College Life: Back-to-school basics

As students everywhere start preparing to head to college this fall, I want to talk about the art of small-space living. College students are a demographic that have particular stock in simple living, as does anyone with more possessions than space. Whether it be a 500 square foot downtown studio apartment or a shared room with a sibling, it can be difficult to live in a space the size of a dorm room.

Most students arrive at campus for the first time, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with a minivan containing all of their worldly possessions. This is great until they are affronted with a dorm room approximately the size of a large closet.

If this sounds like it could be you, here are a few basics for maximizing your living space. I want to begin with an obvious tip:

Reassess your stuff.

The best way to fit your stuff into an itty-bitty space is to have less stuff. Only take the essentials with you. You shouldn’t abandon all of your trinkets at your parents’ place, either. Photograph and get rid of the napkin from prom and donate those t-shirts from your middle school musical to a local charity.

If your dorm room is a suite and has a kitchen, do you really need that mini-fridge, toaster oven, and microwave? Are any of your roommates bringing those items? There is no sense in having three blenders, even if you really like smoothies.

Take advantage of movie and music streaming services and let go of your CD and DVD collections.

Unless you are in the business school, do you need that suit?

Do you really need that commemorative Coors Light bobble-head, under any circumstance?

Even if you follow this advice, be prepared to bring a lot of things home for Thanksgiving break. Good luck to everyone heading off to school in the fall and stay tuned for more back-to-school tips.

29 Comments for “College Life: Back-to-school basics”

  1. posted by Pete on

    One of the best ideas to create space is to arrive with less at first, and add what’s needed later on. There is no reason you can not go back and get some stuff you left home at a later date. And I’m sure you can survive without it for a little while.

    Take less. You can always bring more later on.

  2. posted by Amelia on

    As a college student myself, I could not agree more with Julia.

    Since I have been in college, I have moved every year to a new apartment (getting ready for number four). However, I take each opportunity to reassess my belongings and throw away more and more each time. Sometimes when I am at Target I think to myself “do I really want to move this in two month?” and I put the item back on the shelf.

    Luckily my parents and I struck a deal when I was moving out:

    We agreed to let me keep some stuff at home: childhood books, photographs, college files, and a few other “when I have a house one day” items. So I packed up all of those possessions into large plastic tubs and put them in the closet. This was great for me, because I did not have to move everything I own and my parents had an empty room.

  3. posted by jocelyn on

    Another good reason to go in with a light amount of stuff is you have no idea what your roommates are going to be like. The less you bring with you, the less can get stolen or destroyed and the faster you can change rooms if it becomes necessary.

  4. posted by jocelyn on

    I really like Amelia’s ideas. What a great way to curb accumulation, especially from impulse buys.

    I also like the idea of keeping stuff at the parent’s house while the student is at school. Doing that let me hold onto my sense of still having a place in my parents’ home during the transition to adulthood that is college. I took all of the stuff out of their house the same week that I graduated and a year later, when I was ready, gave it all away.

  5. posted by Hulsy on

    My best experience : studying one year in the US and be allowed to have only 2 times 32kgs as luggage ! Yes, for a whole year (books, pillows, shoes, winter clothes inclusive)…

  6. posted by John on

    College for me was the high-point of my downsizing days. My side of the room was so barren that a friend dropped in and thought I was living on the other side and my roommate had moved out. I took it a bit far, but I definitely agree that the 1st meditation for comfortable dorm life is less stuff.

  7. posted by Linda on

    I agree, the average student moves 6-8 time during their college years. Take less and use things that can increase your storage…lots of things like an over the door shoe holder can be used to store hair products, etc.

  8. posted by Kate on

    A few words of warning… Be careful about storing stuff at your parents’ house when in college… I was not such an unclutterer back in the day and what resulted was that instead of taking stuff from storage in my parents’ house to fill in as I had more space, I just accumulated new stuff! Now, years later, I have basically twice as much to unclutter, as I’m trying to go through my stuff from college, plus the stuff I left beind at my parents’ place.

