As college kids prepare to head to campus this fall, one thing’s for sure — their dorm shopping experience is nothing like the days of yore. Today’s students are completely making over their dorm rooms, adding their own style and personalities to the spaces via temporary and (mostly) affordable dorm room essentials.
“Moving away to college is such a huge transition and in times of academic uncertainty due to Covid, designing a space with all of the comforts of home is more likely to provide students with a sense of peace as they navigate life as a new college student,” says interior designer and mom of seven (yes, seven!) Jenny Reimold, who created a boho chic dorm room for her daughter Grace at the University of Alabama that was so pretty it actually went viral.
“The evolution of dorm design has helped students make the smooth transition from home to dorm living, without sacrificing their own unique style,” says Lisa Fleming Picciano, owner of the New Jersey-based interior design firm Lisa Fleming Design. “There are so many dorm-ready decor options these days — from peel-and-stick wallpapers and neon signs to comfy bedding sets and wall-mounted headboards — students have endless ways to make their spaces both functional and totally fun.”
Adds Jon Call, owner of the interior design firm Mr Call Designs, which has designed innumerable dorm rooms across the country in recent years, “More and more, students are craving designed spaces that reflect their personalities. This is many of their first homes outside of their parents’, and they want to embrace it, decorate it and make it their own.”
Being a mom herself, interior designer Amie Freling, owner of the New York-based Meme Hill Studio, can relate when it comes to not breaking the bank on dorm decor. “First and foremost, it’s about being comfortable and making the best use of your small space while bringing the comforts of home to campus,” she tells us. “But when decorating my daughter’s dorm room I also looked at it as a rental, so everything had to be temporary. We added a spring rod and lightweight curtain to her closet to hide all the clutter. We used another inexpensive sheer curtain tucked under the lofted mattress to give a custom bed skirt look for under $20.”
For Mary Hawthorne, owner of the Georgia-based design firm Mary Hawthorne Interiors, it’s about maximizing the small space while also making the room special for her collegiate clients. While air purifiers, extra seating and bins galore are among her musts, Hawthorne, who has designed dozens of dorm rooms throughout the south, also focuses on helping her clients create meaningful photo collages to help them on homesick days and wall decor galore “for covering up the dull beige walls found in so many dorms.”
To help your student get the dorm of their dreams, we polled a slew of design experts asking them for their “essentials,” and also for some fun products that are simply too cute to pass up.
From $39 at Urban Outfitters
Reimold placed this boho rug in her daughter’s University of Alabama dorm room, saying, “A carefully chosen rug can make a space feel cohesive and warm. It also covers flooring and carpet that has been used year after year by other students. Typically, a 5-foot-by-7-foot rug fits in most rooms and can also double as an exercise mat for students who prefer working out at home.”
More to know: This Urban Outfitters rug comes in sage, blush and ivory hues, in sizes ranging from 2 feet by 3 feet, to 6 feet by 9 feet.
$16 at Etsy
Lusting over the artwork in that viral dorm room? Us too. Luckily, Reimold shared her source and — no surprise here — it was Etsy! “Download a watercolor print from Etsy for under $20 and send it to Smallwood Home to be framed for a unique and personal touch to any dorm space,” she suggests.
$58 at QVC
According to Reimold, a surefire way to “add life to any space” is via a fiddle leaf fig tree. She purchased this one for her daughter’s dorm room, and the result, as we know, was pure magic. We love the sub-$50 price tag, and the fact that it comes housed in a cute white basket base.
$63.28 at Zazzle
“I LOVE a customized shower curtain. They instantly personalize a space and make it look more special,” says Call. “It’s a great gift for any student moving into their first dorm.” Not feeling this preppy option? Fear not — Zazzle has dozens of custom curtains to choose from, or you can just opt to upload your own photo to this curtain.
$24.99 at Amazon
A quick and cheap way to add some drama to their bed? With a mosquito net! “Small items to add personality and privacy to a room are always things I love to include in a student’s bedroom,” says Call. “Recently, for a project in Georgia, I added this mosquito net canopy to a bed, which added romance and design to the small space. I love unexpected touches like this that elevate a room.”
$63.95 at Amazon
“I love this white set of frames to go on the long wall over a twin XL bed,” she suggests. “I would say the overall goal when decorating a dorm is to make sure your student has a special place to come back to each day that gives them the comfort of their bedroom at home. By having your family, friends and memories close by with this gallery wall, you’ll do just that!”
$20 at Urban Outfitters
“Light up your space with these fun lights that also have clips to hang photos on,” says Dyke. “They’re great on a narrow wall as well.” Freling favors this similar Amazon option that rings a bit cheaper at 11 bucks.
From $89 at Ruggable
Even if your dorm room comes outfitted with wall-to-wall carpeting, investing in a bright area rug to anchor the room is still a good idea. “I think this functional, machine-washable, stain-resistant and water-resistant rug can add a ton of personality to a dull dorm room,” suggests Fleming Picciano. More to know: The rug comes in three colorways and 10 shapes and sizes.
Check out our review of Ruggable rugs here.
From $28.53 at Amazon
“For dorm room rugs, look for one that is thin, no shedding and stain-resistant,” says Freling, who recommends this Safavieh option, available in multiple sizes and shades, that has more than 1,500 positive reviews on Amazon. “Darker colors camouflage the dirt and anchor the room. Make sure it is comfortable and cozy for friends coming in to visit and sit on.”
