The College Dorm Survival Guide: How to Survive and Thrive in Your New Home Away from Home

The College Dorm Survival Guide: How to Survive and Thrive in Your New Home Away from Home

by Julia DeVillers


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The Ultimate Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the Dorm

Dorm life offers you a great chance to meet new people and try new things. But leaving the comforts of home for the first time to enter the roommate-having, small-room-sharing, possibly-coed-bathroom-using world of the dorms can be overwhelming and intimidating.

The College Dorm Survival Guide offers expert advice and the inside scoop on:

• Choosing the right residence hall for you

• Getting along with your roommate (and handling conflict)

• Bathroom, laundry, and dining hall survival

• Dealing with stress, depression, and safety issues

From avoiding the dreaded Freshman 15 to decorating your space, this informative and funny guide gives experts' advice on everything you need to know to enjoy dorm living to the fullest.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780761526742
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 05/23/2006
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 589,755
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

Julia DeVillers is the author of several books, including Girlwise: How to Be Confident, Capable, Cool, and In Control and How My Private, Personal Journal Became a Bestseller. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt


The day you enter your college dorm, your life changes. This is no ordinary experience you’re signing up for. Think about it. It’s bizarre. A whole lot of people, pretty much the same age, all living together. You’ll meet strangers who will become your friends (or not). You’ll share late-night talks and early morning classes. You’ll have a space to share, decorate, and turn into home for nine months out of the year. And, most important of all, you’ll learn something new every single day because of the people and experiences you can only find in the dorms.

Where else can you find hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of similar-aged people living in close quarters, sharing not only residential space, but also social areas, meal times, classes, and countless other growth opportunities?

—Joan Schmidt, associate director of Residence Life at Central Michigan University and past president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International (ACUHO-I)

Life doesn’t get better than a bus at your front door, three meals a day, an endless array of friends and no utility bills to pay.

— Tosha Jansen-Conkey, senior at University of Kansas

Your Dorm-I-Tude

There are tons of different dorms and tons of people with different attitudes and personalities about to move into each one. How do you feel about moving to the dorms?

a.Yeah! COLLEGE! Freedom! I don’t care what my dorm is like—I’m freeeee!

b.I’m an introvert. Not used to having all these people around. But I’ll give it a shot.

c.Study, study, books, books . . . where’s the study carrel? Which way to the library?

d.Okay. I’ve lived at home all my life. Some sleepovers. One week at Scout sleepaway camp. WTF? I’m cool. I’m legally an adult. I can handle this. This is weird. That guy looks weird. That RA is a little too perky. That girl looks kinda cool. This is surreal. I’m here. Now what?

Basically, most students go in hoping and expecting the best of their dorm experience. And that’s great. Go in expecting perfection, though, and you’re going to be disappointed. Living in your house wasn’t perfect, right? Dorm life won’t be, either—and that’s to be expected. In a way it’s not natural to suddenly be sharing your home with total strangers. It can be really, really fun. Really, really exciting. Just go in realizing that it’s also hard to adjust to living in a dorm—and that’s okay.

When you first get to campus, you’ll probably want to immediately leave the dorm and meet lots of people and make connections, right? Well, you might want to reconsider. Of course you should meet people, but having a roommate and sharing a bathroom can be a really valuable part of the college experience. It will teach you how to share your space with others, and it also leads to some serious bonding. Some lifelong friendships can be made over sharing a cramped room or common area.


Throughout this book, you’ll notice that the terms dorm and residence hall are used pretty much interchangeably. Dorm comes from dormitory, which has traditionally been a place where students just eat and sleep. The word dormitory can make you think of a small, dingy, sterile room. So not pleasant.

However, people who live and work in the college environment use the term residence halls now. That’s because today’s “dorms” are so much more than they used to be. They’re places where you can become part of a community, interact with faculty, hang with your neighbors, and learn new things. It sounds way more appealing—and it is.

The Right Dorm for You

Dorms have different living arrangements, different personalities, different reputations. Dorms can have their own culture, history, traditions, and even their own values. During orientation or an Admissions tour, you may hear that one dorm is the party dorm, one’s the geek dorm, one’s the Greek dorm . . .

As a freshman, you usually go where they put you. Some colleges have lotteries and you take your chances. Some colleges let you make requests. Sometimes you’ll even get your request. More likely? You won’t.

This was the scene at my precollege orientation when we got our dorm assignments:

Cute guy: @#$#, I’m in the loser dorm!

Non-party-girl girl: @#$#, I’m in the party dorm!

Stuck-up-looking girl: @$#%, I’m in the way-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere dorm!

Punk girl: @#$#, I’m in the preppy dorm!

