Ah, so you're off to college -- eager to begin a new chapter of life marked by independence, self discovery and living quarters befitting the finest of canned sardines.
Oops. Institutions of higher learning usually leave that last bit off of their promotional brochures and Web sites. Welcome to one of the practical realities of your first year or two of campus life: If you choose to call the dormitory "home," you'll be in for a bit of a squeeze. While dorm room sizes can vary widely by school, it's fairly typical for two people to share an undivided space of around 12 feet by 20 feet (3.66 by 6.10 meters). Right. Ouch.
The typical double-bunk prison cell, if it makes you feel any better, is about half that [source: Stevens].
By comparison, the dorm accommodations don't sound too awful until you consider the space must serve as bedroom, study and work space, entertainment and recreation area, living room and in some cases, dining room, too. Now for the good news: You can transform that bland and confining dorm room of doom into a vibrant, comfortably tricked-out cave of coziness...if you know how to make good use of the space.
The secret, you see, lies in how you use storage. Some storage comes built into the room: closets, clothes drawers, perhaps a desk. But to get the most out of all the hidden storage space in your dorm room requires you to get a bit more creative. In the next few pages, we'll initiate you into the fraternal order of dorm room storage space mastery.
For this article, I asked Ellen Faye, a certified professional organizer based in the Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey area, for her expertise. You can read her complete list of dorm storage and organizing tips here.
Why bother with all this storage stuff in the first place? Faye offers the following advice to anyone who prefers to toss things in a pile rather than file, store, and keep their dorm room orderly:
"By understanding basic organizing technique you'll be able to set up your space in a way that will give you calm, efficiency and enjoyment. By taking the time to organize yourself in your space, you'll have more time each day to study, be involved in your school and have fun with your friends."
Well put. And we think that by following these tips and developing your own skills of interior design efficiency, you may even discover that you don't want to leave the personalized living space you've created when the time finally comes to vacate the dorm.
You've got to Coordinate (With Your Roomie)
Reach out to your roommate before your move-in day, if possible. You can divvy the load of who brings what, saving both of you precious room space and sore muscles from lifting two of everything. Here are just a few space-invading items that you'll probably need just one of between the two of you:
- Television (arguably you don't need one at all, but let's say you bring one anyway)
- Refrigerator -- a mini-fridge, obviously; you'll likely have a full-size communal fridge available for storing big items and frozen foods
- Microwave oven
- Gaming console -- again, if you consider it a must-have, just one should do it
- Stereo/music player dock with speakers
While triples (three people to a room) are not unheard of on college campuses, we'll assume that there are just two of you, which is much more common. Talk to one another as soon as possible and figure out what type of configuration works best for you. Is one of you OK with being several feet off the floor in a top bunk bed? Is the other person comfortable sleeping beneath potentially a couple hundred pounds of bed frame, mattress and roommate?
How much space will you both need to maneuver in the proper living area for yourselves and visitors? What about furniture such as throw cushions, futons and the school-provided desks and dressers?
It might even help to sketch on paper or computer a rough room layout beforehand. Shoving dorm furniture around is hard labor and it makes a racket like battling bull elephants. So naturally, it's best if you arrange to do it as seldom as possible.
The big takeaway here is to plan as much as you can with your roommate before you commit to devoting sweat and time to arranging your new nest. You might even consider it your first college-level "team assignment," except this one is outside of class!
There's an element of truth to the old advice that friends shouldn't become roommates...but there's no reason you can't become friendly with whoever your assigned roommate is. By cooperating and coordinating your efforts, you can both save money and that precious college commodity, cubic space.
Get Some Air -- Go Vertical
By now you should be getting the idea that volume is highly valued in a dorm room. And you may be coming around to the notion that you need to be strategic about your storage. But where, exactly do you store your stuff, other than in those dreadfully shallow closets?
The answer is simple: Look up.
Think of those painted cinderblock walls not as whitewashed wastelands, but rather, blank canvasses. All of that beautiful, vertical space is screaming to be put to work as a backstop for modular shelving, stackable storage cubes and the ever-popular adhesive hooks.