  9. posted by Queen Planning Bee on

    When I started college, I thought I was being so smart by purchasing all these clever storage solutions, like stackable crates, sweater “shelves” that hang in the closet, a printer stand, etc. Well, all those sensible solutions just ended up more in the way than anything. Definitely bring just the bare minimum, then after everything is unpacked, decide what you need to buy.

  10. posted by Battra92 on

    Two words: Trapper Keepers! They’re back and one of the best ways to stay organized out there. Unfortunately they don’t have the classic Velcro (they have magnets now.)

    My other advice is perhaps simple and self-evident but five subject notebooks were my savior in college. After grabbing the wrong notebook too many times and having to recopy notes in the right one wasting time and paper I just broke down and got the 5 subject and never looked back.

    I miss college. 🙁 Thanks Unclutterer! You just made me depressed and lonely again!

    *goes off to cry over memories*

  11. posted by Laura on

    My oldest will start college this fall, and this little clotheshorse thinks she will take everything in her room with her. Funny, no matter what I tell her, or what anyone else says (including me having her read this blog) she is going to do whatever she wants. I guess that’s the difference between incoming freshmen and and their “more experienced” soph, jr and sr classmates. Perhaps one day she will come home and say, “Mom, you were right!”

  12. posted by Clare on

    As a recent college grad, I agree with everything but the DVDs. Sometimes it was really nice to gather up my friends, order Chinese food, and watch The Princess Bride or But I’m a Cheerleader just because we felt like it. Even if you don’t have a TV in your dorm room and the common room TV doesn’t have a DVD player, you can play them on your computer.

  13. posted by JuneBug on

    I went to college in the States from Alaska. I arrived at my dorm with 2 suitcases and an apple box. I lived in apartments after my freshman year. When I graduated, I returned home with the same two suitcases full of books, one boxed sewing machine, and three packing boxes of other accumulated stuff. (Not bad for four years) I didn’t have the money to buy stuff.

    The week before I left for college, I packed everything I thought I might want in four years and it was stored under my parents’ house. The week after I left, they had a yard sale and sold my bed and dresser and the stuff I hadn’t boxed.

  14. posted by cdelphine on

    I’m going to be a junior in the fall. I would also recommend packing as much as possible into containers/bags that you are taking (backpack, trash can, etc) That way when you get to school you don’t have the problem of storing a bunch of suitcases.

    Oh and I definitely agree with waiting to buy things like closet sweater hangers, extra chairs, and other decorative items until you get there, meet your roommate and see the room.

  15. posted by Drew on

    I’m just starting college…

    For the second time. I’ve been going through boxes that I had at my old apartment. I had 15 rather large boxes of “stuff” coming out of my apartment. That wasn’t essentials like plates, cutlery, pots, pans, clothes, things of that nature… It was just stuff.

    I started sorting through all of it and I’ve donated and/or tossed about 8 boxes worth of crap. Old papers I’ve held onto, books I’ll never read, old cables and cords, boxes, cd’s I haven’t listened to in YEARS, and other little things that I should have thrown away years ago.

    My goal is to get everything I own (excluding my 5 pieces of furniture: Mattress, TV, Bookshelf, TV Stand, Couch) to fit into my Subaru wagon and move it all in one trip with furniture in my trailer.

    I need one more solid week of sorting and I’ll be good to go with a lot less baggage and clean clutter free life. Ive already got my new place planned out so I know where everything goes when I get there.

    Moving is going to be a breeze! Woo!

  16. posted by Ryan Hiller on

    Instead of taking the DVDs, use a program like “Handbrake” to rip them (keep only the one copy for yourself and store the DVD as an archive for yourself, anything more would be copyright violation, heck the one copy probably is). There are cheap 10-30 dollar cables to tie an iPod to a TV (or LCD/DLP projector).

    So … keep the DVDs and CDs elsewhere, and still get to gather up your old chinese food and some friends and watch the princess bride. (Heck, now you can also watch it on a tiny screen while standing in some long line …)

  17. posted by ChristineB on

    I live in a major college town, and every year when the students leave, they just dump loads of ‘crap’ on the curb and go. A few years ago, someone started collecting all the stuff abandoned (much of it almost new) and having a big tent sale. It’s been a good way to reduce some of the waste. But, please students. If you think you need more stuff, see if there is a way to get it used and just get what you need. Seeing the amount of waste generated every year from students moving in and out is really disheartening.

