According to several really important-sounding studies,
first-year students living on campus perform better academically than
those who live off campus. Perhaps it’s because students living
in dorms are closer to the things they need, like the library and
the computer labs. Or maybe it’s because the meal plan that comes
with most dorms takes the pressure off having to forage for food,
giving students more time to study. And think of all the potential
study partners floating around the hallways or energetically highlighting
their textbooks in the study lounge. No wonder dorm life for first
years is such a good idea.
Should you live in a dorm your first year? In a word:
yes. Socially, you can’t beat dorm living. You’ll make friends easily,
commiserate about school with your dormmates, study with groups
of friends, always have someone to eat with, and stay up late socializing
almost every night. You will share your college experience with
other people who are going through the same ups and downs, and that
makes everything easier. There is great strength in numbers.
Studying can be difficult in a dorm, because socializing
often takes priority over grades. But you can easily balance this
by heading to the library or to a quiet study hall.
All of these advantages don’t erase the fact that dorm
life can be challenging. You’re living in close proximity to a lot
of other people, and that’s a recipe for conflict. But conflict
is part of life, and learning how to deal with it successfully is essential
to becoming an adult.
Not all dorm rooms resemble dark, damp prison cells. Some are
downright luxurious, looking more like plush apartment suites than
campus housing. Some colleges have a lot of money to spend on housing,
and their dorms tend to be more livable, so much so that even parents
are envious. Other campuses might not have the cash flow to put
into the dorms, so you might find yourself living between four thickly painted
cinderblock walls, with nothing but a lumpy mattress to cry on when
the toilets clog up—again. But it’s usually not that bleak. Sometimes
when the dorms on big urban colleges fill up schools house their
students in luxury hotels.
You don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to where
you’re going to live. You will probably be asked to fill out a form indicating
your housing choices. You can list your ideal dorms on campus (if
you’ve visited or done some research), but there’s no guarantee
that you’ll end up there. Some campuses have first-year-only dorms,
in which case you’ll have a better idea of where you’ll end up.
Here are a few examples of the different types of college dorms
or living arrangements you might encounter:
- All first year. Some dorms are set aside
for first-year students only. The benefit: no upperclassmen ticked
off by all the noise and chaos.
- Single gender. There tend to be fewer all-male dorms than all-female
(so relax, guys). The disadvantage of a single-gender dorm is the
fun factor. It’s simply more exciting to be in a coed dorm. Also,
coed dorms eliminate the mystique of the opposite sex. When you’re
living with both guys and girls, everyone becomes just another person
in the hallway.
- Coed by room. Many dorms are coed by room: girls and guys
sharing walls but not rooms. Exciting at first, yes. However, this
excitement can quickly turn sour when romantic relationships in
the dorm go bad.
- Single-gender floors. Some dorms are coed, but split the girls
and guys up by floor. Depending on dorm rules, you may or may not
be able to mix after certain hours.
- Sexual orientation. Many universities have floors devoted to
gay, lesbian, and transgender students, as well as anyone else who
identifies with these orientations.
- Quiet floors. Often, dorms will set aside quiet floors
where it’s easier to study. The fear is often that the residents
on these floors are uptight and won’t party, but that’s not always
the case. They just don’t want the party in their faces. However,
quiet is relative to the listener, and many people will find these
floors noisy, especially if the rules aren’t well enforced.
- Substance-free. These dorms or floors are for people who don’t
drink or take drugs; additionally, drunk or wasted kids aren’t allowed
- Special focus. Some campuses offer special dorm floors, such
as those for students with an interest in majoring in music or languages,
or are dedicated to earning academic honors.
- Special housing for disabled students. These dorms or floors
are equipped to accommodate students with disabilities.
- International dorms. Some colleges have dorms specifically
for students from other countries. Domestic students are allowed
to live in these dorms too, but priority is given to those students
coming from abroad.
Types of Rooms
Most first years will have at least one roommate. It is
possible to get a single where you live alone, but the chances are
slim. The double is the most common arrangement, where two people
share a room. Some dorms are made of suites, which are basically
two or more rooms in an apartment with two students in each room.
Suites often include a shared bathroom, a common area, and sometimes
a kitchen area. As enrollment rises at many schools, doubles are
often turned into triples or quads, so don’t be surprised if you
end up with more than one roommate.
Communal bathrooms are, well, an experience. If you have
a lot of siblings, you’re not particularly shy, or you don’t mind sharing
your space, the communal bathroom experience shouldn’t bother you
too much. If you’re not used to having your privacy invaded, you’ll
have a lot more adjusting to do.
