Dorm Living: The Essentials

by Maxwell Tielman

Illustration by David Saracino.

College can be pretty exhausting. After attending classes, studying, working and socializing, sometimes all you want are the comforts of home — a quiet evening in a space that feels like your own. Unfortunately, dorms are not exactly the most welcoming or homey of places. In fact, with unfriendly security guards, flickering overhead lights, noisy neighbors and horrifying bathrooms, dorms can sometimes be the opposite of homey. It is, however, possible to remedy this situation. With a bit of work and imagination, any place can be transformed into a home.

When you’re accepted to college, you typically receive a list of items that you need for your dorm room, items like extra-long sheets, mattress pads and task lamps. What you might not receive, however, is a list of items that will help you transform your assigned space from a white-walled cinderblock cell into a home. Consider this that list. — Max

Continued after the jump . . .

  • Lighting — This is one of the first things that should be added to any dorm room. By default, dorms typically feature hideous overhead fluorescents that trigger migraines, cast unflattering shadows and give everything a sickly green glow. Make a rule to keep these off at all times and opt instead for some lamps and string lights. Rice paper hanging lamps can also be purchased for under $10 and hung up without too much effort. (Featured in the above image: Tripod Floor Lamp, $62.48; IKEA Väte Lampshade, $7.99.)
  • Rugs — To add cute points to any dorm room, add some rugs! If you have hard linoleum tiles, this is a must, but a nice rug can even be used on top of wall-to-wall carpeting to add some plush personality. (Featured in the above image: Herringbone Rug, $189; Faux Sheepskin, $9.99.)
  • Floor Pillows — An alternative to the ubiquitous beanbag chair, floor pillows are a chic, affordable and portable way to add extra seating to your room. Perfect if you have friends over for a small dinner or movie night. (Featured in the above image: Zig Zag Floor Pillow, $32.57.)
  • Metallic or Wood Pushpins — While pushpins are commonplace in dorm rooms around the globe, the multicolored plastic kind often leave something to be desired, at least aesthetically. Using silver, gold or wooden tacks adds a stylish boost to the common practice of poster-hanging and maintains a sense of cohesion across your space. (Featured in the above image: Stainless Steel Push Pins, $11.99 for a box of 100.)
  • Shower Curtain . . . CurtainsMany dorm rooms feature oversized windows that aren’t suited to standard-sized window panels. An easy and much cheaper substitute is using a stylish fabric shower curtain and a plain curtain rod. Most will be able to extend the entire width of your windows.
  • White Sticky Tac — Although sticky tac often comes in blue, it can occasionally leave a tough-to-remove residue on your walls. I learned this the hard way freshman year and was stuck with a $200 maintenance fee when I moved out. Stick with the white!
  • A printer with ink and/or a copy card — While most students use their printers for papers, they can also be used to print artwork for your room! Experiment with multicolored papers and iron-transfer sheets for various DIY projects.
  • Bud Vases — Your campus job probably doesn’t pay well enough to allow fresh, daily bouquets in your room, but even a single stem of your favorite flower can add life and beauty to your surroundings. Bud vases, which are designed specifically for this purpose, are the perfect solution.
  • Electronic Candles — Sometimes lighting candles and playing calm music is the best way to unwind after a long day of classes. Unfortunately, most dorms forbid anything that lights on fire. As an alternative, check out electronic tea lights. They can be displayed on their own, or even better, inside the candle holder of your choice. (Featured in the above image: Flameless Electronic Tea Lights, $7.64 for a set of 12.)
  • Contact Paper — The term “contact paper” likely evokes images of seedy 1970s kitchens with ugly grid-patterned drawer liners. However, there are a number of companies today that sell contact paper in chic, hip patterns perfect for adorning otherwise mundane surfaces like kitchen cabinets, desktops, dressers and doors. Check out Chic Shelf Paper for some great options.
  • Decorative Tape — Decorative tapes like Japanese washi tape are perfect for hanging posters, adding colorful borders or creating decorative geometric shapes on your wall. Check some out at CuteTape or Wishy Washi Tape.
  • Dress up Your Tech — One stylish and totally free way to spruce up your surroundings is to add beautiful wallpaper to your computers and portable devices. Check out Poolga and Pixel Girl Presents for awesome tech wallpaper.