Non-jock guy: @$#%, I’m in the jock dorm!

Me: YEAH! I got the dorm I requested! YEAH!!!

Jump forward one year later: I moved to the way-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere dorm that turned out to be really fun—rooming with the stuck-up-looking girl, who turnd out to be my new best friend. The dorm I requested, which I lived in as a freshman, didn’t turn out to be the best fit for me.

The moral is: Don’t freak when you get your dorm assignment, even if it’s not your first choice. Keep an open mind.

Don’t let the building’s reputation become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dorms can change every year with a new crop of freshmen, especially because many of them didn’t choose the dorm but were placed there, just like you. The “study dorm” can change to the “Greek dorm” if a lot of the freshmen pledge. The “Greek dorm” can change to the “study dorm” if a lot of the fraternity brothers move to their fraternity houses. So, if you’re more of a homebody and get placed in the “party dorm,” don’t think you have to rise to the challenge and live up to that reputation. Chances are that you’ll find other students living all around you who think the hard-partying life is overrated, too. Or if it’s the reverse, you might find a lot of peo- ple you can study with and relax with, but there will definitely be other people you can bond with over the nightlife.

So Many Choices

These days, there are hundreds of choices when it comes to types of dorms. Schools are building like crazy and renovating existing spaces to meet students’ needs.

If you want to know more about the different dorms, check them out beforehand. Walk through some when you’re touring the campus. Or go online. Many schools have pictures, descriptions, even virtual tours of the rooms on their websites.

If you try to make a request for a specific dorm, consider other factors besides reputation, says Katie Boone, the director of Housing and Residential Services at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Consider:

•Do you want to be close to the library so you’ll be more inclined to go there?

•Will things like pool tables in common lounges be an attraction or a distraction?

•Does a dorm with a particular theme appeal to you?

•Are you looking for a quieter environment?

•Do you want to be close to a gym or fitness facility?

•Do you want to be close to a certain building because of your major?


Big Halls

Some residence halls are like small cities. Huge. The largest, the Jester Center at the University of Texas at Austin, is a million-plus square feet and has beds for three thousand students.

Pros: When hundreds of students live together, your chances of finding people you click with rise exponentially. There’s always something to do: Large buildings typically have a lot going on, from activities to hall government to a party at any given time. Tall buildings have great views. And climbing stairs can be good exercise.

Cons: It can sometimes be easy to get lost in the shuffle of so many students. It can feel overwhelming and impersonal. There might be long waits for elevators, gym equipment, etc. You’ll have long walks upstairs if the elevators break. Some high-rises are very high—if you’re afraid of heights, request to be placed elsewhere.

Small Halls

Small halls usually house under a hundred people. They might look like houses or apartment buildings. They might even be houses or small apartment buildings.

Pros: Small dorms often have a cozy, homelike feel to them, and sometimes the amenities are nicer. You may feel closer to your fellow dormmates. You’ll probably know your hall director on a first-name basis, too.

Cons: There may not be as much variety of people to meet. Fewer activities. And, like living in a small town, more people will know your business.

First-Year Experience Halls

These halls are for freshmen or new students only. They often have special programs and services to help ease you into college life.

Pros: Living completely among first-year students who are all going through what you are can be reassuring. Everyone is new, so everyone hasn’t cliqued off yet. And the programs the dorm offers specifically for you can be really beneficial.

Cons: Everyone’s about your age, so you’ll have little or no guidance from experienced upperclassmen. Liv- ing in these dorms may result in “freshmen gone wild” syndrome.

Mixed-Year Halls

These dorms have a mix of lower- and upper-grade students. Freshmen may live next door to seniors or even in the same room.

Pros: Here you’ll find more variety of ages. New students can benefit from the wisdom and experience of others.

Cons: New freshmen can feel overwhelmed living with seasoned pros. Cliques already in place can leave freshmen out. Older students can prey on freshman inexperience.

Coeducational Housing

Most dorms mix up guys and girls. They might live right next door to each other or on separate areas of the same floor, or floors might alternate all-girl and all-guy.

Pros: In coed dorms, you’ll have the opportunity to get to know students of both sexes, making it more like the “real world.” It’s a good way to learn to be comfortable with the opposite sex, especially for people who don’t have siblings of the other gender.

Cons: Some people may feel the need to impress the opposite sex, which can result in fashion traumas or hall dramas. And there’s always the possibility of hookups gone wrong.

Realllly Coed

It’s extremely rare and incredibly controversial, but a handful of the most liberal schools around the country have extended coeducational housing beyond buildings and floors to include actual sharing of rooms, making for some of the most liberal dormitory policies. Haverford College (PA), Swarthmore (PA), Wesleyan University (CT), and Hampshire College (MA) allow men and women to live together.

