More than 20 years ago, I packed up my favorite things and headed to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA, to dig into my interior design degree. I was loaded up with tropical fish, bedding and rolled-up Andre Agassi posters. After the education and some interior design experience, if I had it to do over again, I’d do my best to not only personalize my room but maximize its usefulness, too. Here are some ideas I’d take with me as inspiration.

Furniture + Color

dorm room essentials

A dorm room isn’t really the place to let out your inner design diva, but it’s definitely worth the effort to work with your roommate toward a design scheme for the whole room, rather than just your side of it. Complementary colors, fabrics and accent pieces go a long way toward making that small space feel bigger, less cluttered and more like home. Hanging textiles is a great way to add color without having to paint the walls. Stick with light, cool colors to enhance the sense of space and serenity, but don’t be shy about a bold accent to add some definition to the space.

College students don’t have a lot of choice with furniture in most dorms, but if you can swap out beds for futons or sofa sleepers, entertaining friends becomes a much more pleasant affair. Whatever you do, make sure you consider a variety of configurations to create a functional and inviting space for you and your visitors.


dorm room lighting

Let’s face it: Most dorm rooms are tiny spaces with bad lighting and poor ventilation. Start by bringing in more light and air. Add a couple of lamps to keep everyone and everything looking their best by supplementing that old-school overhead fluorescent lighting. In a dorm setting, lighting does double duty–you need it to study, but it can really enhance the look of a drab space after the books are closed.

Choose a stylish LED desk lamp that really lets you focus on your work and serves as a dramatic splash of light after hours. LED light bulbs throw off a specific beam of light, so they have the added advantage of giving you great task lighting while still allowing your roommate to sleep while you study.

Floor lamps are another inexpensive way to personalize the space with ambient mood lighting–and you can pick up a fresh and fun shade that complements the rest of your space. You may consider compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs for this–they’re both effective and efficient. CFL bulbs are here to stay, and for all the right reasons: Not only do they last a long time (“forever” could be taken the wrong way), but they can now be dimmed, and the coloration has improved. One CFL bulb can get you all the way through college.


fanEven if you’re lucky enough to get a roommate you love, sharing such a small space makes it all the more important to clear the air. A small, enclosed space filled with laundry and bedding is bound to result in some stale air. You actually can find portable and personal fans that work as great accent pieces, with styles from funky and industrial to bold and bright.


storage bins

Finding effective ways to keep clutter to a minimum and keep everything important to you nearby can make all the difference in terms of peaceful cohabitation:

  • Simple wall shelves are easy to install, and keep most of your storage off of the floor and out of the closet. Put books and school supplies, as well as your favorite photos and mementos, within arm’s reach and eye level.
  • Storage bins come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Get some big and boxy bins–all in one color to complement the rest of your design scheme for off-season clothes or schoolwork from last semester, and sleek and simple sliders that roll right under the bed for more personal storage. Choose one color for the shelving bins to give your tiny space a streamlined look, and save the see-through storage for closets and under the bed.

More Dorm Room Essentials

Of course your list of dorm room essentials doesn’t end there, in fact we are just getting started. Below is a comprehensive list of all of the other items you’ll need to buy to make your dorm room a cozy haven all semester long.

  • Bedding. Not only will you most likely need to provide your own bedding, you’d probably want to anyway. Make sure to bring a comforter, pillowcases, a bed spread, sheets, and a memory foam mattress topper for extra support. Remember most dorm beds use a Twin XL size bed. To make things easier you can find a sheet set that includes most everything you need in one package.
  • Hangers. Bring hangers for your clothes so you don’t have to steam or iron them everyday. Use thin velvet hangers for your clothes since they take up less space.
  • Coffee maker. Save yourself from buying pricey lattes before class and make your own coffee. Whether you opt for an easy-to-use Keurig brewer or the classic Mr. Coffee, brewing your own coffee is a smart move.
  • Shower caddy. A good shower caddy should carry everything you need to wash: shampoo, conditioner, body wash, soap, scrubber, and other toiletries you may need.
  • Shower shoes. Seriously, you don’t want to think about the brew of body fluids, muck and grime that coats the shower floors of your dorm. Play it safe and wear shower shoes every time you bathe! Flip-flops will do but also consider slip-ons specifically made for the shower.
  • Mini fridge. Mini-fridges are more compact and powerful than ever. Having a supply of cold beverages will make you the most popular person in your college dorm.
  • Power strip. Get a high quality power strip to plug your various devices into. Look for a new model that also has USB ports so you can charge your phone and other gadgets without your charger taking up valuable outlet space.
  • Reusable water bottle. Go green with a reusable water bottle. Every time you fill it up, that is one less plastic bottle you need to worry about recycling.
  • Laundry hamper. Get yourself a collapsible laundry hamper for your dirty clothes. Putting them in a big pile on the floor will totally ruin your design aesthetic.

Final Thoughts

Our clients often are more grateful for effective design in smaller spaces than they are where space is not a concern. Just because you’re in college doesn’t mean you can’t have great design.

An interior designer who, yes, once had the personal experience of living in a dorm room during college, Kerrie Kelly now writes for the Home Depot on many topics, including dorm room décor. She gives advice on such things as furniture selection and which light bulbs to use to achieve the right task lighting. To view a selection of LED light bulbs that Kerrie suggests in this article, visit