  • Water Filter — After tuition, it’s hard to justify constantly buying bottles of water. Unfortunately, the water that comes from the sinks in communal bathrooms isn’t all that appetizing. Go green, save money and strike a compromise by purchasing a water filter pitcher! (Featured in the above image: Bobble Jug, $24.99.)
  • Coffee & Coffee Maker — If you didn’t drink coffee before college, you’re likely to make it a habit within your first month. After pulling all-nighters and studying until the wee hours, coffee is essential. Rather than swinging by the cafeteria on your way to class, brew some coffee while you get ready in the morning. (Featured in the above image: Hairo Ceramic Coffee Dripper, $17.88; Yellow Coffee Mug, $2.95.)
  • Dinnerware — Even if you have a meal plan, sometimes it’s nice to eat in, especially if you’re hosting a dorm room dinner party! Pick up some plates, bowls, glasses, mugs and silverware. Stores like Target usually sell all of the above in plastic or melamine options if you’re worried about breakage. (Featured in the above image: Color Wheel Melamine Cereal Bowl, $14.49 for a set of 8.)
  • Disposable (Green) Dinnerware — Let’s face it, even if eating in your dorm room can be nice from time to time, washing dishes (especially in communal sinks) is not. For those looking for an easier way to dine in, use biodegradable/compostable dinnerware. Check out Biodegradable Cutlery, Compostable Cereal Bowls and Recycled Paper Cups. If you’re super strapped for cash, though, the cafeteria is a great place to pick up some free disposable utensils. (Featured in the above image: Compostable Forks and Knives from Savannah Supplies.)
  • Plastic or Glass Food Storage Containers — I’m not gunna lie: If you live in a dorm, bugs and mice are a definite possibility. Avoid those pesky critters by protecting your food in sealed containers. Containers like IKEA’s 365 Jar (pictured above) are also great for bulk cereals and dry goods.
  • Microwave Cooking Supplies — Single-room dorms typically don’t allow cooking instruments like hotplates and toasters, but you can actually prepare quite a lot of food with just a microwave. There are also a number of implements that can aid in such culinary adventures. Things like Microwave Egg Cookers, Pasta Makers, Rice Cookers . . . and even Bacon Trays.


As a college student, sleep is probably what you need most. However, dorm living isn’t exactly conducive to restful slumber, especially if you and your roommate are on different schedules. Here are a few things that should help you get a good (or at least better) night’s sleep.

  • Eye Mask and Ear Plugs — Sometimes all you need to sleep better is a reduction in outside stimuli. Cut out your roommate’s pesky desk lamp with a thick eye mask and mute your neighbor’s 1am music with some heavy-duty earplugs. (Featured in the above image: Cat Eye Sleep Mask; Mack’s SafeSound Ultra Ear Plugs, $4.95 for 10 pairs.)
  • Natural Sleep Remedies — Save from getting the over-the-counter heavy-duty stuff, natural remedies like chamomile, valerian root and melatonin are surefire ways to unwind and get to sleep fast. (Featured in the above image: Dream Water Relaxation Shots, $19.99 for 6; Sleepytime Extra Tea with Valerian, $3.49.)
  • Duvet Covers — Although this might not help you sleep better, you’ll certainly sleep more soundly knowing that your bedding is cleaner and more cleanable. Skip those troublesome all-in-one monstrosities — get duvet covers instead! They can be washed separately and removed in the event of a spill. (Featured in the above image: Vitaminer Vimpel Duvet Cover from IKEA, $14.99.)


