Dorm living’s lessons for the rest of your life — from a former Resident Assistant

Guest post by Stiletto

#721College prepares you for the real world — in more ways than one. Most new graduates can’t count on making enough money to buy a house for at least a few years (especially now), and that means post-college life is somewhat likely to involve living in a big apartment complex and/or having roommates. Which, frankly, isn’t much different from dorm life.

I have been a Resident Assistant, an assistant resident manager, and an apartment manager, so I know the ins and outs. Here are my tips:

Know the rules

Read the residents’ handbook or whatever the dorm rule book you have is BEFORE you move in. (If the school didn’t include one with the rest of your paperwork, call the housing department and request a copy.) You don’t want to be unexpectedly written up, your RA doesn’t necessarily want to write you up, and your school will probably not accept “I didn’t know it was against the rules” as an excuse.

And remember to read the fine print on your rental or lease agreement — it’s a legally binding document and breaking it can come back to haunt you. (More on that later.)

Know your rights

Depending on the laws in your country or state, your dorm may be legally classified as an apartment building or as a hotel. My school’s housing fell into the latter category. This meant the school was only required to give evicted students three days’ notice to move out! (Under California state law, tenants evicted from an apartment must be given 30 to 60 days’ notice to vacate.) Scary stuff, huh?

Don’t forget the search-and-seizure implications. My school’s lease agreements stipulated that students’ rooms could be searched at any time, that both occupants had joint responsibility for the room, and allowed for the confiscation of stereo equipment after a certain number of noise warnings. If greater privacy and autonomy are more important than convenience and cost, consider renting an apartment instead.

Don’t decorate dangerously

Before you start decorating, make sure whatever you plan to do is allowed. It’s very simple, but a great many students wind up paying substantial damage fees or being disciplined because they don’t check first.

Dorms often don’t allow certain adhesives because they can damage the paint, and nails/screws might be banned as well. Some of the interior design majors threw tantrums about not being allowed to paint or hang curtains, but DIY paint jobs can easily go wrong, and installing curtain rods would have required drilling into cinderblock. Not a good idea.

Yeah, your room would look a lot cooler with framed posters, curtains, and empty Champagne bottles used as candleholders. But take it from me, it is NOT worth paying for damage or getting evicted for possession of alcohol containers.

Dorm fires suck

A student’s room caught on fire during my stint as an RA. No one was hurt, but the room was uninhabitable for months, and the unfortunate student lost several months’ worth of portfolio material. It could have been worse — he was an international student and his visa would have gone up in flames had it not been in a fireproof box. My building was also evacuated because of a 4 a.m. dumpster fire started by a burning cigarette.

Most dorms have rules against candles and indoor smoking due to the fire risk. Use electric candles instead of wax candles, and use the ashtrays outside.

And please don’t sneak in banned appliances! My school’s electrical wiring was old, and microwaves and toasters shorted out power. The aforementioned conflagration was an electrical fire, and sure enough, the adjoining room had an illicit microwave.

Don’t whine about having to share

I dreaded matching up new roommates. Every year, there would be a handful of upset that they couldn’t get a private room, which weren’t available because the demand for dorm rooms outstripped the supply. Many of them wanted single rooms because they had no experience sharing, without realizing how important it is to learn to live together.

Given the state of the job market and the low wages recent grads tend to earn, sharing a space is fast becoming a basic life skill, and college is actually a pretty good time to learn.

Given the state of the job market and the low wages recent grads tend to earn, sharing a space is fast becoming a basic life skill, and college is actually a pretty good time to learn. The dynamics are much different when you’re an adult, you’ll probably spend more time out of the room than in it, and it’s easier to share an apartment when dorm life is still fresh in your mind.

By the way, RAs are often the sole exception to housing policies that require students to share rooms. This is because 1. RAs carry master keys, and 2. one of the primary duties of an RA is to privately counsel students, which is very difficult to do with roommates walking in. Wanting a private room is not a good reason to apply for the job — it’s hard work!

If it’s valuable, insure it

Money, jewelry, handbags, wallets, iPods, stereo equipment, textbooks, digital cameras, and laptop computers are stolen on college campuses on a regular basis. Your school will probably not reimburse you if this happens.

