Few things excite me more than an empty dorm room. After three years at boarding school and four years of college, transforming these small spaces into residence halls was something I looked forward to every summer.
Here are some of my best tips (and secrets…) to making your college dorm room look more like a home and less like a prison cell.
As you and your mom begin to make a college packing list and BEFORE you do ANY dorm shopping for freshman year, find the residence life section on the college website. Look for the dorm rules and prohibited items, find out any information about the room’s dimensions, and see what furniture may be provided by campus housing.
You should also chat with your roommate to determine if you want to coordinate dorm decor and decide who might be bringing any large furnishings that can be shared, like a rug, curtains, mini-fridge, coffee maker, etc.
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Best dorm room ideas
Light is hands-down the essential part of the room. Most dorms have minimal natural light and cringe-worthy fluorescent bulbs in the overhead lighting that immediately make a room less inviting.
If your college allows them, string lights are a popular lighting source. I stay away from the wire lights because I have trouble finding places to wrap them around, but many of my friends find ways to make it work. A fun use for the wire lights is layering them in an extra-large mason jar for a DIY lamp.
My favorite ones are globe string slights. Two sets will likely be enough to line the perimeter of your room fully. This creates the appearance of natural, warm light that comes from all directions.
A lightbox is also fun; you can change the letters to display motivational or just fun phrases.
Dorm room decorating: decor ideas
In my first year in a dorm, I decorated with posters from AllPosters.com, which is what many students do. While displaying great movies and TV shows, I think they darkened the room’s color scheme and vibe.
Now, I try to decorate with artwork, prints, and photographs from small businesses that I find on websites like Etsy and Society6 that have thousands of unique art prints by artists from around the world.
20×200 is a company that seeks to make art affordable, and I’ve found a few great prints from their site in the past. You can also find unique posters and maps at art stores like A.I. Friedman and Michael’s.
Steer clear from the glossy photos you print at the drugstore photo counter and look around on websites like Social Print Studio and Artifact Uprising (a little pricier). Both websites offer square (and large-format) matte prints that you can pull from Facebook, Instagram, or your photo library. These squares look great as a grid, fastened with clothespins on a piece of string, or in the frames that both websites offer.
I often pull photos from websites like Tumblr and even just Google Images of artists’ works that I like and print them on Social Print Studio, which allows me to mix personal photos with more artistic images. You can use the more extensive options on these websites to create your posters or prints.
If you have small photos or post cards, use a pinboard or a lightweight photo hanger like this one to create a collage wall display that you can easily change.
Also, another option that I have only learned after living through (and decorating) several undergraduates’ college rooms is that less is more. It’s fun to have wall-to-wall coverings with photos, prints, tapestries, and so on, but sometimes a more minimal approach gives the room a more mature, sophisticated look that one might have later on in college.
I use pareos (sarongs), Turkish towels, beach blankets, and tablecloths for my wall hangings because I think they look less typical “dorm room” than the busy-looking tapestries that most companies sell. But, I also think that a statement tapestry can look great on a wall and should be the standout piece in the room. If you go with a statement tapestry, I’d suggest taking it easy with the remaining decor and using neutral bedding.
Pottery Barn Teen tapestries are some of the prettiest I’ve seen. Remember to see if your college has rules about hanging tapestries first. Command Strips are what people typically use for wall hangings, so pick up those and Command hooks (if they are allowed.)
Finally, there are options for removable wallpaper that might look great as an accent wall. Check out the extensive wallpaper selection at Dormify.
Dorm room essentials
I purchased a desk bookshelf (which some dorm rooms come with — check before ordering) my junior year of high school and have used it every year since.
It’s an investment that will last and aids in organization/storage and decor. I pile my favorite books atop the hutch and use the inner shelves for my textbooks, notebooks, and binders. On my desk, I try to have as few items as possible.
A good desk lamp is important and somewhere that holds pencils and other office supplies you’ll use every day. This one has a high-speed charger for my phone on the base of the lamp and loads of different illumination settings.
For desk accessories and supplies you won’t use as often, store them in the desk drawer using an organizer tray Iike this one on Amazon. I also love the organization options offered at The Container Store.
I like Miquelrius notebooks (even though they don’t look as cool as Moleskins) because they hold up well, and the pages don’t feel cramped.
This year, I pinned some of my favorite personal items, poems, photos, and postcards to a bulletin board and leaned it against the wall behind my desk. It was nice to look at while doing work and something I continued to add to throughout the year.
While planning your desk area, remember to get a surge protector with numerous plugs and USB ports. There are usually not enough outlets in dorm rooms, and having a long cord will be very handy.
Even if carpets are provided in the dorm room, area rugs make a huge difference, warming up the space and providing another light source, brightening colors. I would go with a neutral color that isn’t pure white because, knowing dorm life, there will be a few spills.
In the past years, I’ve either purchased one large area rug that spans most of the room or used two smaller rugs. It’s up to you. Try to find one that doesn’t curl up at the edges, which tends to get annoying. This blue rug with an ombre effect is a great contemporary look.
This depends on the room because some have much more space than others. Typically, students will have a bed with a Twin XL mattress, a desk, and a built-in closet or armoire.
If your student wants to add a headboard, nightstand, or other furnishings to the “living space,” there are many cute and practical options at Dormify and Pottery Barn Teen Dorm.
A dish chair fits most dorm rooms and can be changed each school year if covered with a diverse tapestry or comforter. I used a rainbow beach blanket because I wouldn’t say I liked the original chair color, but you can use anything. Even an old bed sheet would work.
Other seating ideas include floor pillows, bean bags, or other similar pieces.
One year, I even flipped over a dresser that I wasn’t using, layered it with a pool chair cushion, throw pillows and blankets, and transformed it into a makeshift daybed.
Another great option, if you have the space, is a small couch with the option of storage cubes. A lounger doubles as somewhere to put your shoes, food, or clothes is always a plus.
I used my brother’s old couch from Pottery Barn Teen, covered it with a tablecloth, and purchased the storage cubes from their website. Futons can also be very comfortable and are great for extra seating if you have the space.
Consider storage ottomans which offer both seating as well as extra storage space. They can be compact and will provide a place for “stuff” that would otherwise contribute to the clutter.
Make sure you find out what appliances are allowed in your dorm before you start thinking about your college kitchen. Having a mini-fridge, microwave, and electric kettle are wonderful but each dorm and college have different rules.
A fridge cart is great for additional storage in narrow spaces. This one by The Container Store is very durable and comes with drawers for storage or snacks.
In my experience, you either get lucky with closet space or don’t. If you don’t, a double rod extender makes one into two rows on the closet bar so you can hang things like skirts and pants. Make sure you bring thin hangers to maximize space.
Raising the bed with risers provides under-the-bed storage, where I typically keep everything besides shoes and hanging items.
You can use bins or a cube if you can’t fit a shoe rack in the closet area. I like clear drawers from The Container Store that are stackable and, because of the transparency, perfect for easy access. They offer both pull-out drawers and open-faced ones.
This originally appeared on Daytripper University.
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