At her family's home in Georgia this summer, Sara Waldman watched as the computer churned out her potential matches, kindred souls who thrive on fun weekends and hard work and scrupulous housekeeping.
One stood out -- the nameless author who declared zero-tolerance for dirt and snoring but delight for politics, piano and sports. "I'm serious about academics, but I'm also serious about having fun," the profile read. "I'm neat and organized and I have a good sense of humor. . . ."
Waldman sent an e-mail, which drew a warm response. Soon, the two were writing back and forth about their hopes and fears, until finally Waldman felt ready to ask the question:
Will you be my roommate?
And Audrey Gibbons, a fellow incoming freshman at Georgetown University, said yes.
The once near-random process of assigning freshmen roommates has been elevated to something of a science these days. At many colleges, incoming students fill out detailed questionnaires on personal habits, ranging from their favorite musical genres to whether they like to sleep with the window open. Their responses are analyzed by computer or a team of professionals who try to match them with the most compatible living partners.
This year, Georgetown is trying out an elaborate new computer-based matching system that, with its anonymous messaging and common-interest search tools, bears more than a passing resemblance to popular dating Web sites. The hope, said university housing official Jon Glassman, is "to give students some choice and a sense of ownership in their first-year experience."
Gibbons, 19, of Lexington, Mass., and her new roommate believe it worked for them. "It takes away a lot of the awkwardness," said Waldman, 18. "When we chose each other, we felt like we already knew each other."
Yet many campuses are resisting the push for tailor-made roommates. Housing officials at other colleges warn that these so-called perfect matches can hinder students from learning about personalities and lifestyles different from theirs -- while doing little to avoid the dreaded blowups.
"When you spend 24-7 with someone, there's bound to be conflict," said Katie Boone, director of housing and residential services at Catholic University. "It's all about trying to get along, not this round peg fitting this round hole."
The roommate relationship carries the weight of great expectations for the college-bound. Bill Gates tapped Harvard roommate Steve Ballmer to be his first business manager and later chief executive of Microsoft; Al Gore enlisted his old roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones, to deliver his presidential nominating speech; and many wedding parties are dominated by the happy couple's former roomies.
Research conducted by Williams College in Massachusetts found that roommate assignments can have a significant impact on one's life. One study noted that students with middling SAT scores received worse grades if assigned roommates with low SATs, while another suggested that a student's political views can be influenced by those of his or her roommate.
Administrators, meanwhile, have plenty of reason to hope these relationships work out because a happy freshman year makes a student less likely to drop out and more likely to retain the warm memories that inspire loyalty and generosity as a graduate.
At Davidson College in North Carolina, incoming freshmen take a shortened version of the influential Myers-Briggs exam to determine personality type -- 25 questions such as "at a party, do you prefer to circulate among a lot of people, or sit and talk with a few people in depth?"
Administrators compare these answers -- as well as students' descriptions of their sleeping and studying habits -- to make roommate assignments. Leslie Marsicano, Davidson's associate dean of students, said a good match is essential because most students these days have never shared a room with a sibling.
"We think it's enough of an adjustment to have to learn to live with somebody in a room," she said, "so we try to make sure they're as compatible as we can."
Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., also hand-matches all its freshmen -- this year, 360 -- based on a survey of their typical living habits. Among the questions is a delicately phrased one about alcohol use, with the disclaimer that consumption remains illegal for anyone younger than 21.
"The people we match together tend to stay together," said Melissa Leecy, the school's director of residence life and housing. "The ones who bring a friend from high school or who meet up at orientation, those are the ones that don't work."
The college even allows students to volunteer specific qualities they want in a match -- such as the one who demanded a roommate who enjoys the Dave Matthews Band -- though Leecy won't promise to oblige.
Yet other colleges have abandoned the effort to match personalities, leaving the assignments largely up to chance. A Myers-Briggs fad caught on in the late 1980s, Boone said, only to peter out after many housing officials decided the laborious process did nothing to reduce the number of roommate complaints.
Part of the problem was that it was impossible to rely on the personal information disclosed in the surveys, said Jerry Dieringer, director of housing and residence life at Towson University in Maryland.
"It's a high school graduating senior who is filling that out," he said. "They're used to getting up in the morning at a certain time and studying in a certain way, and then they come here and behave very differently because they are freed from restrictions."
Today, Towson asks future dorm residents only whether they smoke. (Though smoking is not allowed in residence halls, the lingering scent can irritate nonsmoking roommates.)
"Random room assignments and detailed matchups work out about the same," Dieringer said. "We have an 85 to 88 percent rate of satisfaction."
Officials at Howard University allow students to request a particular roommate but strongly encourage them to go with a random assignment. "They are then able to meet someone that they might not have normally had the opportunity to meet, who will then share their friends, so on and so forth," said Vice Provost Franklin D. Chambers.
Georgetown developed its own online matching system, but a similar software program by an Atlanta-based company, WebRoomz, has been adopted by numerous other schools -- including Bowie State University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Emory University.
WebRoomz Vice President Kevin Sessions defended the personality matching approach. "They're finding somebody that they're going to be similar with and share activities with, but they're still going to get the diversity of the others that live on their hall," he said.
Students who have been matched give mixed reviews. Jared Flesher's freshman-year roommate, handpicked for him by the University of Richmond housing office, was just enough like him -- not too messy, not too neat. Though they parted ways after a year, they are living together again in their senior year.
"Maybe the school knows something we don't," said Flesher, 21, of Flemington, N.J.
But Nicole Anderson, an Emory sophomore from Fort Worth, was disappointed with her online match. They had so much in common -- maybe too much.
"We had picked out matching comforters and everything coordinated, and for the first week we were best friends," said Anderson, 18. But although they never really quarreled, they soon drifted apart. "You come to college to meet new and interesting people who are different from you," she said.
As they moved into Georgetown's Harbin Hall before classes begin this week, Gibbons and Waldman had a good feeling about the coming year. They both like to run and go to bed early, and they both disapprove of overnight guests. And from there -- well, they say, it's up to them.
"If you choose your roommate and it doesn't work out," Gibbons said, "you only have yourself to blame."