And for the love of Platinum-Level alumni donors, don't let the back of that dorm-room door go to waste -- it's prime territory for hanging hoodies, jackets and even heavy coats right where they're most convenient. It's also a favorite place for students to hang shoe caddies.
For the closet, consider one or more hanging closet organizers, which let you multiply your usable closet space and keep less clutter out in the open.
The bane of dorm dwellers since anyone can remember has been the restrictions on the use of wall surface area. Hole-producing nails and thumbtacks, and even tape that mars surfaces are usually prime suspects on the resident life banned items list. Consider this challenge one of your first college lessons in analytic thinking and creative problem solving.
You could come up with a formula for a super-strong chemical adhesive that binds things to walls without leaving a mark when removed. But considering the geniuses at 3M already did so with their Command line of products, why trouble yourself? The material (rated to hold as much as eight pounds) has proven magical for affixing hooks, hangers, picture and poster frames, whiteboards, cork boards and lots more to what would otherwise be idle wall space.
Shallow-depth bookshelves and shelves that fit on top of a desk help you to squeeze even more utility out of that vertical space.
Plastic milk crate shelves and cinderblock coffee table bases are so last century. Don't get us wrong, re-purposing is still cool; but knowing how much aesthetics as well as functionality can affect mood and productivity, it only makes sense to try to re-purpose with a little panache.
Take, for instance, those CDs that you last put into an actual CD player back in 2007. Artfully mount and frame one or more and you have (nearly) instant wall art.
Afraid of paper piles growing out of control once you inadvertently leave a few on a desk? Not ready to file them away? Use a system of overhead wires and small magnets to suspend important, urgent papers where you can see them. When they stop being urgent, take them down, file them, or purge them. That's just organizer-speak for getting them out of your life (trash, recycle, donate, whatever).
Short on cash? Nothing says you have to go on an expensive shopping spree to your local Swedish home decorating store, either -- although there's nothing wrong with that. You can find decent storage options at thrift stores, yard sales and flea markets just as easily, and at prices that better reflect a college student's seat-cushion-found-change budget.
Will boring, legal file brown cardboard boxes clash with your design scheme? Spray paint 'em! (In an open, ventilated area of course -- not in the dorm.) You can also get rolls of colorful adhesive laminate to breathe new life into old but still functional containers and furniture.
Boxes, Labels and Files
Crossing over into adulthood, unfortunately, means you'll generate and be responsible for a lot of paper documents. Class work, school records, job-related stuff, tax information, insurance, bills, periodicals and more will build up and can invade your space if you don't put them in their place.
Same goes for knickknacks, tools, college memorabilia and other small items. Without a way to keep it all straight, all this accumulating stuff in your life -- crammed into a tiny dorm room, at that -- can cause unwanted additional stress.
On the other hand, all of the labeling, boxing, filing and stowing things out of sight that comes with having a storage "system" seems like a lot of work. And well, it is. But our organizing expert Ellen Faye advises putting it in perspective: "Do you want to finish projects on time? Do you want to stop spending money on buying things you know you already have, but can't find? Do you want to stop being late all the time? Do you want to be able to find what you want when you need it? Do you want to feel more calm and relaxed in your space? These are all reasons to invest the time, money and energy in getting organized."
In your dorm room you very well might lack space for traditional metal file drawers, which is why you'll want to invest in a few accordion files for important papers, such as school-related documents and maybe even your actual schoolwork.
You'll also want the ability to keep other items out of sight until needed -- sweaters and heavy bed comforters, large boxes and the like.
That's where your under-the-bed space comes to the rescue. In lieu of bunking your beds, there's a good chance you'll be able to put your bed(s) on risers -- extensions that elevate the bed several inches above its normal height (if they're permitted, you can often get risers from your resident life authority just by asking). This elevated bed stature allows you to cram a variety of bulky items underneath: trunks, larger boxes and plastic containers, to name a few.
Finally, think about investing in a labeler to mark your folders, boxes and other storage pieces. It makes for quick identification of where things are when you need them, and where they ought to go when you're done with them. Yeah, you could simply use a Sharpie, but a printed label just looks neater and is usually a lot easier to read at a glance.
