Becoming a Resident Assistant in College
RAs are the centerpiece of the residence hall experience, and it’s one of the most rewarding jobs you can have during your college career. But as your heart becomes set on being an RA, you should know that the path to becoming one usually requires showing that you are a good fit for the job through an extensive and competitive application process. So make sure you are ready, willing and able to sell yourself first.
“Before applying, you should really evaluate your motivations and talk to others in the position,” explains Davia Rose Lassiter, who worked as a resident assistant at the University of Southern Mississippi in the early 2000s. “If you are [only] motivated by the financial benefits, you will not be successful in this role. However, if you enjoy serving others and want to have a significant role in the lives of students while adding to your own personal development, then go for it.”
To best position yourself, you should look at the application through the eyes of a potential employer and do your best to convey that you are responsible, organized, friendly, creative and resourceful. Lassiter says you should apply if you feel passionate about getting to know others and enhancing the undergraduate experience.
I would advise exploring the position and all it entails,” she says. “If there is an opportunity to attend an informational session about the role, take advantage of that. Do your research and talk to other RAs to determine if it would be a good fit.
Once you land the job, you’ll also have to make it through the training process, which can also be very intensive. On the bright side, RAs get to stand out as campus leaders and role models who also serve as important liaisons between students and administrators. It also is a great opportunity for you to provide important peer-to-peer support in a wide range of circumstances, such as mental health issues, relationship problems, academic and financial challenges, as well as self-esteem problems and substance abuse.
Learning to navigate your RA responsibilities can be great for your own personal development and help you to boost your resume for future employment opportunities, too. Lassiter, who now works as a marketing director for a university just outside Atlanta, agrees: “I've been in management roles [professionally] since 2007, and I am certain that my success is due in part to honing the skills I learned as an RA.”
Duties and Responsibilities of an RA
Overall, your job is to create a comfortable, safe and supportive atmosphere for the residents in student housing, as well as to help them interact well with their dorm mates and adjust to campus life overall. This encompasses a long list of expected and unexpected responsibilities, including:
Enforcing the rules and policies of the residence life department, along with those of dining services, security and the college or university administration, too.
Conducting regular room/suite checks.
“Floor duty,” which may include having to check visitors in and out of the residence hall.
Sharing information about the residence hall, campus activities and available resources on bulletin boards, online forums, social media or flyers and in person.
Holding regular floor meetings with residents.
Attending or leading weekly RA staff meetings. “Being a part of the residence life team was great,” recalls Lassiter. “It was really tight-knit. It felt like a family.”
Relaying information about your institution’s policies and procedures to residents and fellow RAs.
Mediating conflicts between roommates, residents and fellow RAs.
Serving as a role model to residents and peer staff members.
Acting as a liaison between student residents and administrators.
Meeting regularly with supervisors, administrators and student leaders.
Coordinating and hosting events in your residence hall and on campus.
Attending regular RA training sessions.
Processing requests for maintenance repairs and custodial needs.
Assisting in the opening of the residence halls before the semester or quarter begins and closing it up after it ends.
Benefits and Drawbacks
There are advantages and disadvantages to any job, and being an RA is no different. The most obvious — not to mention the most well-known — perk is receiving free or discounted room and board in exchange for fulfilling your duties. Some campuses also offer stipends, hourly pay and discounted meal plans too. “For me that has meant having more money in my pocket to buy books and other necessities,” asserts Alexius Sims, a resident assistant at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, and a social work major who plans to attend graduate school. “The money I save, I eventually spend on [things I need for] school, and the extra money I use to spoil myself now and then.”
Although saving money — perhaps even thousands of dollars — may sound like a pretty great reason to become an RA, both campus housing experts and former RAs agree you shouldn’t jump into this role solely for the financial benefits. A lot goes into becoming a residential assistant, including having to work odd hours (including those coveted weekends and nights), training commitments and occasionally having to be “the bad guy” from time to time. Needless to say, if you don’t have a sincere passion for the work and a willingness to deal with those less appealing aspects of the job, you will probably find life as an RA miserable.
Living where you work also means little to no separation between the two, which can be especially taxing when you’re juggling your own schoolwork and adjusting to college life, too. Most RAs do have designated work hours, but there likely will be plenty of times when your expected free time will be interrupted by unexpected issues that you’ll have to handle. On a weekly basis, that could entail anything from comforting a homesick freshman and hosting a resident event to refereeing a dispute between roommates, supporting a student with a mental health crisis or even addressing a maintenance problem in your building.
Make sure that it is something you really want to do and that you are willing to give your all; a lot of times that’ll mean limiting your own extracurricular activities,” Sims says. “You’ll have to be aware of unexpected situations. At some point, you become ‘the FBI’ [investigating the residents] in order to avoid issues later. But all in all, you get to have fun while meeting and getting to know other students.
Being an RA also means having to be a people person, even when you don’t feel like it. You’ll have to interact with a diverse mix of people from different backgrounds. “There’s a lot of personal development and skills you learn working with all types of personalities, temperaments, work ethics, scholastic efforts and hopes and dreams, too,” adds Lassiter.
