No candles. No appliances. No kitchen. No nails in the walls. Utilitarian oak furniture. A plastic mattress. One desk. One wooden chair. One dresser. One wardrobe.
This isn’t some new trend in minimalism, it’s the basic guidelines for a dorm room. Life isn’t like Gossip Girl, you’re not going to live in some cute vintage cluttered-charm apartment, chances are, you’re going to be required to live in a roughly 10 by 10 cinderblock and linoleum box for at least a year if not more of your life.
I swear, I’m not a pessimist, I’m just a realist. Dorm rooms are disgusting, and they can absolutely take a toll on your happiness, but there is a (fluorescent) light at the end of the tunnel, and you can absolutely survive the dorms!
“Think of your dorm room as creating a space that is your temporary home.”
I’ve always been the type of person that loves switching my room up. I can even remember back in 5th grade, begging my mom to let me paint just one wall, or taking a day every month to rearrange everything in my room just so everything was different.
It felt like a breath of fresh air to me. I love fluffy bedding, teakwood scented candles, and soft lighting. I’m a creature of comfort, and my room is typically the place in which I seek that comfort.
But dorm rooms are as sterile as they come. At least hospitals have those neat beds that you can adjust the height and angle. My room is a place that I go to reset – yes, I’m an introvert, how’d you guess? But I knew that going into college, making sure I would stay sane in the dorm was an absolute must.
Freshman year, you’re almost certainly going to share your room with someone else, and that adds a whole different layer of complicated.
Talk it out with your roommate once you find out who they are. See if you have similar styles, maybe you can try coordinating some things or creating a common space together. If you both have very different personalities, at least make sure you establish some respectful boundaries within the room.
But, the real question: how does one make a dorm room livable?
3 Ways to Survive the College Dorm Room
Step One: Make it Comfortable
Get a mattress topper. I cannot stress this enough. There’s egg-crate foam toppers, memory foam toppers, feather bed toppers if you’re feeling super posh – just get something to make that plastic mattress bearable.
Those suckers crinkle. I’m not joking here, it feels like a pee-proof bed that you would buy for a four-year-old. Every movement throughout the night and there’s a faint little plastic squish-squish under your back. Put something on top of it to mitigate the sound at least.
“I’m a creature of comfort, and my room is typically the place in which I seek that comfort.”
Also, a pro tip: the desk chair is not fun. Get yourself a different desk chair. Are you fidgety? Get one of those exercise ball things or get a swivel chair. Do you like to “curl up” like pretty much any generic romance novel character? Maybe you need something a bit plush.
But definitely take that wooden chair, push it into the corner somewhere, and make it a guest chair or extra storage. Better yet, is there space in your dorm for a couch or an extra chair? You don’t have many options for moving around in a dorm… typically the cycle is bed, desk, bed, desk, floor, bed, so on.
Adding a communal couch or a small chair can do wonders on a rainy day or when your literature professor decides you need to read Wuthering Heights in 48 hours.
My freshman dorm room had carpet (albeit that really industrial carpet that’s usually in your dentist’s office, but hey, at least it was something). But more often than not, your dorm will probably be decked in some truly stylish linoleum. I’m talking Taco Bell in 1998 type linoleum. I’m genuinely surprised that stuff still exists.
My sophomore year dorm had that, and let me tell you, it was an experience. You should absolutely get a rug. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than waking up one February morning only to set your bare feet on freezing cold Taco Bell floors.
Also, if you add a rug, it’s just another place that you can sit with friends when they come over. We had many a late board game night sprawled out on our white Target rug freshman year.
Step Two: Make it Bright
Maybe you can tolerate fluorescent lights. I certainly can’t. String lights are a college stereotype for a reason.
You can easily hang them with command strips, they add some needed interest to boring walls, they can provide light that won’t bother your roommate on late nights, and they emotionally warm up an otherwise depressing space.
“Bright lighting can help you to feel more focused and energized.”
Find ways to add better lighting. Maybe this means getting a desk lamp, or string lights, or a floor lamp, or even something for late nights reading in bed. If you’re someone with funky vibes, you can even get one of those trendy neon lights or marquee lights.
There’s a lot of research available on how lighting affects mood, it’s real science. Warm lighting can make you feel physically warmer, even if the temperature remains the same (Google the Incandescent effect, it’s real I promise). Bright lighting can help you to feel more focused and energized, and natural light can even help with symptoms of depression.
Step Three: Make it Fresh
Candles aren’t allowed. That was where I really felt the most pain. If your dorm room wasn’t built in the last decade, it’s probably going to come with some truly special smells.
The girl down the hall might burn her popcorn at three AM, or, hey it’s college, the person upstairs might try to sneak some herbal relaxers if you know what I mean. There’s going to be a lot of moments where you wish you could light a candle to calm you down or mask other people’s weirdness.
First things first, check your dorm’s rules. Some dorms allow wax melters, hey some even allow candles. But there are plenty of ways to keep your dorm fresh and yourself sane.
You can always get some Febreze, that’s an easy one. There’s always candle diffusers or essential oil diffusers that can help. Not only will you make your dorm smell better than it probably does at baseline, but adding a scent can help you feel more at home.
Maybe sandalwood essential oil reminds you of family vacations to the beach, or a pine candle melt reminds you of being home. Have you ever been to Disneyland? Each area of the park has a different scent.
So, you don’t necessarily notice the subtle smell of popcorn or coconuts, but each scent transition helps you subconsciously recognize separate areas and create a deeper emotional connotation within them. Apply that same methodology to your room.
“Dorm rooms are disgusting, and they can absolutely take a toll on your happiness.”
My freshman year room smelled like the vanilla Febreze plug-in. Just walking into a distinctly different smell had a calming effect for me. Use scent as a way to distinguish your space (and yes, I am completely aware of the fact that this makes people seem more like wolves than humans, but maybe there’s something to that primal instinct at play).
Your Dorm Room is Your Home
Think of your dorm room as creating a space that is your temporary home. Sometimes it’s really hard to imagine such a generic space as one that can bring calm amidst all the huge changes in your life.
Figure out what makes you feel the most at home and the most comfortable, and try to emulate that in your dorm. It’s not going to be perfect, Pinterest lies sometimes.
It can be good. It can be comfortable. It can work. With a little bit of effort and creative thinking, you can easily create a space for yourself and you can learn to survive the dorms.
Written by: Christiana Duerksen
Christiana Duerksen is a senior at Belmont University graduating in December 2018 with a double major in Corporate Communication and Psychology.
Eventually, she wants to study Industrial-Organizational Psychology for graduate school, but her immediate plans are to take a gap year and move to China to teach English and start a travel YouTube channel.
She loves photography, reading science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian novels, and absolutely cannot wait for the next season of Game of Thrones.