What is an RA?

A single dorm room of your own. Your room and board costs completely covered. A valuable addition to your resume’s work history. The benefits of becoming a resident assistant or resident advisor (RA) can be appealing, but the role is a significant commitment.

What is an RA, and why are they so important to the campus community? RAs play many roles, but they primarily build community, handle problems and help students adjust to college life. It’s a demanding position, but, depending on the college, you may be well-compensated.

What is a resident assistant or resident advisor (RA)?

What does an RA stand for in college? Schools vary in their definitions; while some use the term “resident assistant,” others prefer “resident advisor.” Generally, these roles describe the same position, so they’re commonly described simply as “RAs.”

Most RA roles are live-in positions. You’re given a room in a particular dorm or wing that you’re in charge of for the semester or academic year.

As an RA, you help new students move into the dorm and adjust to their new homes. You’re responsible for building a sense of community, making sure students understand campus rules and handle emergencies that may pop up.

Responsibilities of being an RA

Serving as an RA is a significant responsibility; as an RA, you’re responsible for helping dozens of students handle college life and making them feel comfortable and safe on campus. Although exact responsibilities may vary by school, RAs typically have the following duties:

  • Community development: As an RA, you’ll plan community development events throughout the year to encourage students to get to know each other, such as ice cream socials, study sessions or movie nights.
  • Community programming: Throughout the year, you’ll schedule and host community meetings about campus policies, news or issues affecting the dormitory.
  • Administrative tasks: An RA has to complete a substantial amount of paperwork throughout the year, such as documentation for any security incidents, violations of guest policies or move-out requests.
  • On duty rotations: RAs usually have rotating schedules for overnight and weekend shifts. During this time, RAs will either patrol the building or work at a specific desk in the dorm lobby or lounge so they’re easily accessible to students.
  • Conflict resolution: With college dorms, complete strangers are thrown together and expected to live together peacefully. Inevitably, conflict comes up. Whether a person snores and keeps their roommate awake or a resident is accused of stealing their neighbor’s shower caddy, RAs are responsible for mediating and addressing resident conflicts.
  • Emergency response: RAs are on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You may get woken up in the middle of the night to address emergency issues like dorm lockouts or resident injuries. If that occurs, you may have to contact other campus services, such as campus security or the emergency response team, to provide assistance.

Skills required to be an RA

Being an RA is not easy. It requires a variety of skills:

  • Communication: As an RA, you’ll work with students from all over the world, and you must be able to communicate with them effectively and with empathy. At the same time, you want to ensure your communication is taken seriously, and not ignored.
  • Patience: As an RA, you’ll have occasions where you’re interrupted while you’re in the middle of studying for a mid-term or woken from a sound sleep to handle minor issues like a roommate dispute. Although these incidents can be frustrating, they’re a key part of the job, so patience in stressful situations is critical.
  • Organization: An RA position is basically a full-time role, but you’ll likely also be a full-time student. Juggling both your coursework and your RA responsibilities requires you to be meticulously organized so you can manage your schedule.
  • Multi-tasking: As previously mentioned, RAs are frequently interrupted. You have to be able to pivot in the middle of one task to handle issues that pop up, and then switch back to the original task, to be successful in the position.

Benefits of becoming an RA

Although the benefits of serving as an RA will differ by school, you’ll typically enjoy the following perks:

  • Free room and board: Traditionally, colleges and universities compensate RAs by providing them with free room and board; your position comes with a dorm room of your own and a meal plan. Based on the average cost of room and board as reported by The College Board, the value of that benefit ranges from $12,770 to $14,650 per year depending on the type of school you attend. Assuming you serve as an RA for three years, you could reduce your overall college expenses by $35,000 or more.
  • Core compensation isn’t taxable as income: Unlike most student jobs, your RA compensation is typically excluded from your taxable income. Your compensation comes in the form of a waiver of your housing and meal plan fees, and because living on campus is a requirement of employment, the benefit is tax-free. Even though you’ll receive a significant financial benefit, you’ll still be eligible for financial aid for your other education costs, such as tuition and fees.
  • Single dorm: Because RAs have to be available at all hours and may handle sensitive information, colleges usually grant them a single dorm room, so you won’t have a roommate. For many students, the privacy of a single room is a significant perk.
  • Valuable work experience: Gaining work experience is key to securing a good job after graduation. Because of the many demands of the position, adding “RA” to your resume can make you more appealing to future employers.

Downsides of becoming an RA

Although there are several perks to becoming an RA, there are some downsides to consider too:

  • It’s a 24/7 role: RAs are always on call. Overnight, on weekends and even during school holidays, you’re still expected to be available to help students.
  • Limits on outside employment: Because of how demanding the position is, most colleges prohibit RAs from working other jobs, either on-campus or off. If you’re depending on another job to cover your expenses, the limitation on employment can be a significant hardship.
  • Low compensation: Although free room and board is a substantial perk, the value of that benefit is offset by the demands of the work and the long hours required. Considering that you’re always on call, the compensation is fairly low for RAs. Some schools — such as Northwestern University, the University of Montana and Towson University, also give RAs a stipend for each semester they serve — but that’s not the standard in higher education.
  • Overnight emergencies and interrupted sleep: As an RA, you’ll likely be woken up in the middle of the night to handle emergencies. If you need your sleep before a major exam, the disruption can be frustrating and hard to manage.

Process in becoming an RA

Competition for RA positions tends to be stiff, and the application and selection process is rigorous. In general, you’ll have to complete the following steps:

  1. Attend information sessions: Schools often host RA information sessions for students who are interested in serving as RAs for the upcoming academic years. Attendance of these events may be mandatory for consideration.
  2. Review the eligibility requirements: The RA eligibility requirements are stringent:
    • Enrollment: To qualify as an RA, you need to be a full-time student, and you usually must be enrolled for at least one year prior to serving as an RA. For example, you could apply for an RA position at the end of your first year of college, but not earlier.
    • Academics: To ensure you can handle the demands of the RA position, schools require applicants to have high GPAs. You”ll typically need a GPA of 3.0 or better to qualify, and the school may set limits on how many courses you can take per semester.
    • Background and conduct: Schools will perform student conduct and background checks on all RA applicants. If you’ve had issues on campus, such as code of conduct violations or academic probation, you won’t qualify for the position.
  3. Submit the application: Each school will have its own application, but the process usually requires you to submit a written application, resume, cover letter and professional references. You may have to complete several interviews, and the process can take several weeks.
  4. Wait for a decision: If selected, you’ll be notified via mail or email with your assignment and the details of the role and your compensation. There’s also the possibility that you’ll be listed as an alternate — a list of potential backups if one of the current RAs needs to leave. The notification will explain what steps you need to take to accept the role and move forward with the position.

Becoming an RA can drastically cut your education costs, but don’t enter into this commitment lightly. The position is a demanding one, and it can be difficult to juggle the responsibilities of being an RA with college coursework, so think carefully about what you can realistically handle. If you’re interested in becoming an RA, take the time to talk with someone who’s been an RA to ask questions, hear examples of common issues, and an idea of what to expect.

If you’re looking for other ways to earn money, but want a less demanding schedule, check out our list of the best ways to make money in college.


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