Remember, your overarching job is to enforce the rules for residents, many of whom may be close to your own age, and that can be tricky. Disciplining your peers can be pretty awkward and likely won’t earn you any cool points.
As an RA, you’ll also be charged with keeping residents safe in the event of an emergency or urgent situation — anything from severe weather to a health crises or campus-wide disasters. You must be able to quickly evaluate crisis situations and respond appropriately, as failure to do so could have serious consequences.
“Due to my experience and success as an RA, I secured a position as a graduate school resident at the University of Georgia,” Lassiter says. “This assistantship funded my graduate school education, and I left UGA debt-free.”
When the job is done, says Lassiter, the best part is reflecting on the many ways in which you made a difference in the lives of others and the wonderful collegiate memories you got to be part of along the way. “The bonds you form with your residents and fellow RAs is priceless,” she says.
The good news is that being an RA can yield countless personal, professional and financial benefits. Though it may occasionally seem like a burden too heavy to bear, many of the responsibilities you’ll handle will provide you with great, real-world experiences that can help you grow as a person.
Receive discounted or free room and board (and possible free or deeply discounted meal plans).
Potentially receive pay or a semester’s stipend.
Serve as a role model to residents and peer staff members.
Gain valuable skills as a peer mentor and earn work experience for your resumé.
Learn how to interact with different types of people.
Be part of helping students and peers adjust to campus life and make a difference in the lives of students and fellow RAs.
Gain visibility as a campus leader and serve as a liaison between students and administrators.
Learn about your institution’s policies, procedures and available campus resources.
Learn mediation and conflict resolution skills.
Remain accessible around the clock is often required, including being on call and working nights, early mornings, weekends and holidays.
Have little to no separation between work and personal life.
Feel as if you’re always “on,” or that you’re being watched closely by the residents, administrators, supervisors and fellow RAs.
Occasionally write up or discipline peers and friends.
Be responsible for handling emergencies and crisis situations.
Take part in a competitive and time-consuming application process.
Have your own ability to participate in extracurricular activities or complete schoolwork be affected by the job.
May be required before and after semester for training and/or opening/closing residence halls.
Meet an RA
How long have you been an RA, and why did you decide to take on the job?
“I became a resident assistant at the start of my junior year, and I’m now I’m in my second semester. It’s been a really interesting experience.”
What are some of the regular duties that you handle as an RA?
“Room checks, sitting at the desk or lobby for more than six hours. I have to go into a room if a student is breaking a school rule. Calling the campus police for any suspicious activities in the hall. Making sure opposite-sex students are not in the hall after visitation hours. Meeting weekly with the resident director and vice president of student affairs. And the RAs have to host three programs throughout the semester. Basically, you have to always be available.”
That sounds like a lot of responsibility? Why’d you decide to become an RA?
“Because it paid for my housing as well as it allowed me to meet freshmen girls and guide them on their new journey. When I first started as an RA, I was extremely nervous and anxious; I thought no one would respect me or listen to me. As time went on, I grew a strong bond with many of the girls; now they always come to me for advice related to school or personal life situations.”
What would you say are the top advantages of being an RA?
“Of course, the biggest perk is that your housing is paid for; you get to have a dorm room to yourself, and you get a sneak peek of every event before the entire student body knows. In my opinion, there are not any disadvantages to being an RA because everything that an RA does impacts the dormitory.”
Handling serious issues is part of the job. Has anything like this happened during your tenure as an RA?
“One morning a freshmen girl who lived next door to my room was complaining about not feeling well, so I drove her to our school nurse. Her blood pressure was so high that she got excused from classes for the rest of the day. Later that night, she texted me about having the same pain from earlier that day. The minute I made it to her room, she fainted and was out for about 30 minutes. The resident center manager on duty had to call the paramedics. After the girl was admitted to the hospital, they notified us later that she had suffered a drug overdose.”
I’m sure there are plenty of great experiences, too. Can you recall a special memory that you’ve been a part of with your residents?
“One weekend, visitation was not allowed, so a few of the girls hosted a party in the basement of the dorm. The rumor had gone around the hall in a split second; they went shopping for food and (non-alcoholic) drinks, and they ended up having a great time. I thought that was creative and another great way for the girls to bond and get to know one another.”
What skills have you developed while working as an RA?
“I have enhanced a few skills since taking on my position as an RA. I am able to multitask better, I react faster to surprise situations and my networking skills have also improved. I have also done a better job of managing my duties while staying on top of school assignments.”
What does being an RA mean to you overall?
“Being a resident assistant in college means a lot to me because it means that parents trust you to take care of their children while they are away from home. Also, I feel like a proud parent when on one the students I have bonded with accomplishes a goal or has undergone positive changes over the school year.”
Expert Q&A with a Former Resident Assistant
When were you an RA?
“I was hired as a resident assistant at USM in 2002. I worked in Scott Hall, a housing unit for female upperclassmen, for two years. I even won an Eagle of Excellence Award my senior year.”
What did being a resident assistant in college mean to you?