Many halls will only have one bathroom for guys and one
for girls, meaning that twenty-eight girls may need to shower all at
the same time. But this rarely happens. Everyone’s schedule is different,
so you shouldn’t have to wait too long to soap up. Some bathrooms
are coed, so you may be competing with everyone on the floor for
The most important piece of equipment you’ll need for
your trips to the bathroom is a pair of flip-flops to protect your feet.
Communal bathrooms aren’t the cleanest of places, and some are downright
nasty. You’ll also need something to carry your toiletries and shower
items to and from the bathroom. You can pick up a plastic or metal
mesh basket—affectionately known as a shower caddy—at any houseware
or hardware store. You’ll also want a robe, because losing your towel
while walking though your coed hallway can be very embarrassing.
Dorms with suite-style housing generally have bathrooms
in each room, so you’ll only have to share with your roommates.
You’ll come up with a cleaning schedule, and if all of you follow
it, the bathroom should remain fungus-free.
Unless you’re on a designated quiet floor, the dorm is
probably going to be very noisy. There’s always a lot going on:
blaring music, noisy games, television, people laughing and talking,
and general mayhem in the halls. Many people leave their doors open
so everyone mingles in and out of the rooms. Although most dorms
insist on quiet after ten or eleven at night, your roommate might
get on the phone with her best friend back home and start an hour-long
conversation about chronic acne. Or, your roommate might be engaged
in a hook-up session with his “girlfriend” of the week.
If you’re trying to study and you’re distracted by noise,
pack up your study materials and head to the library or computer lab.
Most dorms have quiet study rooms as well, but the quiet part isn’t
If you’re trying to sleep or study, consider a portable
white-noise machine. There are small units on the market that you can
put in your pocket or under your pillow and listen to with earphones.
It’ll drown out noise with the sound of rain, a babbling brook,
or any number of other nature sounds. Of course, some people find
these noises annoying too. Can you study or sleep to music? Try
that. Soft earplugs aren’t noise-proof, but they do block a considerable
amount of background noise. If you snore or are the noisy one in
your room, offer to buy your roommate some earplugs, and do your
best to be considerate. Just because your folks aren’t screaming
for you to turn the music down doesn’t mean that you are entitled
to blast it as loud as you want.
Dorms have a lot of rules, especially dorms inhabited
by first years. Here are some of the rules you may face in your
campus housing. These vary, obviously, by school and individual dorm:
Common Dorm Rules
- No alcohol. Some dorms allow students who are over 21
to have alcohol in their rooms. As a first year, you are probably
not over 21.
- No fire hazards. These include candles, incense, cigarettes, portable
heating units, and sometimes halogen lamps and irons. Some dorms
still have smoking rooms, but this is becoming less common.
- No unruly conduct. In other words, no fighting, destroying dorm
property, setting off fire alarms . . . you get the idea.
- No weapons. Even paintball guns, darts, and archery equipment
may be banned.
- No members of the opposite sex. In dorms that house only one
gender, or on dorm floors with only one gender, there may be rules
about having the opposite sex in your room past a certain hour,
and some dorms don’t allow the opposite sex there at all.
- No holes in the walls and ceilings. Each dorm will interpret this
rule differently. Some will allow a certain number of holes, and
some will allow as many thumbtacks as you want to use, but no nails.
- No pets. Leave them at home with your parents.
- No appliances. Some dorms have rules about what kinds
of kitchen items you can bring. Some only allow low-wattage microwaves
and coffeemakers, and others don’t allow anything, not even a little
fridge. Check with your dorm before you bring any appliances.
- No loud music or voices at night. Quiet hours generally start
at 10 or 11 p.m. No loud music or voices
after this time.
- No new roommates. No one else can live in your dorm room
but you and your roommate(s).
First years often have an open-door policy in the dorm, which
is a good way to encourage your local kleptomaniac to steal your
stuff. Keep your door locked. If you have a desktop computer, laptop,
or other electronic equipment, keep it tethered to something solid
using a security cable, which you can purchase at any computer store.
This doesn’t absolutely prevent someone from stealing your stuff,
but it’s a deterrent.
A locked footlocker or small trunk is another great deterrent to
theft. Stick a lamp and a couple of books on top, and you’ve got
a nightstand that no one will suspect contains your $1,600 laptop.
This is better than a safe when it comes to dorm room security.
If you bring a safe you can pretty much guarantee that a group of
your dormmates are going to walk off with it as a prank. A safe
is pretty easy to carry away; a locked trunk isn’t. You may even
be able to get a trunk with your school colors and insignia on it.
