Choosing A Dorm

This post is the second in a series I’m calling “Freshman Fifteen” – a set of fifteen posts that will walk you up to and into your freshman year of college. Read up on the first post here, or just dive in:

Choosing a dorm is going to do a lot to define your freshman year experience. Living in a student community is a great way to meet new people and get you acclimated to collegiate life. You’ll hear a serious range of stories from dorm experiences – from terrible, dirty ones to brand new, state-of-the-art facilities. Your experience will probably fall somewhere in between the two. But it’s important to make an informed decision, because (nice or awful) your dorm is going to be your home for your very first year of college.

This guide is, of course, aimed at students who plan to live on campus. If you’re commuting or living off campus, it’ll be a little less relevant. But for most of us, living in the dorms for freshman year (and often beyond!) is a rite of passage.

The Complete Guide to Choosing A Dorm

It's your home away from home, so how do you choose a dorm that works for you in college? It's one of the more important decisions that you'll make.

Location

There’s a reason the people on House Hunters are always freaking out about location. Especially on a college campus, where you’ll be walking most places, going to want to prioritize location as much as you can when choosing a dorm. Look at where all the dorms lie in relation to the buildings where you have the most classes. A dorm that’s far off campus can definitely have a great community, good food, amenities, the works. But if you have to slog through almost a mile of rain to get to class, you’re that much more likely to skip.

If you do end up looking at housing options further away from your classes, keep an eye on bus routes. It’s hard to learn these before you get to campus, but use public transit maps to make sure that a bus to where you need to go arrives every ten minutes at the very latest, and be aware that those busses will probably be crowded!

Bottom line – don’t live in the dirtiest, oldest, grossest, most crowded dorm on campus just for location, but make sure you keep it in the forefront of your mind when considering your options!

Amenities

The best thing I can tell you is to figure out what’s offered and where, and then prioritize choosing a dorm based on which amenities are important to you. On my campus, amenities like air conditioning and Wi-Fi weren’t standard across all dorms. Seriously. There were people with six box fans crammed into their tiny rooms, and a lot of people had to get internet by plugging into a cable in the wall like they were in the dark ages or something.

Other amenities to consider include carpeting, which is harder to clean but more comfortable; building and furniture age; dining hall access, which all the dorms at my school have, but with varying levels of quality; floor lounges, which are a great place to meet people in your dorm; and extra benefits. The dorm I lived in for two years was across the street from the music building, and had “soundproof” practice rooms in the basement. (They weren’t actually soundproof, but they weren’t terrible, acoustically speaking.) If you’re a music major, an amenity like that might be a major selling point!

Bottom line – A nice dorm will make your life a lot less miserable, and you don’t want to live somewhere that feels dark and dirty, but having brand new furniture doesn’t need to be your first priority. If you wind up in a crappy Soviet-era cinderblock freshman dorm, call it “character building” and soldier through.

Gender

This might not be something you give a whole lot of thought to at first, but the gender setup of your dorm will have a lot of impact on your experience there. For mixed housing, find out whether floors are “split” with boys on one side, girls on the other, or “stacked” with genders living on alternating floors. If your relationship with gender is a little more complex with “boys and girls,” reach out to your school and see if they might have a better fit for you – some schools have specialized gender-inclusive housing, if you want it.

The other option is single-gender housing, which I think at this point is mostly limited to women’s dorms. I lived in a girls-only dorm for two years, and it was an interesting experience. First of all, don’t let anyone tell you that a women’s dorm will be clean. It might have been clean-er than some mixed gender housing I visited, but when you cram a bunch of people together in a communal living space, things will get messy no matter what.

One of the perks of my all-girl dorm was that is was an absolutely gorgeous building... But the age came with issues, of course.

One of the perks of my all-girl dorm was that is was an absolutely gorgeous building… But the age came with issues, of course.

The dorm I lived in was also weirdly anti-social. People didn’t talk to each other much, and cliques formed and closed ranks within the first week. I imagine part of this had to do with the fact that there were no floor lounges, so the only way to meet other girls was to walk directly into their rooms through an occasionally-open door.