Dorm residents are usually eligible for renter’s insurance, and I strongly recommend it. Yes, it costs money. But it doesn’t cost a LOT of money, so skip one or two pizza orders and insure your stuff.

Whatever you do, don’t get evicted

You won’t be living in a dorm room forever, and when the time comes to rent an apartment or house, prospective landlords will run background and credit checks on you. Things like getting evicted for smoking pot in the communal bathroom are likely to pop up.

Most property owners and managers have had at least one bad tenant and don’t want to repeat the experience. Universities often forgive a certain level of mayhem, so a dorm eviction can look worse than an apartment eviction.

Document any problems

Whether your problem is a stalker or a too-loud neighbor, keep a log of incidents and report them — the authorities can’t help you if they don’t know anything’s wrong. Photograph damage, tape-record the noisy neighbor, and save physical evidence like notes or broken items. If you have a restraining order against someone, give copies to the housing office and the campus police to ensure they are aware of it.

Call your parents

The bad news: You may be an adult, but that isn’t going to stop Mom and Dad from worrying about you. Every move-in weekend, the campus switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree. The reason was always the same — parents panicking because their son or daughter hadn’t called them to check in. I suggest calling home as soon as you arrive, and arranging a weekly phone call.

The good news: In most cases, RAs and other staff aren’t allowed to disclose your private information without your permission. That means we aren’t going to tell your family that you’ve been pulling all-nighters and neglecting your laundry.

Don’t forget to have fun!

Comments on Dorm living’s lessons for the rest of your life — from a former Resident Assistant

  1. My advice: if you don’t have basic housekeeping skills, suck it up and learn. I don’t care if you had a nanny and three maids your entire life–learn to properly operate a microwave, sweep a floor, wipe down a counter, clean your hair out of the drain, use a toilet without making a mess and keep a stove tidy.
    I can’t even begin to explain the horrors I saw of girls (and guys) who expected everyone else around them to pick up their messes. Dorms don’t have maids! Sure, they might have a cleaning crew for the bathroom, but by living in a communal property, you’re agreeing to take care of yourself like a big girl/boy. While your prior living situation may have afforded a staff to clean up after you, this will not be the case when you first graduate, regardless of what career you intend to pursue.
    So please don’t poop in the shower stalls. Just. Please?

    • My school had weekly housekeeping (it was a local Board of Health requirement since the dorms were legally classed as a hotel), but the cleaners would skip a room if there was too much stuff on the floor. (Which can backfire…one room flooded due to a plumbing problem over the holidays and the occupants lost half their wardrobes because they’d left huge piles of laundry on the floor.)

      BTW, it isn’t just spoiled rich kids who don’t clean- my grubbiest schoolmates came from all social classes. I was a “rich kid” who had never shared a room before (except at summer camp) and went home to a dilapidated mansion during term breaks. Yet, I was the one who kept Mom’s discarded Dirt Devil in my closet for “touchup” cleaning before a hall meeting. (I’ll admit we had cleaning ladies off and on when I was a kid, but I also had a very practical mother who made a point of teaching my brother and I to clean up our own messes.)

      • You’re right… I’m just biased. At my college EVERYONE was “the poor kids” (my school gives full tuition scholarships to every student,) and the messiest were generally the kids who were better-off financially, for whatever reason. I knew of one international student whose family owned multiple servants because she was actually exceptionally well-off in her country, and she was SO MESSY. Aside from just abandoning random items wherever she happened to be (including food cooking on the stove,) she did weaves for pocket money, so there was synthetic hair EVERYWHERE in my suite. She and stories from my janitor friends (who were students) about other girls in my dorm totally skewed my view of all “rich kids”. Maybe that was just caste jealousy?
        THEN AGAIN, I’m talking about females. With males, the messy people were pretty much just 50% of all of them, regardless of financial status. XD Boys seemed to be either exceptionally neat or exceptionally messy.

      • Actually I was a HORRIBLE roommate because I had no idea how to clean and no concept of what to be ashamed of. I grew up hella poor and my home life was pretty unstable, so there wasn’t so much ‘raising’ as ‘keeping alive.’ I feel bad for that first roommate but I mean, it was the product of abuse and neglect that I’ve had to work extremely hard to overcome in recent years. I know it sounds like a cop out but it is very (unfortunately) real.
        Not trying to be a Debbie Downer, I have had some awful messy roommates who just needed to get their shit together. Just, you know, there’s other stories too sometimes.