  • A Robe & Flip Flops — If you have communal showers, a terrycloth robe and flip flops are absolute musts — the robe for getting from your room to the shower without having to bring a change of clothes and the flip flops for avoiding the nasties on the floor of the shower stalls. (Featured in the above image: Terrycloth Robe, $69.50; Havianas Spirit Sandals, $30.)
  • Bath Totes and Storage Containers — Wire shower cadies, totes and storage containers are attractive and useful ways to store your cosmetics and shower supplies. The metal frame allows you to see all of your products and allows water to drip out the bottom. (Featured in the above image: Square Wire Basket, $24.95.)
  • Bulk Toothbrushes and Razors — If you need to order your bath products online, the last thing you want to be waiting on are disposable objects like razors and toothbrushes. Order in bulk and save yourself the wait! (Featured in the above image: Pantone Toothbrush Set, $10.)
  • Multi-use products — Products like 2-in-1 shampoo and Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap (which has practically 100 uses including body wash, shampoo and laundry detergent) save you space and time, two things you will likely need while living in the dorms.
  • Hair Powder — Let’s be real. What with midterms, final projects, papers, parties and regular old classes, you’re not always going to have time to shower. But that doesn’t mean your hair has to be unkempt! Sprinkle some scented hair powder in; it’ll absorb excess oil and make you look fresh and clean (even if you’re not). (Featured in the above image: Alder Natural Hair Powder, $30.)
  • Fragrance Spray — If you’re sharing a bathroom with a lot of people, sometimes it’s hard to be discrete. You can, however, try. With products like Mrs. Meyer’s Room Freshener ($16.87 for a pack of 3), all anybody will smell in your bathroom is roses.

  • A Mini Vacuum Cleaner — Having a vacuum cleaner is great for two reasons. One: your room will always be clean. Two: you will likely be the only person on your floor with one, so you’re sure to make friends with the people asking to borrow yours. Win-win! There are a number of miniature space-saving options available like the Dirt Devil Power Air Stick Vac ($41.99).
  • A Fan — Fans are wonderful because they don’t just provide a cool breeze; they also provide an excellent source of sound-muting white noise. Got an exam to study for and wish your neighbors would shut up? Turn on your fan and tune them out! (Featured in the above image: Brushed Nickel Fan, $66.98.)
  • A Landline Telephone — Even though you probably haven’t seen one of these in years, many dorms require you to have a landline telephone installed for emergencies and calls from your RA. If this is the case, go all-out and get an old-fashioned-style phone like Cortelco’s Desk Phone ($27.52).
  • A Power Strip — If there’s only one outlet in your room or if you’re sharing one with your roommate, a power strip is essential, especially if you have several devices to charge. (Featured in the above image: Lightning Bolt Power Strip, $20.)
  • Extra Long Phone/Ethernet/Cable Cords — If you want your TV/computer/phone to be on the opposite side of the room from the ports for those respective devices, extra long (20ft+) cords come in handy.
  • A sewing machine — Aside from hemming skirts and repairing clothes, sewing machines are great for any number of DIY projects that might come your way. (Featured in the above image: Singer 1409 Promise Sewing Machine, $69.)
  • Eye-TV — No, this is not an Apple product. It is, however, an incredible device/software combo that allows you to essentially turn your computer into a television/DVR. Simply hook up your cable cord to the USB-sized device, install the Eye-TV software and you’re ready to watch TV right on your laptop. You can also save recordings for later and export them to your iPod or iPad. (Eye-TV Hybrid TV Tuner, $149.95 for device and software)
  • A Projector — Digital projectors are fabulous for turning your dorm room into a mini-movie theater, and many today cost less than $300. If you’re pinching pennies (and what college student isn’t?), most college libraries and AV departments offer free projector rentals. Grab a projector, some microwave popcorn and some friends, and throw yourself a movie night!