When in Doubt, Try Living Without
As 20th century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said, "Less is more."
Ten years after you've graduated college, you probably won't even remember, much less look back fondly upon, all the gadgets you owned or souvenirs you acquired in that four-year (or so) sprint through early adulthood. More likely, your best memories will be shaped by the experiences you shared with classmates. Your relationships, triumphs, struggles and personal growth as part of a community -- items without a price tag but that carry infinite value -- will vastly eclipse in importance the material concerns of college that seemed so critical at the time.
No one expects you to live like a Gregorian monk when you move into the dorm. (Well, your parents would probably love that, but let's be realistic.) What we invite you to consider is the notion that "less is more" when it comes to stuff. Especially in a cramped dorm room.
Think about it another way: The less stuff you bring, the less you have to pack and schlep when it's time to move out. That also means the less you'll potentially have to toss, so living light is also good for the planet.
Tip: If you really want to save money and the environment, visit a college campus at the end of the semester before your scheduled start; Bring a pickup truck or moving van; load up on perfectly good loot that upperclassmen and graduates are throwing away; then stow it all safely in your parents' garage or shed, or in a private storage unit until your move-in day!
So here's the big picture: Neatniks (neat and organized people) have gotten a bit of a bad rap over time as compulsive individuals, people who are perhaps overly obsessed with creating and maintaining order in what they perceive as a messy world. In actuality, being organized enough to use your dorm storage wisely is a worthy discipline. Like all disciplines, it's hard work -- until it isn't. Put another way, it might feel like a lot of effort until you're so used to it that it no longer seems like work. It stops being something you do, and becomes rather something you are.
We'll leave the last word to our organizing expert Ellen Faye, who says, "Any investment of time in getting organized will pay off many-fold in the future. You attain (an organizing mindset) by doing it a little and finding success. When you see that order makes life easier you'll be much more motivated to invest the time to create the order. The more success you have the more you're willing to put the time in. The more time you invest in getting organized, the more success you'll have."
If you're not dusting regularly, you're letting all kinds of gross things drift around your living space. Get tips on keeping your dorm dust-free.
Author's Note: 5 Tips for Making the Most of Dorm Storage Space
When you have a whole lot of space, it's difficult to nigh impossible to resist the urge to fill it! More space, for many people, means acquiring more stuff to make it feel less empty, which means working longer and harder to pay for said stuff, which means finding a bigger and more expensive place...with yet more space. It's a recipe for living life on a hamster wheel. The good news is you can establish good organizational habits now to live life more on your terms, and the college dorm is an ideal place to learn. One of the smartest life skills a student can pick up is good space management and personal organization. You might not be graded on these directly, but they will make your academic life far less stressful. What's more, those learned skills will prepare you well for handling the constant barrage of demands you face once you enter "the real world" of managing a career and personal life.
- College-Connecting.com. "How Big Are College Dorms? (And Other Questions About Living Arrangements in College)." (July 21, 2012) http://www.college-connecting.com/blog/how-big-are-college-dorms/
- Faye, Ellen. "Dorm Room Organizing Tips." Ellenfaye.com / Ellen Faye Organization. (July 22, 2012) http://www.ellenfaye.com/ellen_files/Dorm%20Room%20Organizing%20Tips.pdf
- Faye, Ellen. Certified Professional Organizer. Personal interview (electronic). Conducted on July 31, 2012.
- Stevens, Lt. Col. Mark. "Institutional Corrections." North Carolina Wesleyan College. Jan. 6, 2004. (July 20, 2012) http://faculty.ncwc.edu/mstevens/111/111lect12.htm
- The Container Store. "The Dorm Room Basic Six." (July 19, 2012) http://www.containerstore.com/tip/college/basicsix
- Unclutterer.com. "Organizing your dorm room." July 26, 2007. (July 22, 2012) http://unclutterer.com/2007/07/26/organizing-your-dorm-room/
- Wermick, Ashley. "Dorm 101: Must-Haves for Dorm Room Organization." CollegeFashion.net. Aug. 22, 2010. (July 19, 2012) http://www.collegefashion.net/author/ashley/