How To (REALLY) Set Up A Great Dorm Room

How To (Really) Set Up A Great Dorm Room

We just came back from dropping our eldest son off at college. It was exciting and stressful and of course, after kissing him goodbye, I ended up blubbing in the parking lot like a ninny!

I’m still looking for a few things to finish feathering his little nest, but having just been through the process myself, I felt like I needed to tell you all about it while I’m still doing it.

Every college campus is different, but for an 18-year-old living in a shared accommodation for the first time, there are some practical lessons I learned (some of them the hard way) that will help you lead your student to dorm-room Nirvana.

There are lots of articles on the Internet about how to trick out a dorm room with fairy lights and decorative pillows, but decorating is only half the story. This is what you actually need to know about setting up your offspring’s home-away-from-home:

  • THIS IS NOT FOREVER. Please keep saying this to yourself (and your child, if necessary). It’s super-tempting to go Bed, Bath and WAY Beyond or equally, be really freaked out because of all the unknowns. Just remember, these walls are temporary and so is your roommate. Don’t worry! It will be OK. Deep breaths!
  • COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR ROOMMATE ASAP. And find out what they’re bringing to the party before you purchase anything. They might have wildly patterned bedding that will clash with yours. Or, you might end up with 2 microwaves, 2 Brita water filters and no mini fridge. Work with them to avoid duplicates and share. BTW: A lot of schools offer rent programs for small appliances and if you’re really clever, you can sometimes buy a used one off of a graduating senior or on Craigslist. Get together as early as possible and work out who’s bringing/buying what and co-ordinate!
  • COOL YOUR JETS, MAMA! It’s really impossible to buy everything before you actually eyeball the place so just stick to the basics. And by “basics,” I mean a single set of sheets, 2 pillows and a blanket. Take a tape measure on your visit and measure carefully before you hit the stores or Amazon. Take pictures with your phone and send yourself measurements because you will forget. GOOD TO KNOW: Collect every single coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond you can find (they take the expired ones, too). You will use them. And keep your receipts! You WILL be returning stuff that doesn’t fit/work/match. Trust me.
  • SHIP EVERYTHING YOU CAN. Once you work out who’s bringing what, find out what stores are near your college. Most big chains like Bed Bath & Beyond and The Container Store actually have college programs with discounts (and easy downloadable lists of what you can/cannot bring) so as soon as you have your school email address, have your student apply for a discount online.
  • BE FLEXIBLE. Your child’s first non-family roommate may be an early riser/mad gamer/vegan/yogi/night owl. This might be your precious offspring’s first exposure to strange cultures and customs. Embrace the opportunity to expand their exposure to others. If they’re confidant that you’re not anxious, they’ll be more comfortable and remember who they are, while experiencing other people! That’s college, my friend. 😉
  • GET THE RIGHT LUGGAGE: Please don’t send your child off to school with giant suitcases or trunks that they have to store all semester. Yes, you could take them back with you, but they need something if they go on a road trip or (worst case) have to move dorms. The best thing I did was order Ben a set of 3 army surplus duffels ranging in size from carry-on to piano case! I then got a silk screener in town to paint his monogram on them. I have to admit, I’m feeling pretty smug about his machine washable, easy-to-store luggage and he loves it.
  • MOVE IN DAY: Some schools have student volunteers who will meet you at the Freshman dorms with enormous trolleys and will actually load you directly from the car. They take you all the way up to the room and after that, you’re on your own. Find out if this service is available at your campus!

OK, OK, I know you really want a list of stuff to bring + buy, so here it is:



Get two sets of 100% cotton, Twin XL sheets. Most dorm beds are this size, but do check before you buy! A typical sheet set includes a flat top sheet, a fitted bottom sheet and (annoyingly) only one standard pillowcase. Buy an extra. BTW: I avoid poly blends. I think they’re a sweaty false economy. Go the cotton. You can get them anywhere. And please, please, please remember to wash ALL bedding before you use them because they spray textiles with all kinds of nasty preservatives and pesticides to protect against bugs and nobody should sleep on that. Same goes for new clothing, too, by the way! OK! Sermon over. These are the sheets we ordered.


Your child has probably mastered the art of potty training by now, so you DO NOT need to get “waterproof” versions. They are hellishly awful to sleep on. Still, your child will be spilling stuff, so yes, always, protectors. PSA: There will be no bed bugs on the mattress your child receives (or you should be getting a new mattress from the school).  

3. TWO STANDARD PILLOWS (one firm + one medium firm).

You’ll need at least two to prop up against the wall, make into a lap pillow for the computer, etc. We got the basic polyfill Wamsutta ones at BB&B


This was the first thing that all of our friends with college age friends said to buy. Most dorm mattresses are thin and pretty average, so an extra layer of cushion is essential. We didn’t go the usual tempurpedic memory foam route, preferring a healthier (and cheaper) charcoal version with breathable ventilation holes instead and Ben loves his.


