Dorm rooms—or “residence hall” rooms, as colleges prefer them to be called—are unquestionably the smallest spaces we live in over the course of our lives, barring plans to move to Manhattan.
Add to the mix the fact that you have to share the space with at least one or more fellow students, and you have a potential recipe for interior disaster.
But we’ve identified college students across the state who used a little creativity and a lot of organization to make the most of their limited living space. So whether you’re heading back to college this month—or heading there for the first time—follow these 10 tips to turn your room into a cool, inviting place that will feel like home.
1. Start with a Color Palette
Centre students Lola Fakunle and Katie Rademaker’s freshman dorm room was so perfectly coordinated—from matching yellow bedding and navy and white ottomans, down to pops of the same coral accent color on their photo frames and side table—they joked that their goal was to one day launch their own HGTV show called Deck Your Dorm.
Their secret: start with a color scheme—and coordinate those plans with your roommate over the summer, if at all possible. The girls found their back-and-forth messages over the summer to be a great bonding experience, they say.
“We knew we wanted to do yellow and navy, with cream. So we really just tried to find items in those colors over the summer when we were out and about,” says Rademaker.
“Our goal was to have a place that we wanted to come back to at the end of the day,” says Fakunle. “A lot of our friends didn’t have that homey vibe in their room, and they ended up coming over to our room to hang out.”
UK student Allison Webb of Lowmansville in Lawrence County snagged her black-and-white damask bedding online during a Black Friday sale her senior year, and her freshman room décor was all built around that initial purchase. (She echoed the black and white in an array of complimentary patterns on her dorm room picture frames and bulletin board, for example.)
“I thought I could go a lot of different ways with the bedding, since black and white go with everything,” she says. “I knew I could tie in UK blue for accents, so I liked the flexibility it gave me,” Webb says.
2. Seize the Chance to “Own” Your Space
Make the most of the move to college as a chance to find your own look.
“You have 18 years’ accumulation of junk and childhood stuff, and when you come to college, you have the opportunity to start over and have a sense that ‘this is my design,'” says Northern Kentucky University student Kathryn Clubb, who graduated this year. Clubb accented her senior room with posters, café lights for ambiance, and a high, lofted bed, which allowed her a cozy sitting space underneath.
At Bellarmine University, rising sophomore Kesley Moorefield took full advantage of the chance to pick her own bedding for the first time last year, opting for a bold, hot pink and black comforter—a daring departure from the neutral shades she’d had at home.
3. Be a Bargain Hunter
Shop for inexpensive shelving and organizers at Target or Walmart—both great sources for bargain finds. Webb found her white dresser-top organizer for CDs and other items at Target, and Clubb says the affordable bathroom shelving she snagged at Target was a must-have.
Savvy students like Amanda Moore of Richmond, a rising junior at Eastern Kentucky University, opt for DIY-décor projects to give their room an affordable, customized flair. Moore covered her dorm room’s large bulletin board with fabric to make a unique jewelry organizer, a smart place to hang necklaces and earrings without cluttering limited drawer space. And Moore made her own small bulletin board for her closet door out of foam poster board covered in fabric, along with many other DIY monogram accents.
Centre’s Rademaker made the matching pillows and curtains for their room with fabric from Hobby Lobby and a little carefully applied fabric glue—no sewing required.
And when it comes to bargain hunting, you can’t beat free. University of Louisville senior and residence advisor Derik Hogan has equipped his room with extra TVs, couches, and more that friends didn’t need—or that were left behind at the residence hall at the end of the previous year. So don’t be afraid to scout around for finds.
4. Go Vertical to Maximize Space—and Keep Your Floors Clear
In dorm rooms, it’s horizontal space that’s at a premium, so think “up” to maximize your room. Many students opt for bed risers so they can store shoes, sweaters, or other bulky items under their beds. Others, like NKU’s Clubb, loft their beds to near-ceiling level to increase living space below. EKU’s Moore and her roommate arranged their bed in a popular L-shaped configuration, with one bed lofted higher and perpendicular to the other, to allow for more floor and seating space in their room.
