Your Dorm Room Will Never Be Buckingham Palace and Other Truths About College Life

You’re heading off to college for the first time, and you know you need to get ready. Totally ready. But should all your packing include your plant collection, 75 T-shirts, and those hobby supplies? Learn what you should really bring when you move into your dorm — and what can safely stay at home.

A lot of people think the old saying “You can’t take it with you” is a cautionary reminder of misplaced materialism at the time of death. It’s actually about the stash of stuff you think you can move into your dorm room.

Let’s be clear — despite the high cost of college these days, your housing digs are not likely to reflect the hefty price tag.

For starters, dorm rooms are small. Depending on your college, the average size is a mere 228 square feet — shared — or just 114 square feet per person. As one mother just back from moving her daughter into her college dorm discovered, the desk doubled as the dresser and her daughter was allotted two-thirds of a closet. This parent observed, “We just wrote a check for $30,000, and she is living on top of other people.”

Like I said, small. And small places get smaller when crowded. Don’t let your stuff rule you. You need to go lean.

Fundamental Rules to Start With

  • Protect floor space because there is very little of it. This means no extra little shelf units or that great lounge chair.

  • Use common sense: Read the dorm descriptions on your residential life Web page, and be in touch with your roommate so that, if possible, you can share a tea kettle.

  • Don’t be too prepared. You don’t need four years of razors or printer paper at the outset.

15 Belongings That Will Shrink Your Dorm Room

1. Plastic bins

Okay, we applaud your preparedness. But they break. They are bad for the planet. You can’t ship ‘em. They don’t fit under the bed, they don’t fold down, and chances are you can’t stack two in the upper shelf and get to them with any ease.

Better to use zipping canvas bags, some sort of under-the-bed fabric-based storage, or pop-up bins that fold down.

2. Halogen lamps

Many colleges don’t allow them because they get really hot and pose a fire threat. They do make a stylish lamp and put off a pretty glow, but little places like oh, Buckingham Palace, sustained $90 million in damages because a halogen bulb, some cleaning fluid, and a curtain came together.

3. Plants

You don’t have the physical or mental space for a plant. Besides, unless you live very close to your college, you’re likely to throw it out when it comes time to pack up after first year (so much for those little green shoots you have been tending). Don’t you think you’re better off taking care of just one living thing this first year — that is, you?

4. The three-drawer plastic thing

You just don’t have the floor space for this, and in truth, it’s not that useful. Use that one big drawer in your desk for toiletries. A shower caddy, or something smaller, works great for transporting necessities back and forth to the bathroom. It hangs behind the door or in the closet and will serve you for all the years of school — and beyond. I know two women who are crazy-busy, have four and five kids apiece, and this is still their favorite toiletry organizer.

It’s like fieldstripping a rifle: You get to a point where you know it cold — there’s no guesswork about where the tweezers are.

5. Memory board

College is about new experiences. You don’t need countless photos of old friends, your brother in that wacky hat, 17 shots of your cat — all intricately arranged on a cumbersome board. Use your smart phone. Make new pals.

6. Hobby supplies

You won’t have time for hobbies. But if you do, we’re going to recommend you pick up another class, join a club, hang out in the quad, or just go to study group.

7. Golf clubs, that sweet bike, downhill skis, or the pearl necklace you got for graduation

Don’t bring anything too nice — you don’t want to feel like a chump when someone asks to borrow your good stuff and returns it damaged. Or worse, doesn’t. Better to not have to worry.

8. Drying rack

Props to the Laura Ingalls soul in you. While it’s generally true that dorm dryers don’t work as well as the one you have at home, drying racks just take up too much room. Opt for a bungee cord and hangers instead.

9. Your car

Most freshmen don’t have parking privileges anyway, and the first year of college is really about that little campus you now call home. But, if you are one of the kids who brings a car to college, milk it. Be the ride. Meet people. Go on adventures! And remember to ask for donations into the gas till.

Just make sure you don’t become the dorm parent, running everyone to the grocery store or Starbucks whenever they ask.

10. The T-shirts

You thought the T-shirt frenzy that was senior year was epic — until you came to college. Here’s a secret: There are very few things in college for which there will not be a commemorative T-shirt.

Anyway, do you really want your T-shirts to tell everyone that you used to wrestle or were part of “The Rad Class of 2015”? Cultivate an air of mystery. As Psychological Science points out, “Uncertainty can increase romantic attraction.”