If you want to hide something small, like jewelry, money, passports,
or phone cards, you can buy a diversion safe, which is a container
that looks like a common household cleaner, food item, or potted
plant. You can also use a hollowed-out book to hide valuables. Don’t
let your roommate know about your diversion safe, but make sure
that he/she doesn’t tamper with the container thinking that it’s
mayonnaise or tile cleaner.
Worse things can happen than someone stealing a laptop
or phone cards if there’s a security lapse in the dorm. Sexual assaults,
battery, and worse can take place if students keep their doors and
windows unlocked, or if they let strangers into the dorm when they’re
entering and exiting.
Campus security can be pretty good, but dorm security
is often left up to the resident assistants (known as RAs), who aren’t
the best watchdogs. If your roommate asks you to leave the door
open because he/she lost a key, suggest that you both contact your
RA and get a new lock and keys immediately. It’s not your problem
when your roommate loses his/her keys. It is your problem when a
violent stranger walks into your room at night. Also, be careful
and alert when going to the communal bathroom at night.
Never, ever ignore a fire alarm in your dorm. Fires are
very common in dorms, often caused by smoking, illegal candle use,
cooking, or overloading electrical outlets. Every year students
die in dorm fires because they disable the fire alarm in their rooms.
Read your dorm’s fire plan and get to know all of the exits. Ignoring
a fire drill might be tempting, especially in the middle of the
night in the winter, but you never know when it might be the real
If you’re counting on joining a fraternity or sorority,
you’re in for a distinctly different housing experience. Most Greek houses
are large, some accommodating more than a hundred members. Often,
there are large sleeping rooms, generally one that’s kept at a cooler
temperature and one that’s kept warmer. All your personal items
are stored in a separate area. Alternatively, members are housed
together in rooms, usually more than two to a room. Sometimes, frats
and sororities take a floor or two in a regular dorm.
What you give up in privacy with Greek housing, you make up
for in amenities. Each house has its own cook, with homemade meals
prepared each day. Laundry facilities may be in the house, as well
as a gym and a computer area. But, you also give up living the coed
lifestyle, so be prepared to spend a lot of time with the guys/girls
in your new Greek family. You will also be expected to participate
in many house activities, which would otherwise be your free time
if you lived in the dorm, and sleep can be hard to come by. But
the camaraderie of your brothers/sisters can’t be had in the dorm.
Surviving Your Roommate
Many roommates become the best of friends, while many others
spend the year resenting and hating one another. Some share everything;
others opt for the “tape across the room” style of living, where
the room is halved and neither roommate can invade the other’s space.
Unless you request to live with a friend, you don’t know who you’re
going to get. But your school does its best to pair you up with
someone compatible based on the survey you fill out when you apply
to live in the dorms. You will probably be asked:
- If you smoke
- What time you go to bed
- What time you get up in the morning
- If you’re messy or clean
- If you like to play music while studying
- What kind of music you like
- What your expectations are for school
- How you like to de-stress
- What your interests are
- If you will have a lot of guests
Your roommate will be the same gender as you unless your college
is progressive and you agree to a coed suite. You won’t automatically
get matched with someone of the opposite sex in your first year,
and you will always know ahead of time what you’re signing on for
when you apply to live in the dorms each subsequent year.
Do Unto Others . . .
The first rule of being a good roommate is to be considerate. Yeah,
we know, it’s not always easy. But the best way to get what you
want is to allow the other person to have what he/she wants too.
It’s called compromise. If you don’t do anything to step on your
roommate’s toes, you have a lot of leverage if he/she steps on yours.
Instead of living in a constant tug-of-war, be nice and accommodating
from the start. If you start out on a bad note, it can last all
Picture this: you finally finished studying for a big
exam and you are ready to go back to your room to pass out from exhaustion.
But when you get back to the dorm, you notice a necktie on the doorknob.
Guess what? You’ve been sexiled.
On occasion, you or your roommate may be getting hot and heavy
when one of you is out of the room. To avoid an embarrassing situation,
set up a “sexile signal” you’ll use whenever you want the room to
yourself. Neckties and scrunchies around the doorknob work best.
Once you’ve settled in, make an appointment with your roommate
as soon as possible to order pizza and talk about how you’re going
to live together. Here are some important rules to consider:
- The Phone. How are you going to handle messages?
What’s the limit for conversations if someone is waiting for the phone?
What’s the cutoff time for incoming calls?
- Noise. What time do you turn off music? How late can you party
with your friends in the room?
- Schedule. When do the lights go out? When do you open the
curtains in the morning? When do you like to study?