“It was something that I felt compelled to do, and I was good at it due to a genuine desire to make an impact. I sincerely enjoyed being a resource for my residents. I loved celebrating their successes and supporting them through difficult times. Creating a home away from home for them was important to me. I grew as a person by getting out of my comfort zone and giving of myself to approximately 40 women as they navigated a new course in their lives. It was transformative for me. I learned so much about “my girls” and my capabilities. I really loved them and the whole RA experience. I couldn't imagine my college experience without being a part of residence life.”
What are some examples of skills you developed as an RA that have proven to be helpful in your personal and professional life?
“The list is so long: patience, empathy, sympathy and a desire to understand others. I also learned how to be a better listener, how to lead, the importance of transparency, how to be creative and how to be a leader and set expectations, all while building and maintaining a solid rapport with my team.”
What do you wish you’d known before becoming a resident assistant?
“That there was a curfew,” Lassiter laughs. “But in all seriousness, I felt really prepared [by the RA training]. USM had an outstanding residence life director who gave us a comprehensive view of what we were about to encounter.”
What do you consider the top advantages of being an RA?
“Of course, there are the financial benefits; at USM, we each received a room and board scholarship for being an RA, and that was great. We also got [paid] to work extra hours of desk duty, which was gold as a college student. What I think stands out the most is the bonds you form. You really get to make an impact on [the lives of] your residents and fellow RAs. I still have former residents who reach out to me about our time in Scott Hall at USM. And, yes, they still refer to me as their RA. There’s also so much to be said about your own personal development and the skills you learn, working with all types of personalities, temperaments, work ethics, scholastic efforts and [even people with different] hopes and dreams. The RA is the glue that holds it all together. It's true what they say: The skills you learn as an RA will be with you forever.”
What do you consider the top disadvantages of being an RA?
“I honestly had a problem with having a curfew; I felt like if I was responsible enough to be an RA, I didn't need a curfew. I felt restricted by that. Balancing time can also be a major challenge with your own studies and personal life and extracurricular activities. It got really tricky for me as a senior, which was my second year as an RA. I was busy: I was a McNair Scholar and was working on research, a new initiative in my sorority, serving as yearbook executive editor … I was also in a few honor societies and applying for grad school. I was stretched thin but worked hard to balance my responsibilities as an RA while simultaneously making the most of my senior year.”
How did you manage it all?
“I did end up finding the balance because I did not want to disappoint my residents. It can also be tough balancing friendships while an RA, too. I had to be careful about my social interactions with friends since they were technically residents. As an RA, you are a representative of the university and have to be responsible at all times. It had its challenges, but overall I loved being an RA!”
Association of College and University Housing Officers – International
As the official online destination for the international, professional association for student affairs administrators who work in residence life within higher education, this site provides information about the student housing industry, training opportunities and online resources, including webinars and the “Being a Resident Assistant 101” course, which includes four comprehensive modules with defined sets of learning objectives.
An online resource for staff members working in college and university residence life and housing administration, this site provides free content to housing staff and resident assistants, as well as subscription services offering extensive training and resources, with the objective of helping to make work as a campus housing leader more manageable.
Student Housing Matters
A space to share and receive information about matters related to on-campus student housing, as well as to engage in discussions about why quality on-campus student housing really matters. Helpful tools and commentary about dorm life and the intricacies of college student behavior also are available on the site.
The Resident Advisor Guide on Pinterest
Visit this Pinterest guide aimed at “changing communities one pin at a time,” for ideas on creative “door décor,” bulletin board designs, unique ways to engage and honor your residents and helpful guides, such as “Financial Advice for College Students” and “An RA’s Guide to Dealing with Roommate Conflict.”
American Campus Communities
This student housing organization serves as a resource for RAs needing to recommend off-campus housing in the local community to students who are transitioning out of student housing. It also provides insights and information for students about what to expect from life outside the dorms.
Our Campus Market
Reportedly serving more 900 campuses nationwide, this website is for college students and families seeking to purchase anything from cool dorm décor items to university-approved merchandise for campus living, gift-giving and special campus occasions, from move-in to graduation.
Bulletin Board Designs
Bulletin board design duty can be daunting; this site helps get your creative juices flowing by sharing ideas for decorating residence hall bulletin boards with creative flair.
“How to Get Hired as a Resident Assistant: Insider Info from a Former Residence Hall Director”by Nicole Phillips
Written by a former residence director who has interviewed thousands of RA candidates, this book provides insight into how to best present yourself in the interview process and how to increase your chances of getting hired as a resident assistant.
“Lessons Learned: How to Avoid the Biggest Mistakes Made by College Resident Assistants”by John D. Foubert
Touted as “the definitive volume for training RAs to become comfortable with their roles as student leaders,” this guide covers common RA mistakes and includes thought-provoking discussion questions, a list of internet and media resources and tons of tips for beginning and experienced RAs, as well as the university staff who train “these crucial pillars of the university community.”
“Making A Difference: Empowering the Resident Assistant”by Stephen Beers and Skip Trudeau
This guide highlights how being an RA helps provides students with opportunities to build a sense of community, serve as a peer-counselor and provide a “journey of service” that can be a rewarding and even life-changing.