  2. I lived in a dorm (a private one, actually, with two tiny rooms (I mean TINY, about six feet wide) and an adjoining bathroom I shared with two other girls) for the last four years. Trust me, even then you will still have crazy floor and bathroom mates who will ride a scooter in the hall, be unable to do any repairs (I had one bathmate who needed me to change a lightbulb for her, just because she didn’t know how, not because of any physical limitations), have their boyfriends stay over even though it is against policy, etc.

    Sadly, while the RA is usually there to help you solve problems with your fellow residents or pass it up the ladder, not all of them are cut out for it (probably that private room lure Stiletto mentioned- I paid extra for mine, but RAs got theirs cheap). I had one who a week in was getting reports of stuff getting stolen from rooms and responded by sending an email to the whole floor saying she would install locks on all our drawers if we kept this up. The whole floor was confused and embarrassed because we didn’t know who thought who was stealing from who. That floor was always awkward after that. Then the next semester when no one would attend her floor events (probably because we were all awkward after all being accused of theft), the same RA sent out an email saying events were now mandatory (of course they weren’t, since you cannot force people to go to Chipotle with you).

    The best thing to do if you’ve got someone like this for your RA is to talk to the next level up- in my case, I just clarified what the rules were with the dorm manager. Once I ascertained that locks would not be put on my bathroom cupboards and I couldn’t be forced to attend floor events, I just accepted that I’d have to socialize outside my floor circle that year. Fortunately, that’s not too hard to do!

  3. This was hilarious to read. I lived in the dorms for 2 years (pretty typical), but worked as the housing coordinator for the same dorm a year after I graduated. It was a hilarious job, filled with some great stories. My main purpose was to pair up roommates based on the housing questionnaires that each new student submitted. So if I can add anything for prospective students/roommates (this is applicable to all you craigslist housing hunters) it’s this: share what’s pertinent. I don’t think anyone gives a crap about how moving you think a certain director’s films are, or which video games are your favorite. Stuff that matters: study and sleeping patterns, entertaining habits, and pet peeves such as dirty toilets, or gross dishes in the sink. Stuff that actually matters for how you live.

    And also, for dorm purposes, people were always surprised that someone actually read their application. For the most part, it’s not a robot randomly matching people. I read every single application several times, highlighting and making notes, so be thorough about the important stuff. I can’t tell you how many complaints I got from kids wondering why they’d been placed with Random Roommate from Hell – usually when I’d pull up their app to see what was going on, it was because they had put absolutely nothing on their application, and their excuse was that they assumed that no one would read it. Not only did I read it, but I really cared. Don’t take chances on something like that!

    • I wish my college had asked more useful questions on their roommate matching form. They only asked pretty basic things like if you smoked or not (my first year of college smoking was actually allowed in dorm rooms, ick) and what time you liked to go to sleep at night. I’m pretty sure there were only about three or four questions, and they said nothing about personality. Also, I think lots of people lied about things because their parents were watching while they filled out the survey.

      • My school had the same questionnaire. 1) Do you smoke? 2) When do you usually sleep? 3) Do you require any special accommodations?

        I matched my flatmates regarding 1 & 3, but NOT the most important one to me…#2. Having school-run housing was a new concept at the school. Also, they always aimed for “diversity” in each flat, so I think I ended up getting placed to keep diversity.

  4. Roommate agreements were a fantastic excercise. As an RA I instested that all my residents fill one out, even if they knew each other beforehand. It meant clearly stating what their guest policy was (ranging from “NO ONE” to “I guess I’d appreciate a phone call first if your gonna be naked), what stuff belonged to whom, and even what their sleep/study schedule was going to look like. It saved a lot of trouble later on.

    Another note from an RA: Movies make it seem like we are the WORST. I promise, we don’t want to bust you. Frankly, nights where I had to write people up made me so mad. Because I worked at a state school, an incident report was a legal document, which meant it took a long time to write and had to be very precise. WE HATED WRITING PEOPLE UP! It meant staying up even later than our already long hours.

