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The roommate hunt goes 2.0 as schools give students more control

Connie Wang had two stipulations as she interviewed potential roommates ahead of the school year: They must understand that she is loud - so loud she won loudest frosh at the University of Toronto - and they must also love Glee, the hit musical television show.

"I'm extremely picky," says the 18-year-old double major in drama and psychology.

It was a tough slog for Ms. Wang. Planning to live off-campus this fall, she began her roommate hunt in April only to have two potentials bail, one just a day after leaving her deposit.

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That's when Ms. Wang moved her search online, to Roommate Finder. Launched last month on the university's housing website, the app helps students find like-minded people to bunk with off-campus by letting them scope each other out, much like they do on Facebook.

Instead of status updates and wall posts, students fill out elaborate questionnaires about their study habits, social lives - and their prowess with dish soap. (Sample statement: "I do dishes when they start to smell or start growing things!")

Ms. Wang found her new roommate Cat, a laidback fourth-year film student, within 24 hours: Roommate Finder rated the two compatible, they "hotlisted" each other and then began e-mailing. Ms. Wang insisted on a Skype interview, and then the two met in person.

"I'm pretty happy with what I found," she said.

Thanks to the snooping capabilities of Facebook, students are now routinely sizing up their roomies before the cramped dorm-room introduction - and universities are catching up.

"It's the direction that everybody's going in and we wanted to go in as well," says Jennifer Bennett, UofT's manager of student housing.

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On Roommate Finder, students log in using a screen name (preferably not their own) and pick an avatar: there's the guy with the mohawk, another wearing a turban, a studious type clutching a book, a dog walker and two lesbians, among others. These, Ms. Bennett says, are supposed to reflect "the priorities and personalities of the person" - Ms. Wang picked the girl with the shopping bags.

After just one month, the Roommate Finder app has attracted 600 UofT students. "It's really taken off," Ms. Bennett says.

Aside from UofT, York University, Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary are all using StarRez, an online program that lets students select their roomies as well as their rooms.

"We wanted to give the students more ownership," says TJ Fedyk, manager of occupancy at the University of Calgary, which began letting students pick their roommates last year.

Students answer 30 questions on topics ranging from drinking habits to political views. StarRez tabulates the results and pulls up a student's top 20 roommate matches.

"It's like a dating service. It'll tell you that this person is 90 per cent compatible with you and then you can look at their profile," says Mr. Fedyk.

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Simon Fraser University will adopt StarRez in January for third- and fourth-year students looking to share the on-campus townhouses, which have four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room. The decision to give students more choice and control over who they live with is especially important at Simon Fraser, where most students have had the luxury of living alone in the university's abundant single rooms.

"The reality is that most of our students have rarely shared a bathroom or a room," says Chris Rogerson, associate director of residence life.

"This is causing a lot of angst and challenge. We have to be responsive to the needs of the group coming in. Otherwise, we're forcing people into a situation they don't want to be in and they'll just leave."

SFU's questionnaires burrow right down to a student's taste in music and TV.

"One of the questions we toyed around with for a while was, 'Do you sleep with your window open?' For some people temperature is a very big issue," Mr. Rogerson said.

But can too much information breed ultra-picky roommates?

Mr. Fedyk admits some students have made the mistake of using their real names on StarRez. Prospective roommates then "went Facebook-creeping, didn't like what they saw and contacted us to move them."

The university didn't bow to the students: Transfers aren't granted until roommates have lived with each other for three weeks, by which point they've usually resolved their differences.

Critics say roommates arranged by the university are better equipped to learn about conflict mediation. (And who knows, random, seemingly impossible matches by administrators might just yield students a friend for life.)

"The students who don't know each other in advance take their roommate discussions more seriously. They come with fewer expectations of perfection, so it's easier to get them to talk to each other," says Michael Porritt, executive director of residences and student housing at McGill University, which has about 1,000 shared rooms.

The university takes a more traditional approach: A lottery system assigns students to buildings, and floor fellows match them up with roommates using their applications.

"It provides a more personalized match because it's not just a computer prioritizing questions," says Mr. Porritt, who also wonders how secure information on the new online profiles is.

As for which reduces more conflicts - staff sifting through applications or students creeping each other online - the jury's still out.

"We had a review last year about whether or not we should do more profiling for students to be more successful. When we researched other institutions we found that, really, there were mixed results," says Irene Thompson, director of student housing at the University of Guelph, where 2,310 incoming first years will share double, triple or quad rooms.

The biggest challenge may be the changing students themselves.

Says Mr. Porritt: "By the time the students get here, they're already different people than when they wrote those applications."

Editor's Note: Roommate Finder rated Connie Wang and her new roommate compatible. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this story.

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