Decorating a dorm room can be a challenge. You’re trying to buy things for a place you probably haven’t seen so that you can live there with a person you probably don’t know. While your college will provide some of the basics, like a bed and a dresser, you’ll need to put in some thought and do some planning to make it a livable, comfortable, productive space.
Your dorm room is where you sleep, where you socialize, where you work, and where you eat. This means that you have to think about how you decorate a bedroom, living room, office, and kitchen, all while working inside the confines of dorm safety regulations — not to mention the confines of the room itself!
You will never be able to anticipate everything you’ll need throughout the year, but there are some must-haves for dorm life that you can safely assume you’ll need. These are the things you’ll want to bring with you when you move in or purchase early in your first semester.
Things to Know Before You Shop
Before you start throwing things in your shopping cart, there are a few things you should know about where you’re headed. If you can, find out the dimensions of your room, including the windows and any built-in furniture that can’t be moved. You might not be able to get this information ahead of time, but if you’ve already been assigned a dorm room, it’s worth asking the residential life administration for a floor plan.
Your housing office should also give you a list of what they will provide in the room. Pay close attention to things like mattress measurements so you don’t end up with sheets that don’t fit!
Also, pay close attention to what you’re not allowed to bring. There are some banned items that are pretty universal — halogen lamps, candles, firearms — but your college may prohibit specific things like lava lamps — or fog machines!
And remember to talk to your roommate(s), because it’s polite, of course, but also to make sure you don’t end up with two of everything. Once you’ve moved in, you can always get what you still need — and at that point, you’ll know where all the available outlets are.
The three most important appliances to have in your dorm room are a mini fridge, an electric kettle, and a microwave.
You’ll have a lot of options for mini fridges, but your school might have restrictions on dimensions, so it’s important to check before you buy. There are plenty of used fridges out there, but keep in mind that older appliances may not have the three-prong grounded plugs that schools require, and they might be a bit noisy too.
Not all dorms allow microwaves, but the ones that do usually have wattage restrictions. Luckily, most websites make it easy to filter by wattage.
While you’re not likely to accidentally buy a full-size fridge for your dorm, it is important to pay close attention to size when shopping for a microwave, as the dimensions can really vary. Make sure you consider how much counter or desk space you have to spare.
A good sturdy electric kettle will provide you with boiling water at the touch of a button, perfect for staying caffeinated and making instant macaroni and cheese during late-night study sessions. Electric kettles come in especially handy if your dorm prohibits microwaves.
Extension cords are prohibited in most dorms, so you’ll have to be smart about where you put things, but power strips can do a lot to help you maximize the few outlets you have.
Storing Your Stuff
Your room will probably come with a dresser and a closet, but you’ll need a bit more to make sure there’s a place for everything.
Depending on your needs, and the dimensions of your closet, there are a organizing tools like closet rod expanders that can help you make the most of that space, but since you’ll probably have to bring and store clothes for multiple seasons, the most important things to have at the start are a few clear plastic tubs that can be stacked in the closet itself, or even under the bed. Whether you choose a laundry hamper, bag, or basket, make sure it’s one you can comfortably carry down to the laundry room.
Over-the-door shoe organizers are great for shoes, but they are also perfect for storing all those small things that need a place to go. Look for a clear one and you’ll never be left wondering, “Where did I put that spare charger?”
One of the first things you’ll do at college is buy a lot of textbooks, so make sure you have a bookshelf to keep them organized. If you can, find one that folds up, as it will be much easier to move in and out.
Trying to find storage that works in small spaces can be a challenge, especially when you can’t put any nails in the wall. Look for storage options that make use of the space you have, like above-bed shelving, or can be easily moved around, like multi-shelf carts on wheels. In addition, a variety of generic storage baskets and boxes can be used and reused as your needs change.
Even better is storage that doubles as extra seating. You’re going to want more places to sit anyway, so why not look for an ottoman — or even a bench — with storage space inside? A trusty dorm trunk can also fit the bill.
And if you have the upper bunk, look for a bedside organizer, especially if you wear glasses!
Decorating for Productivity
Living with other people — especially new people — requires good communication . . . and a whiteboard by the door is a good way to enable that communication. You may also want a separate whiteboard or corkboard to keep yourself organized.
If the desk chair provided with your desk isn’t comfortable, you won’t be productive, so don’t hesitate to add a cushion to the seat or back, or even get a new chair altogether. And a reading pillow — often called a “husband” or “boyfriend” — can help make your bed a more productive space to work, especially if it doesn’t have a headboard.
Make sure you get an adjustable desk lamp, too, to prevent eye strain while you’re reading. Many lamps not only allow you to adjust the brightness and color of the light but also provide a few USB ports for charging your devices.
Perk Up Drab Furniture, Walls, and Floors
The furniture provided in your dorm probably won’t be cutting-edge design. It might be well-used and a bit banged up. Washi tape, a kind of decorative masking tape from Japan, can perk up bookshelves, bedposts, and moldings without causing any damage.
Your college will probably have a few poster sales throughout the year that you can use to jazz up your boring white walls; just make sure you use masking tape or mounting squares, whichever your dorm guidelines prefer.
You can also bring some framed photos from home and hang them safely using picture hanging strips. If your dorm allows them, wall hangings can be an easy way to decorate. Or get some peel-and-stick wallpaper or decals to cheer up an entire wall.
Making Your Room Comfortable
Your school will provide you with a bed, but you’re the one who’ll make it a comfortable place to sleep. Dorm mattresses are longer than standard twin mattresses, so you’ll need to make sure you arrive with the right bedding, or you’ll be spending your first night in the dorm on a bare mattress! These sheets will often be advertised as dorm length or “Twin XL,” but you can also check the measurements on the package.
It’s also good to have a throw blanket in case your room gets chilly.
Dorm rooms can feel very sterile, as the overhead lighting is usually fluorescent and often not quite bright enough when the sun has gone down. Floor and table lamps will provide a cozy glow, and there’s always the classic approach to ambient dorm lighting: Christmas lights. And just because you can’t burn candles doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy scented candles in your dorm: just use a candle warmer.
If your windows let in too much light at night, or if you just want to be able to sleep a bit later, blackout curtains can keep your room dark as long as you want. If you can’t use your own curtains, a sleep mask can do the trick.
It’s important to be practical when you’re decorating such a small space, but don’t forget to look for things that make you happy. Go for that neon cactus lamp. Or get a dart board! Just make sure it’s a magnetic one and hang it up with removable hooks — you don’t want to decorate your dorm room by putting holes in the walls.
No matter how hard you try, you won’t think of everything you need on move-in day, and you will probably end up with some things that you didn’t need — or don’t fit! But you can make sure that you’ve at least got a comfortable bed to sleep in, lights to see by, and places to put all your things. You’ll figure out the rest in time.
And remember: just because it’s a “must-have” doesn’t mean it’s a “must-buy.” Bring those family photos, that favorite lamp from your bedroom at home, or that blanket your grandmother made you. They may be just what you need to make your dorm room feel like home.
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him here and here.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.