  18. posted by Karyn on

    My freshman year in college, I had a single room in a dorm that was once nun’s quarters. You can imagine how small those rooms were–a built in desk with a teeny bookcase, room for a bed, a very, very small closet, and a sink. A lot of the other students had “closet shock” because they brought their whole damn wardrobe and huge stereos, and it just didn’t fit. Some of us had “lofts” that elevated the bed above the desk and left a wee space for a tiny couch/fridge. But I got rid of that loft after I fell out of it and broke my back. Lesson learned—some space saving furniture can be dangerous! It was actually liberating to live in such a small space, and to this day I tend to not accumulate knicknacks.

  19. posted by sue on

    “I live in a major college town, and every year when the students leave, they just dump loads of ‘crap’ on the curb and go.”

    I, too, live in a Big 10 uni town, and there is always major discards when they move out—however, I would be hard-pressed to buy and use the couches they leave—ICK!

  20. posted by Deb on

    I wish I had understood decluttering in the 1970’s when I went away to college. My family is of the “store it for future generations” mentality. I left behind a lot of stuff, not knowing if I would need it when I visited or came back to live there later.(I never lived there again) Then my sister went away to college and left her stuff. My youngest sister had to live in the space we had all shared, only she was still sharing the space with our junk. How depressing!

  21. posted by Katieinthemountains on

    “five subject notebooks were my savior in college”

    I had two three-ring binders, one for MTW classes and one for TR, with looseleaf paper. I could take as many or as few notes as I needed without waste. Post-graduation, I put related subjects together and labeled the spines of the binders.

  22. posted by Katie on

    No suit? I disagree. A suit takes up a very small amount of space and is invaluable for career fairs, banquets, job interviews, etc.

    Totally with you on the Coors light bobblehead, though.

  23. posted by Amanda on

    I too have been living with what I call the “collapsable lifestyle” for the past three years. I have to echo what’s been said about waiting to buy things until you get to college, packing the bare minimum, and not bothering with the clever containers, shelves, etc.

    A few other things – try not to use suitcases or boxes. Pack with things you’re already bringing. I like to use laundry baskets. Otherwise you’re left with random storage containers you only use to move back and forth.

    I also like to have my DVD’s with me. However, the boxes can really take up a lot of space, so I like to put them in a CD case/booklet. I’ve heard it’s not fantastic for the DVD’s in the long run, but I’ve never had a problem, and taking one CD case is much easier than 100 DVD cases.

  24. posted by Michael G on

    Man how things change over time. I used to fit an awful lot of my possessions when in the dorms into an old steamer trunk. That was actually a pretty handy system. It had a shelf in it with 3 compartments for smaller stuff. When I got to school and unpacked everything, I had some storage space to get some things out of view.

  25. posted by Alex Steed [of Make Something Happen] on

    On the converse of down-sizing –

    The dorm experience is great for up-sizing, too.

    When I was in my late-teens/early-20s living in an apartment in a college town, I would usually head to the dorms on the last day of classes/move-out day and collect a lot of the free new-ish stuff that was treated as disposable (likely because the disposer did not pay for the disposee).

    Lamps, dressers, furniture, electronics, appliances – they were all there, ready for the taking.

  26. posted by Alex Steed [of Make Something Happen] on

    “I, too, live in a Big 10 uni town, and there is always major discards when they move out—however, I would be hard-pressed to buy and use the couches they leave—ICK!”

    Yeah. Just say no to the couches – especially the frat couches. I’ve slept on a few of those in my day and having my face to that fabric does not give me good dreams.

  27. posted by Mackenzie on

    Yes, you really do need that suit. Students are strapped for cash, thus we need jobs. Jobs require job interviews. Interviews require having a suit.

  28. posted by Mackenzie on

    Making one copy is *not* copyright violation. Backing up your CDs and DVDs falls under the category of fair use.

  29. posted by Mary in Maryland on

    I would suggest throwing away the napkin from prom without taking a picture of it.

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