At UK, rising sophomore Nick Fazzino snagged a freestanding metal shelving unit for $50 at Target for his freshman room that neatly arranged his TV, coffee maker, fridge, and food items all in one space—and all off the floor.
5. Bring One or Two Meaningful Items from Home
Yes, college is a great time to find your own look. But don’t forget to bring at least one sentimental item from home, for those moments when homesickness may kick in. For UK’s Webb, it was the teddy bear on her bed. For Fazzino, it was the choice of bedding—a nautical flag comforter, which gives a nod to his childhood in coastal Connecticut and Charlotte, North Carolina. “That was something that was special to me, and that spoke about me in volumes,” he says.
6. Don’t Forget Lighting
If you’re like NKU’s Clubb and fluorescent lighting unnerves you (that’s all most dorm rooms have), you’ll want to invest in a desk or floor lamp or two—and possibly some accent lights. Christmas twinkle lights and café lights are all the rage and add a fun flair to the room. They can be quite useful too: Bellarmine’s Moorefield used the twinkle lights over her bed for a soft light to study by on nights when she was up late, after her roommate had already turned in.
7. Maximize Closet Space
Make the most of limited closet space by using hangers with several tiered vertical rods and use multitiered/multipocket hanging closet organizers for shoes and bulky sweaters. UK’s Fazzino packed in 10 pairs of pants on two hangers and a dozen sweaters within 9 inches of his closet this way, he says. That came in handy since, coming from Charlotte, he had to bring his winter clothes with him when he arrived for school in August.
8. Let Your Walls Symbolize You
Bare walls can make a dorm room feel blah, so feel free to cover your space in items that speak to you. At Bellarmine, Kesley Moorefield chose to hang a poster—the iconic image of the “Kissing Sailor” at the end of the WWII—that would offer a glimpse into her personality. “I love history, and I’m a hopeless romantic,” Moorefield says.
Centre student Michael Fryar, who graduated this year, decorated his walls with flags, maps, and photographs of the many countries—including Colombia, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, and more—that he was able to travel to during his four years at Centre. “It was a way of opening the small space to the world,” he says.
Another fun DIY idea: string a piece of rope or twine across one wall and use clothespins to hang posters, art, cards, photos, or other keepsake items from home.
9. Look for One Really Great Accent Piece
Every great dorm room needs that one piece that’s a conversation starter, that one item no one else on your hall will have. Etsy.com can be a great place to locate unique décor items, as UK’s Webb knows well. Her one-of-a-kind “ribbon topiary” with UK blue-and-white ribbons was made by a friend from Johnson County who has her own Etsy shop. And Webb snagged several UK blue-and-white customized quotes, monograms, and wall prints from Etsy as well. “It’s affordable to simply buy the PDF from the Etsy shop and print it out yourself,” she says.
10. Bring Sheets that Fit
Many residence hall beds are size twin XL—not a size that’s typically stocked at big-box stores. To be sure you have the right fit, shop for sheets at college specialty shops, like DormCo.com online. There you’ll find sheets, bedding, mattress toppers, laundry organizers, storage trunks that can double as great coffee tables—an O, The Oprah Magazine top back-to-school product pick—and much, much more. “We have anything and everything for college dorm life,” says DormCo.com founder Jeff Gawronski.
DORM ROOM “MUST HAVES” vs. “LEAVE AT HOME”
We polled our college student experts to ask them what items are worth their space. Here, their top picks for what to bring…and what to leave behind.
• Monthly dry erase calendar (for organizing upcoming assignments)
• Shower caddy
• Shower curtain with pocket organizers for holding products (for shared, suite-style bathrooms)
• Small vacuum
• Extra lighting
• Mattress topper
• Air freshener
• Big laundry organizer bins and baskets (they take up too much space; opt instead for small, pop-up laundry organizer totes)
• Tons of extra shoes (aim for 10 pairs or less, our students advise)
• Bike (unless you’re certain you’re really going to use it)
• Loads of cleaning supplies (you can borrow these from your residence hall)
Dorm design tips
For a list of online sites that offer great dorm room design ideas and a list of the right tools you need to deck your dorm walls, click Dorm design tips.