All-Male or All-female Housing

Some halls only house people of one gender. Some think it’s old-fashioned; others enjoy the benefits.

Pros: Many people feel more comfortable in a single-gender dorm, especially for their first year away from home. There’s no need to impress the opposite sex. You can wear whatever you want. This situation can be good for bonding with friends.

Cons: Nobody of the opposite sex.

Your Call

Some people loved it. Others not so much. Here are some things students had to say about living in a single-sex dorm.

“Major girl cattiness. Total stereotype of gossip and backstabbing.”

“No girls in the dorm? Lame.”

“Really empowering. All the girls were so supportive of each other and we became really close.”

“Great, because I focused on studying and sleeping. I met girls in class, at night, so it didn’t hurt my social life any.”

Twenty-four-Hour Quiet Halls

Some halls have noise restrictions—no loud parties or loud music allowed at any time.

Pros: It’s easier to sleep and study without drunk people screaming up and down the halls and without loud music blasting from next door.

Cons: These quiet halls can have reputations as “dork dorms.” This might or might not be true and students might or might not care. Some may find these dorms too quiet or antisocial.

From the outside, our dorm was the study dorm. I got the reaction “Ohhhh, you live in the HONORS dorm” from some people. But from the inside, people knew it was not as such. Some people had a full sound system that they would use at all hours of the night, and it would shake the walls and knock the plaster off! The girl across the hall from me was a sorority pledge who partied hard and came in at all hours of the night. So, I was living with some of the most intelligent people on campus I had ever met, but they also, despite what outside people might have thought, knew how to have fun.

—Sarah Mast, University of Southern California grad

Luxury Dorms

The luxury hall is mainly a newer trend to attract students who want to live well, though some have been around for a while. These are otherwise known as “glam housing.” The amenities can include:

•Spacious single or double rooms

•Private bathrooms

•Maid service

•Laundry service

•Beautiful views, overlooking the water or city skylines

•Pools with sundecks, hot tubs

•Bathroom TVs

•Art and music studios

•Cafes, ultramodern gyms, and computer rooms

Pros: Hello? Just check out the amenities list!

Cons: These dorms can be way more expensive. They also might not allow freshmen or underclassmen. Luxury dorms may be considered too exclusive and sometimes have reputations as being snobby. You may have to enter a lottery to try to get a spot.


Suites include several single or double rooms surrounding a common space and a bathroom shared only by the suitemates. More and more schools are offering suite dorms.

Where’s Your Dorm?

Your dorm location can have a surprisingly big impact on your daily routine. You don’t always think about it before you move in, but when you compare notes with students on other parts of campus, you might realize that if your dorm is:

•near your classes, you can leave later or run back and get a book you forgot

•near the bars, you might be easily tempted to go out spontaneously and have people crash at your place

•near the library, you might use it to study more

•in another part of town or far away from the buildings you have classes in, you’ll have to factor in commuting time

•near a parking lot, you’ll have quicker access to your car, and if it’s far away, you might go off campus less

•near a sports arena, you might be on the site of some tailgating

•near a shopping area, you might have to realllly watch your budget

•near a fraternity row, you’ll have a shorter walk if you’re pledging

•near a gym, it might make it more likely that you’ll work out

Pros: Suites offer more bedroom privacy. It’s nice to have a common area to hang out in, especially when guests come over. You’re not sharing a bathroom with too many strangers. And if you don’t bond with your roommate, you might with a suitemate instead.

Cons: Not having to share a bathroom or television with forty other people can actually be isolating—you only have the chance to become really close to your suitemates. There’s also the possibility of disagreements over the common areas (i.e., who cleans them?).

The best thing about living in the dorms is the location, I think. If you’re off campus, you’re far away from things, even if you live right next door to the school. The dorms are sacred spaces where things happen that don’t happen outside . . . there’s more information there, more action, and more accommodations, like security, food, socialization . . .

—Joi, Emerson College (MA)

Living-Learning Communities

If you want to connect with other students who have similar interests, you may want to live in a living-learning community or special-interest housing. These houses or halls focus on a certain theme or concept, linking some type of special interest or academic field to both in-class and out-of-class experiences. Faculty and staff often work directly with the students to support the themes. Classes geared toward the theme might be held in the hall. Tutoring and mentoring may be available. Be sure to ask when applying for residence if there are any theme halls available. Here are some examples:

•Many schools like Ohio University offer substance- free housing where residents sign a contract saying they’ll abstain from alcohol or illegal drug use while living there.

•Students at Central Michigan University who are interested in campus leadership can live in the Leadership Hall.

