It was move-in day at Boston University, and in a fourth-floor room in Sleeper Hall, freshman Mitchell Bloemker had an important decision to make, one with consequences that would reverberate the entire year: Which bed should he claim?
Never mind that the room’s two beds appeared to be identically situated in a bare rectangle of a room. Bloemker had arrived first, meaning the prize bed was basically his birthright.
If only he could determine which, exactly, was the prize bed. “I’m trying to look for anything different,” Bloemker, of Piedmont, Calif., said, scanning his new 185-square-foot home.
But then, happily, the Universe provided an answer: The sun! “I don’t want to wake up with it shining in my face,” he said.
But don’t tell his roommate. “When he asks, I’ll say I picked randomly.”
Uh-oh! It’s turf war time, as colleges all over town welcome the class of 2022, and kids — and often their parents — plot subtle or not so subtle land grabs.
In an age when every aspect of dorm decor and etiquette can be pre-negotiated online — down to who brings the string lights, whether it’s OK to toss clothes on the floor, and rules governing overnight guests of the romantic sort — the bed is perhaps the last thing decided in real life and in real time.
On one hand, the stakes couldn’t be smaller. It’s just a bed. On the other, in college, it can be your entire home.
And the differences between beds can be significant. One student spends her year in a normal-height bed next to the window, her desk nestled in a corner, outlets nearby, while her two roommates need ladders to reach their lofted beds, their dressers and desks crammed underneath their sleeping spaces, their homework done in a cave, their outlets harder to reach.
But perhaps more important than the beds is how they are chosen, an act that can be so significant that Harvard has an actual policy.
“Do not choose beds, furniture, or room arrangements until all of your roommates have arrived,” read the bold-faced instructions taped up in dorms on move-in days. “You must all agree on the room arrangement, and it is important to remember that nothing is permanent.”
The policy is at least 25 years old, and the goal is for students to “discuss and set the norms for how they will inhabit their physical space,” a Harvard spokeswoman e-mailed the Globe. “These conversations are a first step in learning about each other and learning to work out differences . . .”
On move-in day Aug. 27, first-year Harvard student Rajbir Batra, of India, was getting an introduction in norm-setting. He had just lost a coin toss to his roommate, a defeat that would send him to the top bunk, which on a sweltering day looked particularly airless.
“It was disappointing,” he said, “but fair.”
But policy or no policy, not all students want to leave something so important up to chance.
One Harvard student, a math major from Massachusetts, said she heard first-arrivers talking about “low-key snagging” of the best bed.
That’s a maneuver that involves casually putting your stuff on the desired bed, staking a claim of ownership. In negotiation parlance, that’s called “anchoring behavior,” and Lawrence Susskind, an MIT professor and co-founder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, says it’s not a good idea.
“An unwillingness to confront the underlying question of who should have which bed — while it can lead to the other side winning a short-term victory — can also lead to resentment that lasts a long time,” he e-mailed the Globe.
“Any short-term victory will usually lead to higher ‘costs’ and problematic relationships down the road,” he said.
And yet . . . in a small room, far from home, with little privacy, where even the slightest advantage can feel crucial, even if it’s just being slightly less visible from the hallway when the door is open, it can be hard not to take the better bed.
But if you’re a very polite person, it can also be hard to take the better bed. At Tufts, freshman Zoe Willig, of Seattle, was so conflicted about taking the bed she wanted — the one closer to the window — that she called her parents for advice.
“They told me not to feel guilty — I got here first,” she said, feeling a little guilty. “They said if [my roommate isn’t happy] I can offer to switch next semester.”
Sitting outside on the grass near her dorm, Zoe’s mother, Aimee , fessed up to the advice. “We’re bad people,” she joked.
Scholarly studies on bed-related tension are hard to come by. But Deborah Offner, a Newton therapist who regularly hears about failed college rooming situations, compared the soured relationships to marriages gone bad.
“Can it be traced back to the day they got there and both wanted the same bed?” Offner asked. “Maybe it was an ominous precursor to the end.”