They don’t need the big, heavy duvet yet and storage space is limited. We got a reversible quilted blanket/bedspread deal that will work until the weather cools. Once you get the big duvet, tell them to save the original package for storing if you buy it new. If, like me, you’re sending a used one from home, you can buy those extra sleeping bag covers on Amazon to store them when the weather changes again.


Again, college kids literally live on their beds, so the body + back pillows make the dorm room bed into a sofa. Tempting as it may be, try not to go crazy with the tiny, decorative kind, they should be supporting! I bought a cheap body pillow on Amazon and then had a linen zip off cover custom made because I am a crazy person.


Have you seen your child drag a blanket to the living room to watch TV, because I have! Get an extra blanket to drape around the shoulders in the lounge or while studying. I recommend a machine washable version and let’s all pretend it will see the inside of the laundry room once in awhile.


This is not the time for extra plush, fluffy towels. My son would literally dry himself off with a t-shirt, but since dorm life at his school is co-ed, I sent a few Turkish towels (that can double as beach towels and sarongs while walking back from the showers). They’re quick to dry and can also do double duty at the end of his bed as a decorative/protective cover because I’m not 100% certain that he’s going to remove his shoes while sitting on his bed.


I have a serious Joan Crawford level loathing for cheap hangers of any sort. Those miserable, thin “huggable” hangers actually make me want to slap someone! They ruin your clothes and collect dust like crazy. Ugh. Proper hangers actually keep the line of your clothing and will hang your jackets and pants without damaging them. You need a good basic one with the trouser bar and maybe a clip version if you have skirts. The best ones are from The Container Store and aren’t expensive.


Yes, they’ll have them in the lounge, but really, you need at least one in the room. Please resist the temptation to get a stylish wire “wastepaper basket” and grab something solid. My children do not recognize the difference between “wastepaper” and “trash” and yours probably don’t either. Buy something with a lid that can hold several pizza crusts for at least 3 days.


Stop laughing. They might not know where the vacuum cleaner lives at home, but my friends all tell me that their kids actually do clean their own space when you’re not there to do it for them. Make it easy for them and send this.


I got both in a burst of optimism. A basket is handy (even if they only fill it with beer cans to go to parties) but I also got a bag with handles which I’m hoping makes it easier to transport to the laundry room. We can but dream!


Shared bathrooms and showers are a fact of college life. Shower shoes are a good idea for two reasons: 1. You need them to wear on the way back to your dorm and 2. Some people are a bit more…relaxed in the shower than they should be. Let’s leave it there.



Dedicated task lighting is a great idea for students sharing a room.


I like to think of dorm rooms like a ship or a submarine (or a studio apartment). You have to use every inch of available space! My first stop for attractive, reasonably priced storage options is always The Container Store. But once you’ve measured absolutely everything, you might find you have room for a cute little bedside table from Home Goods. Just an idea.


They need stackable storage and places to corral everything from toiletries + makeup to school supplies.


Especially if they don’t have room for a bedside table. Perfect for holding the phone, keys and (dare we hope?) a living plant to clean the dorm room air!


Be careful. I had to return two different versions because I failed to measure the narrow wardrobe doors (and space above for closing). We eventually settled on this one. You can also buy singles here.


With a good screwdriver (both flathead and the other kind…Phillips head?) box-cutter, a small hammer, some nails, thumbtacks, screws, tape measure, batteries, scissors and earthquake putty. A few light bulbs. Command strips. Flashlight, done!


Somebody will drop something. Be prepared.


I have a genuine love/hate relationship with this product. I loathe the waste of it, but I have to admit that a rotating stick with disposable dusting cloths at the end is nothing short of genius. When they added the wet pads, well…that was the end of traditional mopping. But WHY they insist on impregnating those cloths with the most choking, cheap synthetic fragrance ever, I have no idea. I’ve taught Ben to dump the cheap liquid out, rinse and replace with Murchison-Hume floor cleaner instead. Much better.


I actually use this at my office and at home and have had limited success with making the boys use them. They basically adjust your pelvis, tilting it back to you don’t “sit on your tail.” They are pretty ugly, so I cover mine with a sheepskin from IKEA. 


Accidents happen. They need a go-to medicine cabinet in the room. Buy them one and rest easy.



Most college campuses offer both Laundry and storage services nearby. I’m hoping Ben will do his own Laundry but we’re definitely planning on utilizing the storage service for summer break to avoid shifting it all out and back again. Check your area for local services but some national companies include:

Campus Storage

Dorm Room Movers

My Lazy Bones


OK, that’s everything I can think of for now! We’ll be posting photos of the end result once everything is delivered. If you have any other tips or tricks, write us let us know and we’ll add to the story.

Good Luck Freshman (and thinking of you, Moms + Dads).