- Open door. Is your door going to be locked or open most
of the time? (We recommend locking it.)
- Neatness. How clean do you like your space? Will you set up
a cleaning schedule and agree to pick up after yourselves?
- Borrowing. Are some things off-limits? Do you need to
ask before borrowing something, or can you just use it? What if
something gets broken or lost?
- Food. If there will be food in the room, are you going
to split it?
- Guests. How long are guests allowed to stay? Where are they
going to sleep? What rules will they follow?
- Sexile. Can you sexile your roommate for the entire night? What
signal will you use?
- Bathroom. If you have a bathroom in your room, how will you
handle sharing it? What if your schedules overlap and you both need
it at the same time? What’s the maximum length for showers?
Each of you should post your class, work, and practice
schedules in a visible area so that everyone knows when the others are
coming and going. That way you can schedule some private time in
your room if you need it. But don’t be shocked when your roommates
don’t stick to their schedules. Skipping classes and other commitments
happens quite often (though we don’t recommend doing it).
The Roommate from Hell
Sometimes a roommate can be a nightmare. If you’re really having
a problem with your roommate, don’t hesitate to go to your resident
assistant. Often, dorms will offer mediation, or even move you if
it gets really bad. You didn’t come to college to be abused, demoralized,
or to live in squalor. Report a problem if you’re miserable. Realize
that there will probably be times when you hate your roommate, and
that’s okay. Just don’t follow through on those revenge fantasies.
The feeling will most likely pass.
A resident assistant, also known as an RA, is another
student—usually a junior, senior, or graduate student—who lives in
the dorm and helps students with anything from personal problems
to security issues, and everything in between. RAs aren’t paid:
they exchange their time for free housing. Your RA should be the
first person you go to when there’s a problem. He/she will also
schedule programs for your floor, usually a monthly food party,
which is often the only way to get anyone to attend. The RA decorates
the hallway, often sorts your mail, goes on rounds making sure everything
in the dorm is okay, and gives out candy or condoms. RAs should have
an open-door policy, and you can go to them any time of the day
The RA is probably not going to be your best buddy, and though
he/she seems like a safe person to cling to, you’re better off making
first-year friends as soon as possible. Your RA is also probably
not going to date you. Most dorms have policies against that, so
look elsewhere for romance.
Dating in the Dorm
What do you do when you break up with someone and then have
no choice but to see that person every day? What if he/she thinks
you’re dating because you’ve hooked up, but you just wanted a casual
affair? Absolutely, positively do not rush into a relationship with
someone in your dorm. Get to know the person before you add any
more complications to an already complicated year.
The rumors of incredible sexual exploits in college are
true at some schools. It’s not unusual for a drunken threesome or foursome
(or moresome) to occur. A fair amount of same-sex experimentation
goes on as well.
Other campuses are conservative, and people often graduate (yes,
graduate) without having so much as kissed anyone. Whatever you
do, don’t brag about any of this stuff. The whole dorm will know
what you’ve done by dinnertime. And be safe!
Your dorm should have a laundry room. Every college student
knows the importance of saving quarters, so get used to hoarding
those precious, shiny coins. Put every quarter you have into a little
sack designated for laundry—and then hide it! If your roommate knows
where your quarters are, you won’t have them when you’ve run out
Here are some tips to follow when doing your laundry:
- Separate your laundry into whites and darks.
Some people do a middle-color wash, but do you have the energy and quarters
for that? No.
- Follow the instructions on the machine.
- Add one cup of bleach to your whites: it does wonders.
- Don’t leave your laundry; instead, use that time to sit
in the laundry room and study. If you leave, your clothes might
leave too—without you.
- Don’t leave your clothes in the dryer for too long or
they will age quickly and look faded.
- Fold everything when you take it out of the dryer. If
you wait till you trudge it up to your room, everything will be tragically
- Check all of the labels on your clothing to make sure
that everything is machine washable.
- Hand wash delicate items. Most items that say “dry clean only”
can actually be hand washed in cold water.
- If you don’t have time to iron, try using spray-on wrinkle remover:
it really works.
- Socks tend to disappear in the wash. No one knows where they
go: it’s one of those mysteries of life. If you want to keep all
of your socks, wash and dry them in a mesh bag.
Do your own laundry and don’t offer to do anyone else’s. Letting
your roommate do your laundry for you, or offering to do his/hers
because you’re doing yours sets a bad precedent. Do your own dirty
work. After a little practice, you’ll soon figure out how not to
end up with a load-full of pink socks and underwear.