  • Tool Kit — Like the vacuum cleaner, having a tool kit will make you a hit among dorm residents. It’s also great for random repairs, DIY projects and installations.
  • Luggage — While it’s a necessity if you’re traveling home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, luggage can also double as under-the-bed storage when otherwise not in use. Perfect for hiding sweaters during warm months and any other supplies you don’t have space for.
  • Colorful Duct Tape — Duct tape is pretty much the repair-all product of dorm life. However, most kinds are terribly unattractive. Pick up some neon-colored duct tape and turn your previously shame-filled repair attempts into bold statements! Colorful duct tape is also a fun way to keep cords attached to your floor or walls. (Duck Brand Duct Tape, around $7 a roll)
  • Adhesive Hooks — If you’re the kind of person who frequently forgets your keys in your room, be sure to pick up some simple adhesive hooks to put near your door. If you get in the habit of hanging your keys as soon as you enter your dorm room, you’ll avoid countless embarrassing visits to your RA.
  • Large Garbage Cans — Although it can be tempting to buy a tiny under-the-desk waste paper bin for your dorm room, be warned. Trash can accumulate quickly, and the last thing you want to be doing is carting garbage to the dumpster more often than you need to. Instead, opt for large, kitchen-sized waste bins. Get two, so you can recycle!
  • A Drying Rack — If the idea of putting  your wool sweaters in the dryer sends shivers up your spine, it might be a good idea to pick up one of these. It’ll save you from having to drape wet clothes all over your furniture!
  • A Mini Ironing Board and Iron — The regular versions of these can be quite the space-hoggers, but miniature ironing boards come quite in handy when you need a freshly pressed shirt in a pinch.


While this list by no means encompasses everything that can help to make dorm living more tolerable, it certainly is a start. If you feel we’ve missed something or have some of your own tips and tricks to share, please let us know in the comments section below!

Suggested For You


  • Such a great post topic. Dorms are a challenge, certainly. Although I’ve left dorm life well behind, I still kind of want some of the featured items for my own home! The colors are so fun!

  • Oftentimes dorm drapes are fireproof, that’s something to check with the management about before you swap them out for something else.

  • Such great ideas…I’m bookmarking this for next fall. Many little tips that no one ever thinks of…and we have an entire year to get ready in order to avoid being at the closest Bed bath and beyond getting what’s leftover from everyone else. Seriously…I don’t think you missed even the tiniest of details…we’ll thank you next year!

  • This should be a “things you need in life” list. I’ve been reading through each post and the reasoning for needing each item and I find myself thinking, “hey, I need that too!” and I’ve been out of the dorms for years!

    Great post!

  • Don’t forget the wall-hung shelves, racks, grids and hooks. You can store a lot of lighter-weight essentials on your walls!

  • Such a great post- I’m the Social Media Coordinator at Johnson & Wales University…I’ll be sure to share this post! :)

  • Lovely round up of essentials for dorms, the colors are so bright! Going to send this over to my sister. She is in her first year of uni.

  • While I find the list fun and playful, I’m not sure all of these are practical. I’m no longer in college but if my mind serves me right (it’s only been 5 years), my dorm room was not that big. My roommate and I brought too much stuff frehsman year and wouldn’t have had room for these additional items. One thing I do remember is that I brought and iron and never used it. Instead take your clothes into the shower and let the steam do the work.

  • As a college student living in a dorm, I love these ideas, especially the curtains. I will definitely be taking a trip to target this weekend. l would also add that plants (if you can keep them alive) are great in dorms especially herbs if you have a kitchen (I’m kind of spoiled in my dorm). Some big no-nos for me are all the generic posters and the “college essential” supplies, because EVERYONE ends up with the same desk lamp and bedspread.

  • When me and my sister lived in a dorm, I had sewn us pillowcases using Amy Butler fabric. We had a general color scheme, and matched our IKEA duvet covers and microwave accessories to it. Our closet was open, so we used some IKEA fabric and tacked it to the ceiling to cover our clothes. You really have to think smarter, but not forget some fun details to make it cozy.

