Tips & Stories

Organizing a Dorm—A Big Move to a Small Place

Organizing a Dorm—A Big Move to a Small Place

Posted by Pamela Rosen on 17 Aug 2016

Moving into a dorm means you’re about to move to the smallest space you’ll ever live in your entire life—and you have to share it. The average college dorm room is 180 sq. ft (16.72 sq. meters), so making that space livable takes a lot of planning and efficiency. Around this time of year, thousands of college students will move to a dorm for the first time. Thousands more with a year or two of experience are also returning to dorms determined to improve the space and the dorm experience.

Chris Luce, Senior Merchandise Category Director for The Container Store, is an expert at helping dorm-bound college students organize every year. Maximizing space and minimizing duplication is a feat that doesn’t happen naturally, he says. "You don’t need two refrigerators or microwaves or TVs, for example. A little coordination goes a long way."

As important as coordination, organizing your move in advance will save a lot of time and money. Chris recommends that students break down their dorm room into six areas in need of the most organization: the closet, the walls and doors, the desk, the bath, storage, and laundry.

Download The Container Store’s college checklist into Evernote. You might not need everything on the list, but it gives you a starting place for planning and smart shopping. In Evernote Premium, which is, for a limited time, available to college students at 75% off, you can annotate PDFs, so circle the items you want, check off the things you already have, and keep track on the go.

Dublet double closetThe Dublet double rod closet expanding system

Start with the closet

Chris advises tackling the closet first. "A dorm closet has only three to five feet of hanging space, and that’s shared," he says. "So how are we going to make the best use of that space? Closets come with a single hanging rod." He recommends a product called a Dublet, which is an adjustable bar you hang from the top rod that creates a second rod below. Add some huggable hangers and that lets you put a lot of clothes in a very small space."

But how much clothing should a student take to college? "Do a test run at home," Chris advises. "Measure out the width of your closet at home and see how much space you have. Make decisions at home so you don’t end up taking more stuff than you’ll have room for."

One of the biggest mistakes he sees college students make every year is bringing too many things at the beginning of the school year. "They bring an entire year’s wardrobe, and then they don’t have the space to store it. If you live close enough to switch out your wardrobe, do that, and if not, ship seasonal clothing back and forth between home and the dorm. "If you can’t ship," he adds, "look at under-the-bed storage and using Space Bags for bulkier items like jackets and coats."

"Walls and doors are the last frontiers of unclaimed space!" —Chris Luce

Create vertical space

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"Over-the-door hanging systems are versatile," Chris says. "You need a place to hang towels, because you’re not going to have enough space to use a fresh towel every day, and they have to air dry. That’s a learning experience for most new college students—if you leave towels on the floor, they’re going to still be wet the next time you shower. Hanging shoe pockets keep shoes off the floor, and hanging organizers fully utilize the closet space."

"If you leave towels on the floor, they’re still going to be wet the next time you shower." -Chris Luce

Chris also looks to walls as opportunities for organization. Doors are natural centers for communication, he says, and cork boards or dry erase or magnetic boards help keep bills, notes, and other messages between roommates up front and center. It’s also practical to use heavy duty Command products, which include hooks and tape with removable adhesive, to create bookshelves or an impromptu hat and coat rack that doesn’t take up any floor space. "Command products don’t make holes or leaves marks," Chris remarks. "You should go armed with at least ten of these. Use them to hang pictures, jackets, anything."

Horizontal spaces are clutter collectors!

"The reason you’re at school is to get and education and to study, so you need to keep a space dedicated to that. It’s easy for non-study items to make their way onto desks, Chris warns. Laundry detergent bottles and cosmetics and everything else can end up there and distract you from your studies. So pay special attention to the desk."

Chris’ tips:

Stacking vertical space on the desktop for office supplies, books, lamps, and electronics keeps all of those necessary items out of the way, but within reach.

"The single most important storage opportunity is under the bed," Chris points out. "That’s 3 ½ by 6 feet–20 square feet (1.85 square meters) of floor space that can be organized with under bed drawers that you can just pull out and open. This is where you store less-frequently-used items, bulky things, store towels and kitchenware, and it’s all still within easy reach. "Under-bed bins also work, and these are great for move-in and move out," Chris adds. "Just make sure you label them."

Chris’ tips:

Choose the kinds of labels that work the best for you:

Bath and Laundry: It’s a wash

"Yes, you have to do laundry!" Chris laughs. "Many students going off to a dorm for the first time have never done laundry before, and they have no idea how to manage it."

Chris’ tips:

  • Laundry: Get a laundry bag with a shoulder strap and an external pocket for money and detergent, or lightweight mesh cubes that fold down to next to nothing.
  • Bath: Keep bath items in a shower tote. "Carry it in, and then put it back when you’re done. You keep all your personal items together; nobody takes your stuff, and it’s out of sight when you don’t need it.

Space sharing advice

It’s Chris’ job to find the most efficient products for college dorms, and helping all of the stores outfit thousands of dorms every year, so he knows what new roommates face. To him, organization is as much about communication as it is about products. "You can’t just put a piece of tape down the middle of a room and say ‘this is your side.’ You have to develop an understanding of how the other person lives and acts. There has to be some give and take, and open communication about what’s negotiable and what isn’t, and you have to develop mutual respect. It’s a shared space, but if you organize together, you can regain 20 sq. feet (1.85 sq. meters) of space or more. Little things make a huge difference."

Chris’ tips:

  • Stack modular drawers that can be put together in almost any combination
  • Double storage with seating with the Poppin Box Seat, which is storage disguised as a seat—pefrect for portable clutter control and impromptu seating
  • Use less paper and take electronic notes with Evernote

It sounds daunting, and Chris says he has even seen people who hire decorators to do dorm rooms. But with a little bit of thought, research, and organization up front, even the most inexperienced student can turn a tiny dorm into a liveable space.


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