11. The long-distance relationship

Also known as the LDR, the big lie, the love-letter express, the mini-marriage. According to LongDistanceRelationship.com (I know — I was surprised too!), 40 percent of all LDRs fail, and most last only about four-and-a-half months. So spread your wings, little sparrow. Even if your love back home is the real deal, it is probably wisest to shift down to friendship-level during your first year in college.

12. Anything printed with Moroccan tile pattern

It’s just so done. If I can also suggest something else, don’t get spendy on linens. There’s no reason to approach your dorm room like some sort of modern dowry registry. And nothing says, “My mom decorated my dorm room" like crisp bedding.

If you absolutely must, find a bargain at Ikea, where the pricier duvet sets include thicker cotton. Or try Residence Hall Linens, which sells college linens in discount packs.

13. Reading pillow, aka the bed rest, boyfriend, or husband pillow

No lying, it is so comfortable when reading in your bed. But come lights out, where are you going to put it? You’ll be in a twin — or if you’re lucky, a long twin — bed, and that reading pillow is going to need a home, which is to say, three-fourths of your meager sleeping space.

14. A rug

No, no, and no. Rugs are heavy, hard to clean, and harder to store. And that lousy desk chair the college provided? Guess what’s not going to slide on your new rug.

15. Dishes and the coffee maker

One mother I spoke with just moved her daughter into what is known as a “forced triple” — a lovely phrase to describe a room built for housing two students that will now have three living in it. Each girl had a bowl, a plate, and some silverware, and her own daughter had a small coffee maker that she insisted on keeping.

“I don’t think they are ever going to use them,” she said, having noted full kitchens down the hall. She thought a cup and mug were going to be useful, but beyond that, she suggests stocking up on disposable items.

Besides, washing dishes in the dorm bathrooms? Less than fun.

10 Things That Will Make Dorm-Living Better

Now that you’ve unpacked everything on the useless list, you may now wonder what you should bring. Here are the 10 supplies that will make living in that dorm room work.

1. Mattress trappings

Dorm beds get triple the use as chairs and sofas, so they are often worn down. A mattress pad will be your savior. It can be made of down, memory, or regular foam, and will provide shape and a little bounce to the bed top.

Many students start with a zippered mattress cover that guards against bed bugs and allergies, on top of which they add memory foam and a standard mattress pad. If you decide to layer it on like this, purchase roomier sheets that are cut for a pillow top. And remember that one set of sheets will be fine — you can do laundry.

2. Electronics and Accessories

Remember the ethernet cord, adaptors, extension cord, surge protector, zip drives, and of course, a laptop. We know you have a cell phone, too — so, a cable and a couple of chargers.

3. Tea kettle

You’ll realize the power of a nicely caffeinated beverage at 1 a.m. — and perhaps again at 3:30 a.m.

And it’s indispensable for all the ramen you’re likely to consume.

4. A single-ply, terrycloth towel

Thin, cheap towels dry better than the super-plush ones. The tiny, wicking ones feel like camping gear, which will probably lead you to call your mother a lot more than you would have because you feel so damn unloved. Go the middle route with a fast-drying towel.

5. Bathrobe with pockets

A lot of dorms have students of all sexes living in close proximity, so a conservative cover-up isn’t a bad idea. Many showers lock, and students will be carrying the keys in with them — so that pocket is going to come in handy.

6. Micro-fridge

Yes, many colleges rent these microwave-refrigerator combos to students, but to the tune of $200 or so annually. If your room doesn’t come with one, consider buying one from an upperclass student or at a local big box store.

7. Dimmable lamp

Lights are important, and if you have the means to turn one up or down, it will benefit your roommate harmony during those long study hours. But no halogen lights!

8. Washi tape

This is cool, Japanese-inspired tape that enables you to make murals and other wall décor. Hang your photos with it. Posters. Make a collage. It rules.

Also, remember Command strips and hooks. Their product line is the sticky stuff that holds nearly anything to walls.

9. Rain boots

Campus life involves a lot of walking, and there will be a rainy season in most places. Rain boots are easy, indestructible, and they keep your feet dry.

Extra socks are a must, too. One mother of a freshman said that she missed her daughter, but perhaps more significantly, she missed a lot of her socks that apparently also went to college.

10. Goals

Ha! I snuck it in here just as you were jotting down the list.

Really, have a few ideas about what you want to learn, and talk to your advisor about the paths you need to follow to reach your goals. Some end up being surprised to learn they could never go pre-med because they hadn’t taken any of the prerequisites in freshman year. Who knew?

And come graduation time, make sure those Magna Cum Laude grads are actually smarter than you — not just harder-working. But remember, there’s no shame in Summa. Live and learn, my friend!

Follow these links to read more from Sarah Rivera and additional advice about starting college.

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