Six principles of dorm room life anyone can learn from

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Photo by Marcus Loke

Gather up your freshly-sharpened pencils, your crisp new notebooks, your completely unscuffed shoes: it’s back to school time!

Dorm rooms are many people’s first home of their own. I remember almost a decade ago, arriving at college, climbing four flights of stairs and meeting my first roommate ever. Shayna and I got along splendidly, and worked hard to make our dorm our own. We learned so much, and even though I’m now living in a house, I can still use what I learned in Helser Hall.

Let’s get in the seasonal spirit and revisit the dorms (or visit for the first time, if you’ve never had the privilege of living with a stranger in a 10×20 room!).

Six lessons I learned in the dorm that have stayed with me through the years


  1. Everyone needs their own space. When you’ve got two people in a small cinder block room, you have to tread carefully — no matter how good your relationship. By using furniture to make zones, you can keep clearer expectations about who cleans what and who needs privacy when. In the dorms we divvied up everything — Shayna kept her side spotless and I’m sure mine was strewn with underwear, half-finished drawings, and leaves I brought home. In the house, Scott and I get along much better when he’s got a work zone/desk, and I have a studio.
  2. Focus on the fun.
    post-it wall
    Photo by Miss Kels. Used under Creative Commons license.
    Our first priority as a newly-formed duo was to name our dorm room, decorate the door with public declarations of lewdness, and draw all over the brick walls with chalk. In the second year we made a tropical cove under Shayna’s bunk in which we could watch TV, cuddle up in the cold, and, occasionally, cuddle up with our boyfriends. Having a place we could retreat to took the edge off stressors. The nook didn’t make the room any bigger, but it made it 100 times more pleasant. I learned to take on projects with my cohabitants — we both felt productive, and we both reaped the benefits.
  3. Organization is king. So, Shayna was my polar opposite. Her clothes were organized by color, ROY G BIV style. But she kind of had to be a nut about it! The girl finished her undergrad and Master’s degrees in five years — AND held jobs. It took me a while longer to learn, but there’s nothing better organization can’t help with. Whether you’re in the confined space of a dorm room or a McMansion out in the suburbs, life gets more complicated when you don’t have a place to sort mail, keep track of bills, or organize homework — or when your dresser is so covered in toiletries and pocket findings you aren’t able to find your keys.
  4. There are always improvements to be made. Even if you can’t paint the walls, or can’t drop a load of cash on new furniture, you can find a way to get what you need from your home. We have a whole mess of posts about no-damage decor. And look at that! We’ve also got all these posts handling upcycling — for as little as $0, you can make all kinds of furniture, organizers, and decor for your home.
  5. Ownership is important. I’m not talking about whose name is on the lease. Devise ways to bond with where you live; it helps you feel grounded in a home base. Shayna and I named the trees outside our window: the first year our neighbor was Herman. The second year we lived next door to Carlton. Even when I felt homesick or lonely, I felt like I had a Christmas light-strewn oasis with familiar neighbors, and I was proud of it.
  6. Anthropomorphism makes life fun. My roommate and I wrote each other notes, posted signs on the door, and put stickies on the food in the fridge written from the food’s point of view. I recently acquired a housemate, and with three people in one house, the notes have come back. They’re fun. They give the house life.

You have angered the garbage disposal gods

I got a good start from my dorm years — even though I was glad to leave. What have you learned from less-than-ideal homes that you still find useful?

Comments on Six principles of dorm room life anyone can learn from

  1. My biggest (and perhaps hardest) lesson to learn was this: You don’t need all the shit you think you need. My roommate consistently came to college with a single trunk and a single overnight duffel. I came with a fridge, several boxes, a few bags and whatever else I could easily fit in the car. All of our stuff ended up in a minefield of crap on the floor. Amazingly, the less stuff I brought with me, the less stuff I had to tiptoe through on my way out the door to class. They tell you you need ALL OF THIS STUFF to be successful at college, but honestly, I could’ve made it through with so few things.

  2. Ack! Over ten years of house mates, room mates etc and i’m still stupidly disorganised and messy. I got new files when we got the boat for putting all the bills, paper work etc in but i’m not even sure where they all are now. Also i’m sure there is a black hole somewhere stealing clothes. Last week I lost my new Lemuria tee the day I got it and a brand new skirt a week after I got it!
    I also got postit notes and some pens so me and the bf could remind each other things and i’m not sure where they are.

    Anyone want to come round and organise me?

    I have a nice long weekend off next week. I’m going to get sorted!!!

    • This is why I can’t read OBH while I’m at work…inevitably I come across a link someone posts and find myself addicted to yet another site. These notes are hilarious!

  3. Hahahaha! Glad to know someone else anthropomorphizes misbehaving appliances/fixtures. Our toilet has a similar note (and teeth) because it is EVIL.

  4. I learnt how to handle my conflicting desires to share and desires to not-have-stuff-trashed-by-people-who-don’t-respect-other’s-possessions so now I’m all “Sure, you can totally borrow my thing, but can I have it back when x and if you break it can you replace it” – it’s all about setting boundaries.

  5. I think starting as you mean to go on is important. A couple of years ago, I moved in to a house shared with a bunch of other people who already knew each other and lived together. Their pattern of not-giving-a-fuck was pretty well established, and so I figured I would try and get to know them before trying to put together agreements about washing up and being noisy late at night and buying toilet roll. WORST. DECISION. EVER.

    My partner and I living together as a couple was the polar opposite of this; we worked out who would do laundry, who would pay the electric bill and who would have where to study before we moved in together, and it meant that what could’ve been an uncomfortable transition was actually really easy and enjoyable. That’s not to say we haven’t changed our agreement (he always buys rubbish loo roll, he claims I hang laundry out like a retard), but the fact that there was something ‘set in stone’ which we could go back to and revise made the whole process easier.

