing opened the Munger Graduate Residence, which allowed Crothers to be used for undergraduates. The move created a cascading "unstuffing" effect throughout housing. As a result, more all-frosh housing is available, but demand has risen as well. Most freshmen requesting all-frosh housing are assigned there.

Following the results of the assignment program, Davidson and Miller began reading applications. They examined a roommate information form given to new students, which asked questions about their sleeping and cleanliness habits, how quiet or social they want the room to be while studying, what types of music they prefer and similar questions. Students also indicated which attributes were most important to them. All were asked to write a short essay about their living style, which gave the coordinators insight into their personalities beyond what multiple-choice questions could provide.

But, finding a good match can depend on any number of factors.

"They have to have similar bedtimes and similar social and cleanliness levels just so they want the same thing out of their room," said Davidson. "After that, it's a balance between making sure they have something in common that they can bond over and making sure they're different and can learn from each other."

The housing coordinators also assign the specific rooms freshmen will be placed in – a surprisingly complex process. For example, they try to place social people on the outside of the hallways so that when they walk to the bathroom in the center of the hall, they'll stop and talk along the way.

"And you have to put quieter people by the RF (resident fellow) apartments," said Davidson. "They asked us to do that."

Davidson and Miller try to balance the number of  social and non-social people in each house. Students from the same high school are spread around campus as much as possible. Within each residence, they try to have the demographic makeup roughly reflect the demographics of the class as a whole. If the class is 10 percent international, then ideally there will be 10 percent international students in each dorm.

This is the second year that Davidson has worked as a freshman housing coordinator. She said the job can be rewarding. Last year, her friend's little sister loved her roommate so much that she baked cookies for Davidson.

Sometimes she runs into freshmen whose applications she remembers.

"I don't usually tell them, because it's awkward if I say 'Oh, I know who you are'," she said. "I did that once—never again."

Too many microwaves

Keeping roommate assignments under wraps until move-in day is a longstanding university policy. It isn't without controversy, especially when families arrive with microwaves and refrigerators that turn out to be redundant. Something, after all, has to go back home with mom and dad.

But Davidson and Miller think the policy is a good one that helps people avoid forming preconceptions about their roommates in the age of social networks.

"I know it's true for a lot of people that when you find out … you immediately start 'Facebook stalking' them," said Davidson. "A lot of my friends did that."

Not knowing whom you'll be rooming with prevents preemptive disappointment or assuming that you already know everything about the person you'll be spending the year with, said Davidson. It also lends a sense of excitement to move-in day.

Davidson and Miller know that their freshman assignees spend hours trying to discern why they were paired. Every year, rumors abound of roommates who have been paired for obscure, often hilarious reasons. A Thomas Jefferson paired with a George Washington. Roommates named Wolfe and Lamb. A student with the last name Arroyo living in Arroyo dorm. An entire quad of Johns. Yet according to Davidson and Miller, such conspiracy theories are unfounded.

 "I've heard that too, but it's really not the case," said Davidson. "My roommate (freshman year) was convinced we were all assigned by height."

Miller agreed, saying that rumors belie a complicated, thought-intensive process.

"We rarely even look at the names," he said. "There's not really time."