  • Our dorm room had very little space (a double room converted to a triple; really, I mean *very little space* until thankfully more rooms opened up, Roommate 3 moved out, and we reverted to a double; if all three of us were in the room, and not in bed, it was a pretty crazy dance to get around each other!). It’s worth seeing the room before you buy anything, as options may be very limited (for instance, there’s no way we could have had floor pillows; the bathroom sinks were too shallow and oddly shaped to directly fill a water pitcher from; we would have been always tripping over floor lamps, since there wasn’t any good place for them; we each had half of a wardrobe [18 inches wide? something like that] and the two drawers underneath that half for our clothes and toiletries, then we all split the remaining half a wardrobe and drawers for common use with coats, kitchen-y items, cup noodles, tools, etc., so “extras” were pretty limited). When I moved in, I think I brought three boxes of stuff, total, and sent one box of cold-weather clothes back home with my parents, to be swapped in later, because things just didn’t fit!

    That said, you can still really make a room your own with rugs, desk coverings, duvet covers, etc., with roommate cooperation. And this list is great for ideas! Just… don’t buy any items that actually require space (either floorspace or wallspace) or that require a certain type of surface (hanging anything heavy using poster putty on cinderblock is just not a great plan) before you see the room. And coordinate with your roommate(s), because one person’s design paradise is another person’s eyesore and you want to avoid duplication and crowding wherever possible. :-)

  • Seriously? $960 for just the items above that list prices (a minority of them) – just what new students need – more debt! I know, I know, style is important, let’s encourage fresh grads to invest in design staples like an “essential” lightening-bolt shaped power cord (to sit behind the dresser forever) or a purple land-line phone.

    • bon

      this list is HUGE and by no means do you need to buy everything on it. however, i think if you bought everything listed here with prices, you’d have enough to outfit you for college and your first apartment, so $960 for all that is actually a pretty good deal.

      i went back and re-read all the prices to make sure and i feel really strongly that max hasn’t listed anything that wasn’t affordable and college appropriate. like any post, it’s a suggestion not a requirement that you consider or buy anything.


  • I’m way passed the college experience but that really inspired me for just the everyday use. Perfect explanation Bianca – OMG! My list just got longer…

  • As someone who has recently left the college life. I can safely say that there was no room for a sewing machine in my dorm room. Its nice to dream though I imagine.

  • My best dorm tip: WD-40 and a little bit of scrubbing will remove duck tape adhesive from walls and floors. This helped me put things where I wanted them… AND avoid the end-of-year maintenance fees.

    I’ll also argue that owning a sewing machine is another way of making friends! As the only one in my building with one, I’ve had many ridiculous requests… but stitching patches on jeans is a great way to get free coffees! I also put together a “Guide to Sewing in Your Dorm Room” awhile back, with my favorite little ways of organizing craft supplies in such a small space:

  • Affordable and college-appropriate are really hard to define. There is a fair range between people whose idea of affordable is $5 or less (most, if not all, of the furniture in our student apartment was either free or thrifted; money was very tight so our look was definitely “eclectic”) and people whose idea of affordable is a couple thousand bucks. If you have the money, then you can use it in the ways that are important to you; if you don’t have the money, you can say “Hm, how can I make that?” or “I wonder if I can borrow someone’s sewing machine”.

    I would note that some stuff in dorm rooms ends up getting trashed (if not by random drunk people stopping by your room and vomiting on things, then by people who borrow and don’t return), so considering portable or textile-covered objects as a long-term investment is probably not ideal. But saying “is this worth it?” will sometimes net a “yes!”, and that’s okay. I think the strength of this list is suggesting categories of items that people may want to consider and adapt for their own budgets – whether those budgets are far higher or far lower than the “default” here. :-)

  • I agree with some above. Minimalism, folks. Keep it simple. you can make things look nice without much stuff. Esp when there’s such a small space. Too many of my friends brought way too much stuff to school.