  6. I think the tip I picked up living in dorms/college apartments that I still use the most is to try to cross-purpose and repurpose as many things as possible, and to not just take all your stuff at face value — for example, any furniture with hidden storage (trunks, ottomans, large covered baskets), or using a bookshelf as a pantry, or over-the-door hanging organization. Even if you have more space now, it’s still nice to know you’re not wasting any of it, especially if you’re a packrat like me =)

  7. I think the most important thing really is communication and compromise. My roommate and I have been together for 3 years (we still live in a dorm) and the way I think we make it work, despite being polar opposites, is by not being afraid to talk to each other about stuff, and always checking if things are ok. From the beginning, we would ask if it was ok to have people stay over, etc. And if we have an issue, we just tell the other – like, “Hey, do you think you could be just a little more quiet when you get ready in the morning and I’m still asleep?” I have heard stories of roommates who didn’t work out and I could see that the problem was they didn’t talk to each other, they just complained about each other to their friends until they couldn’t stand it anymore.

  8. I was fortunate to have an awesome roommate all four years, but I did definitely develop two skills: being able to ask someone to do something, and own up when I do something wrong. I was terribly shy as a freshman, and by the time I graduated I was able to politely but frankly ask my roommates (including the one I’d lived with since freshman year) if they could clean their dishes after they ate, remove their laundry from the dryer when it’s done and not three hours later, etc. Helps a lot now that I’m married. 🙂

    But I also learned how to own up to things. When two girls share a bathroom and one clogs it, the other knows what happened. It makes life easier if you say “Hey, toilet’s clogged, beware- but I’m fixing it” instead of being horribly embarrassed and going out for “groceries” for three hours. You live together, stuff happens, life goes on (even if the toilet won’t).

    I will say that having a loft in the dorms was amazingly useful and totally worth the money, for those still in college. Being able to fit your desk under your bed was fantastic, particularly the year my roomie and I lived in a shoebox.

  9. I lived in several dorms over the course of five years, and then moved into a 15m² “hole flat”. Everything, everywhere I lived, was a bit shabby, and yet I always found ways to like the place I was staying. My best idea on feeling “at home” – set up my altar. Now, I am a witch, but even non-spiritual people might find it comfortable to have an area devoted to their mind, maybe like a little “zen” corner.

  10. Living in a small room in a small house with three other family members for 19 years, and then 1 year with my boyfriend in a 350sq ft bachelor apartment has taught me a lot about living with people in tight spaces. Specifically, people you’re close with. Here’s what I’ve learned:

    1. You don’t need much stuff. My parents understandably have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years and I guess to avoid that, I have overcompensated by having the bare minimum. I constantly organized my room and got rid of a few boxes/bags of things every 3 months or so. It was also prep for moving out and bringing as little as possible with me.

    2. Utilize your storage options. Shelves and containers are obvious, but don’t forget about other parts of your room/apartment. We have about a foot of space above the kitchen cabinets that we store not-so-frequently used items in. I also discovered cabinet organizers ( a few months back. Cabinets (especially in rental apartments) are often largely spaced and don’t offer much customization so small shelves are great for doubling space.

    3. Don’t forget that if you want your privacy, property and space respected, you have to respect others too. This goes without saying for family and roommates but even partners who you share every intimate thing with, need their space and their own stuff. If I try to go all organize-like-it’s-an-episode-of-Hoarders on my boyfriend and his apartment, he can sometimes get a little peeved.

    Be creative in not only your storage and decor solutions, but in your daily routines as well. Create chore charts, a house calender or whatever works for you and whomever you live with.

  11. Also, something very important about dorms and on-campus apartments that I’ve learned: GET SOME NOISE CANCELLATION STUFF.

    Ye gods.

    I have this medium-sized black fan that has been with me from freshman year until the very end (which is coming up Aug 22nd!). It has saved me so many times. When roommates would complain about being unable to sleep because of loud neighbors, I would feel triumphant. It’s amazing how much a simple fan cancels out noise. Aaah.

    Oh, and roommates never seem to know how to clean anything. What’s up with that?

  12. For me it was utilizing the space you already filled to keep what open space you had open. While my dorm mate bought shelves and storage ottomans that took up floor space, I bought cabinet and closet organizers, under-the-bed bins, and fans and mirrors that clipped onto flat surfaces. She was the first person who got to watch me move out and marvel over how much had actually been in the space, but she certainly wasn’t the last. Ask my family if they thought everything my fiance and I own would fit into our new (smaller) apartment when they helped us move it. Fits like a dream, in fact.

  13. I hated living in university halls, even though I had my own room and an on-suite bathroom, because my flatmates were inconsiderate arseholes and the kitchen was always a state- despite the fact we had a cleaner!

    Things I learnt:
    -people will steal the champagne you bought for your 21st birthday if you leave it in the fridge for more than 5 minutes
    -some people like to talk loudly in the corridor at 2am
    -fire doors slam loudly, and not everyone gives enough of a fuck to gently guide them closed
    -neighbouring flats will break open the fire door between the two flats and steal all your kitchen chairs (and some of your food), you will not be able to get them back, and management will not give a shit.
    -the oven/hot water/shower will break, and management will not fix it for weeks, despite the fact you pay £150 a week to live there.
    -the fire alarm will go off in the middle of the night, and management will conduct fire drills when it’s snowing because they hate you.
    -people will drag your washing from the machine and dump it on the dirty floor if it’s idle for more than a minute.

    I guess the main thing I learnt is that perhaps I do not play/live well with others, and I should try and find a tiny studio instead!

    I also learnt you should ignore fire alarms for the first 5 minutes. Of course, the place was actually on fire a couple of times because some people are complete idiots and can’t cook bacon.

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