But real talk? It was kinda nice to live with just girls. I didn’t feel like I needed to look decent, walking the halls in a towel after a shower didn’t feel sketchy, and the hall just felt very safe and welcoming, even if people weren’t all best friends. There’s a degree of discomfort that comes with being a girl on a college campus, and the women’s dorm just felt a little safer. This was also a great choice for a few of my friends who wear hijab, because they didn’t have to worry about keeping one on at all times.

Bottom line – When choosing a dorm, get informed about the gender breakdown, and be honest with yourself about what you want and what you’re comfortable with.

Food

I mentioned food briefly in the last section, but I wanted to expand on that. At many schools, you can’t avoid getting a dining hall contract with your housing contract. And don’t get me wrong, dining halls are incredibly convenient, and much easier than trying to cook your own food in a communal-living setting. However, there are a few things you need to keep in mind.

The quality of the food is an obvious one, but also consider variety. If the dining hall in or near your building only makes six different meals, you’ll probably get bored and start ordering a lot of pizza. Which, granted, is delicious, but it’s expensive, and not particularly good for you. Health is another option to consider – sure, you can eat french fries for every meal, but do you also have access to plenty of wholesome, healthy food? The freshman fifteen is real, and you’re more likely to get sick if you’re not eating well – that’s all I’m saying.

Bottom line – Look for a good variety of good food within a reasonable distance of where you live, or subsist off expensive/unhealthy takeout. Your call.

Cost

The truth is, some dorms are going to cost more than others. My school has been building a ton of new dorms lately, to replace the old gross ones. Thing is, it costs a small fortune to live in these new dorms, since the school is still trying to pay off their construction.

If someone else is helping you finance your education, you’re definitely going to want to talk to them about your decision. If you’re paying for your education mostly through loans, you might want to look into cheaper housing, is all I’m saying. Make sure your college is upfront with you about how much your dorm of choice is going to cost – and don’t forget to ask about the meal plan, too.

They're building a new dorm down the road from me. It's going to be new, gorgeous, and expensive as heck.

They’re building a new dorm down the road from me. It’s going to be new, gorgeous, and expensive as heck.

Bottom line – College is expensive, and sometimes contracts are deceiving – make responsible choices, and make sure you know the whole story.

Reputation

This might be the least concrete factor in choosing a dorm. It might also be the hardest to figure out. You can break down my school’s main dorms into stereotypes pretty easily – engineers/nerds, women, stoners/ex-theater kids/general-issue misfits, partiers, and people who hate their lives because they’re like a mile away from the Quad. Now, this doesn’t mean that’s how the communities at those dorms actually are, but let’s say you like a pretty quiet study environment where you live – a dorm stereotyped as nerdy might be a good place to start. Stereotypes might not be entirely accurate, but they all come from somewhere.

Unless you’re a student at the college, it can be hard to get a sense of the reputation of each dorm. If you don’t have any friends attending your school already, you can ask around in Facebook groups or Reddit subs dedicated to your school. Getting actual interactive answers and having a chance to ask questions is an awesome opportunity. If all else fails, find your school’s satirical news site – I think every school has one – and look for the joke articles that mention dorms.

Bottom line – It’s hard to get a feel for dorms on a campus you’re not part of (yet!), but since the “feel” of your dorm might be the number one factor in liking it, you’ll want to try anyway.

At the end of the day…

Your dorm is going to be a pretty powerful part of your college experience, but it won’t necessarily define it. Exert control over your decision to the extent that you can, but otherwise, don’t panic. I promise, no matter how not-cute the cinderblock walls of the oldest dorm on campus might be, you’ll make good memories either way.

If you have further questions, ask your college’s housing office for clarification! As intimidating as picking up the phone or sending that email can be, it’s worth it to make informed choices.

And speaking of informed choices… Since this is part of my Freshman Fifteen series, it means I’ve whipped up another bonus for you! It’ll help you keep track of everything about the dorms you’re considered, which means easier decision making. Snag it from the resource library starting now! If you don’t have the password, join the club and I’ll send it along:

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