    • So true. I was hired to replace another RA who didn’t enforce the rules (and got fired). The resident manager strategically placed some of the rowdiest students on my floor because she trusted me to maintain order.

      I didn’t particularly enjoy writing incident reports, but it was one of my duties. It isn’t as though I could refuse to do it, or let incidents slide. That would have been grossly unfair to the other residents (especially the noise violations!).

  5. Great post! At the ripe old age of 23 I’ll be moving into a student housing apartment complex for college next week with 3 roomies, all age 18/19. Not to sound ageist, but I just hope I won’t end up having to play house mother in terms of cleaning up after everyone. 😛

  6. I was probably one of those roommates-from hell – I knew how to clean, I just hated doing it. I was FINALLY on my own, away from mumsy and popsy for the first time, and I was going to ENJOY my new freedom. (You mean I can have sex in my own bed??? SCORE!!!!)

    Luckily I realized that fairly early on (and luckily I went to a school that had enough single rooms for most 2nd year students and higher to have their own, if you were willing to walk a few blocks to class), so after my first year I got my own room. I still had suitemates, but being responsible for cleaning up the kitchen and bathroom a few times a month was heaven compared to having to keep the bedroom clean daily when I really didn’t care.

    Even now, I would rather live in a marginal neighborhood (not dangerous, but definitely poorer working-class neighbors) alone than live in the heart of a groovy neighborhood with a roommate. I really hate rules – even my own.

  7. I got by the curtain rule very easily. I bought a very pretty cloth shower curtain and hung it up where the standard curtain went. The standard curtains are just a thick cloth with evenly spaced holes in them to hang on the hooks, just like a shower curtain. Because it didn’t require any alterations to the walls, my CA said it was okay as long as I put up the old curtains when it was move-out day.
    We did not have forms like the ones mentioned above, but we were given our roommate’s contact information to plan ahead. Sadly, even with the prior contact, my first roommate and I seemed to have different ways of communicating, which lead to a lot of confusion and her referring to me as “it”. I got it right the second time.
    And a major-big rule from me; do online reviews of landlords and apartment complexes before you sign the lease. My first landlord stole my security deposit and tried to charge me more until I threatened taking him to court. The second time, I checked online before even looking at any places. It is downright terrifying how many slumlords pray off the college kids in my area. Document EVERYTHING, renters!

    • Awww! You called them CAs? That’s what I was too, except I always say RA because no one knows what a CA is.
      I put up curtains as well. I threaded safty pins through the hook holes and just pinned up my curtains over the ones that we already there. My RHD said they were a fire hazard though…

  8. I don’t get how a landlord would know that you got kicked out of the dorms unless you told them or the school press criminal charges and let’s face it, most colleges rarely call the cops even over serious criminal matters.

    • Maybe yours didn’t, but mine did (some of my horror stories involve students being arrested)…and ALL landlords insist upon references. Some will ask for the names and phone numbers of all your previous landlords, and many don’t want to rent to some kid fresh out of Mom and Dad’s house. The housing office received more than a few phone calls from landlords renting to former students.

      • Yeah, I’ve heard the apartment management at my current residence telling perspective renters with no rental history other than the dorms that they need to fill out a form to authorize them to talk to the housing department at the University. Landlords do talk to housing departments when there are no other references.

  9. Lucky for me, my school has on-campus apartments 😀 I’m cool living with people, but I HAVE to have my own bathroom/bedroom. I just have to. Freshman year (in a dorm) was so horrible, I don’t know how I didn’t get sick. There were PUBES everywhere, and my roommate had a mountain of clothes under her bed (literally…a mountain).

    Said roommate also decided to let expired milk sit in our mini fridge. Unbeknownst to her (and me), milk in a glass bottle will EXPLODE if it gets too gross. In the middle of the night. While I’m sleeping.

    Another funny story, said roommate also took some vitamin supplement that required her to use a measuring cup that looked like a shot glass. We got fined and it got confiscated, even though the measuring stuff was clearly on the glass and she had the vitamin stuff in our fridge.

    Ah, college. Soon I will be through with you <3

  10. Our floor has been sanctioned to do community service because the Resident Director cited that someone had popped in the shower! No fair as she didn’t hold the dorm accountable last month when someone did it in the dorm’s elevator last month plus anyone can go on any floor in the dorm!

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