•Schools like Texas Tech University and Rutgers University (NJ) offer special housing and support for students in recovery from alcohol and other drug addiction.

•Wesleyan University (CT) offers the first gender-free floor, where students aren’t required to identify as male or female; the school welcomes both transgender and nontransgender individuals.

•Schools like the University of Maryland, College Park, have an International Hall where international students and students from the United States can live and learn together.

•The McLean Environmental Living and Learning Hall at Northland College (WI) is a “green” hall where students use wind generators, solar panels, and more to meet their environmentally friendly mission.

•Students at Cornell University (NY) can live in the Just About Music (JAM) dorm, which is for students with a passion for music, whether they be “an avid listener and lover of music, a shower singer, or those who have a more serious desire to become an accomplished musician.”

•In Iowa, Cornell College’s communities consist of a group of students with a common interest who live in a block of rooms together on campus. Their communities include service such as Kids Kare, which provides care for the children of homeless single mothers, and Smiles for Seniors, in which students volunteer with the elderly.

•University of Minnesota students can live in the American Indian Cultural House if they’re interested in past and contemporary American Indian issues and intercultural learning.

Pros: You’ll learn more about your interests. You’ll meet others with similar interests. And you might feel more comfortable from day one.

Cons: There will be less variety and less chance to meet people with different interests.


Face it, not all rooms are created equal. There’s a huge variety in dorm room sizes, shapes, and how many people are stuffed into each one. And hey, most dorm rooms are small. Maybe smaller than the bedroom you grew up in. And you’re sharing it with a stranger. Feeling claustrophobic? “Just think of the campus as your house. Your room is just where you are sleeping. Your living room is the lounge or the student center, your kitchen is the dining hall, the campus library is your study space,” says George Brelsford, assistant vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students at Rowan University (NJ)

Kinds of Rooms

Singles: Yeah! Your own space! Privacy, nobody to fight with. Then again, nobody to bond with. Might be harder to find someone to hit the dining hall with you.

The First Dorms

The first residence halls at Oxford and Cambridge were built during the Middle Ages in the thirteenth century to fill the needs of students flocking to universities. (Many of them have both a dining hall and a small bar.) At the University of Paris, students camped in tents or burrowed themselves into the sides of the surrounding hills. In time they moved to live individually with schoolmasters or townspeople. Much later they started to rent big houses.

The first American dorms opened with the founding of nine colonial colleges—today’s Ivy League universities. From the very beginning, they all had on-campus housing. Think your dorms are crazy?

•Fights, duels, and even murders were common in halls.

•Faculty and staff members were scared to death at the thought of being asked to go into a college dormitory.

•The halls were viewed by the public as places where one learns only bad manners.

Adapted from the website of Dr. Slobodan Box Zunic, adjunct professor of philosophy and hall director at the University of Rhode Island

Doubles: Another person to bond with. Then again, if you don’t click, it’s you versus them. You’re stuck with this person, good or bad. (For now, anyway. More about dealing with a less-than-perfect roommate later.)

Triples: Now you can bond with two people. Or, there can be two people to drive you crazy. If you’re three stuffed into a small room, it’s going to be crowded. And three’s a crowd if two people bond and the other person is left out.

The Presidential Dorm?

“After exploring numerous avenues to meet the growing need [for student housing], we have offered to make our house available for housing 10–12 students,” said the e-mail from Hannibal-LaGrange College’s (MO) president, Woodrow Burt. He and his wife, English professor Katherine Burt, moved to temporary housing so twelve female students could still live on campus during their senior year.

—The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 13, 2004; the Boston Globe at, August 18, 2004; August 20, 2004

Suites: Several students to bond with. But these rooms can also get cliquey if you only hang with people inside your suite. It can even get cliquey inside if some suitemates gang up on other ones.

Palaces and Dungeons

Princeton Review publishes a list of college rankings, which includes lists of the best and the worst dorms. Here are the 2004 rankings:

Dorms Like Palaces

1.Pepperdine (CA)

2.Loyola College (MD)

3.Smith College (MA)

4.Scripps College (CA)

5.Bryn Mawr (PA)

Dorms Like Dungeons

1.University of Oregon

2.Florida A&M University

3.United States Coast Guard Academy (CT)

4.United States Merchant Marines (NY)

5.SUNY University at Albany (NY)

Students are able to immerse themselves in a total experience when they live on campus. They meet new people, study together, and make friends for life. They build a network that serves them well into their future. Many colleges and universities have or are creating living-learning environments where students and faculty from an area of specialty (or honors programs) live and work within the same residence hall. It is exceptional!

—Sallie Traxler, executive director of the Association of College and University Housing Officers–International

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