Advice for the new kid in the dorm

Elizabeth Mayhew / Special To The Washington Post /


I spent eight years living in a dorm room, and in one week I will help my daughter move back into a dorm for her third year. So you could say I know a few things about transforming tiny, charmless, cinder block rooms into livable, not to mention homework-friendly, spaces.

I could wax on about the importance of having over-the-door and under-the-bed storage, about the need for extra-long bedding and a comfortable ergonomic desk chair, about the ins and outs of proper task lighting, nail-free hanging solutions and fire safety laws, but by now you have probably done your research, consulted your roommate and gone shopping.

So at this late date, as many of you are about to leave (or have already left) for the brave new world of dorm life, I want to impart a lesson that no one ever taught me: How you choose to decorate and maintain (translation: clean!) your dorm room says a lot about who you are and who you want to become. And whether you like it or not, your fellow students will make initial assumptions about you based on how your room looks.

Take my own experience as an example. I showed up from Louisville to an East Coast boarding school in 1982 with a very preppy navy monogrammed blanket cover, two towers of Elfa drawers (this was way before the Container Store made these space-saving units an organizing must), a color-coordinated area rug and tension rods for matching curtains.

One could say that my room was a foreshadowing of my future life’s calling, but instead it signaled to my fellow students (and teachers) that I was privileged at best, spoiled at worst. That assumption — right or wrong — followed me throughout my years at school despite how I performed in the classroom or behaved out of the classroom. And although being thought of as an organized and pulled-together student was a good thing (people rely on you and trust you in all sorts of ways), I did not like being branded as the entitled, goody two-shoes Sandra Dee that my room seemingly made me out to be.

I was able to dampen the image, but if I had it to do over again, I would have toned down my digs from the get-go.

Conversely, I had a friend whose room was a total disaster — clothes everywhere, no dorm decor whatsoever. He was from California, the super laid-back surfer type whose room threw off that “I don’t care” vibe. In my experience, most boys have far less in their dorm rooms than girls, but I don’t think he even showed up to school with bedding, only a beach towel.

Although he was very smart, he could never really shake the stoner stereotype. It wasn’t only the way his dorm room looked that contributed to the way others thought of him, but it certainly didn’t help.

Now in his mid-40s, he says he wishes he would have taken more care of his surroundings. Then he could have spent less energy and time trying to ameliorate his disheveled image and persuading people to take him seriously (don’t worry, he turned out all right).

I am not recommending that you rid your dorm room of all vestiges of your individuality — your room should be reflective of your passions, interests and design sense. But be aware of how others meeting you for the first time might judge you based on something as superficial as what your dorm room looks like. It’s human nature to look for clues about someone’s background: in the way you arrive at school (family BMW or city bus), in what you wear and, yes, in how you choose to decorate and maintain your space.

Consider with care what pictures you choose to display, how clean you will be and how organized you will appear. Think of your dorm room as you would your office (or cubicle) at a new job. Just like an office, it’s a public space — open for all of your fellow students to see at one point or another. Take it from me, a former dorm dweller, office worker and boss: First impressions matter.

And a note to parents: Let your kids make their own dorm room decorating decisions. The last thing they need is to have you hovering around plumping pillows and pinning up family photos. It might be tough, but you must resist the urge to smother them with your parental tendencies.

I am guilty of showing up at parents’ weekend and taking a Clorox disinfecting wipe to every surface, but I try not to comment on the state of my daughter’s room. I bite my tongue and just expect to do lots of laundry at Thanksgiving break.