College Bound: The Organized Dorm

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I can still remember my shopping list for my first dorm room. Years ago we kept it simple -- the must have storage staple was the old dairy crate and that was pretty much it. Those dairy crates organized everything from sweaters and sweatshirts to books. Today the storage choices are almost unlimited (although the budget may not be...), so outfitting a dorm room or first apartment can be a bit overwhelming. I have asked our summer intern (a college student) to share some organizing challenges she has experienced first hand. We have divided the typical college living space into 5 areas:

- Common area
- Kitchen and bath area Desk
- Bedroom or sleeping area
- The always too small and functionally challenged closet.
- Common Area

Question: "A lot of dorm rooms are small and have one common area. What would you suggest to help students keep their common area organized? Also, can you suggest some useful products for storing food, movies, and CDs?"

Answer: Common areas can be a tricky, because you have now entered the zone where your belongings are community property. I would suggest a minimalist approach. If it is for a dorm, keep it simple and portable. There are inexpensive multimedia racks, drawers and even cubes (the "new" dairy crate!) available for storing CDs and movies.

Trunks can provide additional table surface, store out-of-season blankets and sweaters, and even make a good hiding place for your spare laundry and bathroom supplies. If you are furnishing an apartment, make it a group project so that everyone is involved with choices and expense sharing.

Many students store their snacks and munchies where they hang out, so just remember to label them and stay clear of glass. Many discount stores have some really cool and inexpensive dry storage options.

Kitchen and Bath

Question: "Can you give advice on how to keep your stuff separate from your roommates in both the kitchen and the bathroom?"

Answer: In the kitchen -- label, label and label. People are less likely to help themselves to something when it is clearly marked. An alternate system is to divide the shelves in the refrigerator ? maybe one for each person and one common shelf? If your budget permits, purchase a set of food storage containers and clearly label them with your name and any warning you may want to include. Unfortunately there will always be those few who will help themselves to anything and everything, so don't sign a lease with them next year.

There is never enough room in the bathroom, so keep it simple and portable. Buy a shower tote or caddy; a proven product that has been around for years. I recommend girls go for the largest one you can carry while most guys could probably make do with the smaller ones. If finding a surface is an issue consider a hanging dopp kit, which can be easily hooked on to a towel rack. Don't forget about your towels; consider large hooks for hanging wet towels. Extra towels and toiletries can be stored in a simple 4-drawer storage cabinet also available at many discount stores and other retailers.

The Desk

Question: "What would you suggest for keeping your desk neat and school work organized?"

Answer: There is a wide range of great things on the market today to keep your desk clutter free and functional ? you are only limited by your budget and your imagination! Consider increasing the surface area of your desk by placing your notes and class papers in a file cart or create a hanging file box that can fit neatly under or on the side of your desk. Organize your desk by keeping like things together or categorize by subject. Utilize a bulletin board with a calendar for important dates and project deadlines, so they won't be missed or forgotten.

The Bedroom

Question: "Do you have any suggestions for students on how to maximize this space and still keep as much of your personal belonging in this small space?"

Answer: You can be as creative with this space as you want to be. Take advantage of the total area, including under the bed, behind the door, the walls, and even the college issued furniture. Look for wide underbed drawers; they make the perfect secondary storage unit. Hang a shoe bag behind your door; these pockets can be used for more than shoes -- socks, extra toiletries, small camera, film, batteries, water bottles, and yes even that extra case of beer. Hang a few hooks on the wall or if allowed install a small shelf. If you have a large desk, consider adding a hutch; the additional shelves are very convenient and accessible when working at the desk.

The Closet

Question: "How do I make the most of this very small space?"

Answer: Years ago my first dorm closet was about 3 feet wide and 9 feet tall. An extremely narrow area in which to cram 9 months worth of clothes and shoes and remember this was the time in my life when I agonized over every clothing detail. Today that limited area would be a snap, because my "mom uniform" does not require a lot of space.

Seriously, most of the time closet space comes is at a premium, so you must utilize every inch. The right type of hangers is key ? an item like a multi-tiered shirt or pants hanger can save space and have clothes fit neatly in small spaces. Consider adding another rod for short hang items since most college wardrobes are heavy on short hang pieces. Another product used to increase space and keep things from tumbling down is stacking shelves. If you prefer your sweaters and sweatshirts at eye level, use a hanging sweater bag that attaches to the closet rod. Don't forget about the floor space -- short stacking baskets work well in this space.

Today's college student may have a lot more organization and storage options than we did in years past, but with a small budget, some advance planning, clear lines of communication with roommates and a sense of humor, organizing their space can be easily accomplished and they can focus on what's really important about college. I was referring to learning ? what did you think I meant?

?2004 Bridget Messino and Emily Steinecker

About the authors: Bridget Messino is a Professional Organizer, speaker and co-owner of Clutter Free Living, Inc. Her work frequently appears on many Internet sites, on her own organizing site Clutter Free Living (, as well as in her monthly Home Organizing Newsletter How to Be Clutter Free. Subscribe to the FREE monthly e-newsletter by sending a blank e-mail to

Emily Steinecker is a senior at the University of Wisconsin, interning with Clutter Free Living for the summer. Organizing has always been a passion of hers and her dream is to become a professional organizer.

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