$29.99 at Target
On top of our dorm shopping list? A trusty extension cord. This one is surge-protected and provides extra length, which is so useful for hard-to-reach outlets blocked by furniture; plus, it’s got two USB ports for charging smartphones and other electronics.
From $55.99 at Wayfair
“This is a popular lamp that I have used over and over again,” says Hawthorne. “It is a perfect height for a lofted bed and it has fun little shelves for your phone charger and a picture. It can be your bedside lamp or put in a corner with a floor chair.”
$99.99 From $60 at Amazon
Fuel their study sessions with a quick coffee solution that takes up barely any space too. “I would have loved to have this cute one-cup Keurig for pulling all nighters,” says Fleming Picciano. At just 5 inches wide, the coffee maker can be stashed just about anywhere when not in use.
Dorm room wall decor
From $9.91 at Amazon
Anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a dorm room knows that the walls are typically drab…at best! To overcome the blah vibes, Fleming Picciano suggests we “add unique wall art for above the bed, such as this world map tapestry for a boys’ dorm room.” The best part about the durable, microfiber artwork? Prices start at under 10 bucks!
From $15.99 at Amazon
For an equally affordable albeit more feminine wall hanging, Fleming Picciano recommends this boho macramé artwork. ICYMI: Macramé is very on-trend right now, proving the old adage that everything old will eventually be new again to be true. Plus, this set is available in three different sizes so you can find the one that best fills your space.
$45 at Dormify
“I love how this wallpaper is simple yet transforms a boring wall,” says Dormify CEO and co-founder Amanda Zuckerman, who launched the brand with her mom after a frustrating shopping experience for her own dorm room. “I would cover the wall behind my bed with this to create a boho, California vibe.”
$69 at Dormify
Chief among Dormify’s most popular items are neon signs, according to Zuckerman, and we love this one, which has a fun ombré effect and — if you’re superstitious — will be a spiritual protector for your student at their new home away from home.
$34 at Urban Outfitters
A twofer is always a good idea, and this is a favorite of Young Huh’s, owner of the New York-based firm Young Huh Interior Design. “Art on the walls helps a room look finished, and everyone needs ample lighting. How about two in one? Wall decor and lighting in a single piece! Having enough lamp light lets you ditch the harsh overhead lighting —- perfect when it’s time to relax.”
More to know: It comes in a moon shape too!
Storage and organizers
$109 at Dormify
Love you some multitasking? Us too, which is why we’re obsessed with this product from Dormify. “This piece is a triple threat! An ottoman/tabletop, shoe storage and an extra seat,” says Zuckerman. “Open up the lid to find an interior shoe storage insert that can fit over 15 pairs of shoes. Plus, it folds flat for easy storage.”
$18.99 at Amazon
“Storage is the No. 1 issue that I try to resolve for students today in academic housing,” says Call. “There simply isn’t ever enough. Items like this canvas box with zip closure are PERFECT to stow under a bed, or on a high upper shelf in the closet to organize seasonal items and clutter away from view. In addition…they remind me of a perfect box from Chanel. That doesn’t hurt, does it?”
$19.99 $15.99 at Amazon
“You can add personality and texture with these self-adhesive, floating wall shelves for accessories like pictures, books or plants,” says Fleming. Made of acrylic, the shelves can each hold 8 pounds and can be installed in minutes with zero tools involved.
$16 $12 at Target
“I love that this affordable lamp is so multipurpose,” says Freling. “It’s affordable and comes in several colors.” We love it too, but mainly because it can corral all the things — from sticky notes to pens! — and that it has a built-in USB port and phone stand.
$48.98 at Lowe’s
Let us count the ways we love this storage piece. Comprising a whopping nine cubbies, the storage cube comes in at only 12 inches deep and costs just $42. “These always help with organization and clutter while adding functionality to spaces that seem overcrowded and impossible to declutter,” says Lowe’s trend strategy manager Caroline Harmon.
$42.95 at Amazon
“I love these stackable bins from Amazon,” says Hawthorne. “The colors are what do it for me. They are perfect for the color palettes the girls tend to love these days and they can go under a bed, in a closet or even look cute next to the fridge.”
$57.97 at The Home Depot
Sending kids off to college with ALL the towels is a must, and Freling is obsessed with this set from Home Depot. “This is my all-time favorite towel set,” she tells us. “So much that I purchased sets for our home too! At just $50.97 for 12 pieces, that’s only $4.25 each. It’s a no-brainer!”
More to know: The towels come in nine colors and sets of six ($19.88) and 18 ($67.98) too.
$19 $13 at Dormify
A must-have for dorms with communal bathrooms is a caddy or tote to carry all your bathroom essentials. Dormify’s bestselling mesh, seven-pocket shower tote is spacious enough to hold all your full size bath products and body towel. The best part? When not in use, it can be hung on a hook or tucked into a storage bin.
From $96.99 at Wayfair
What’s one surefire way to gussy up a dull dorm? With a headboard! Fleming Picciano loves this one from Wayfair, which boasts more than 5,300 positive reviews and comes in at just 82 bucks in a twin XL size.
“I love this wall-mounted headboard from Wayfair so much,” says Fleming Picciano. “It’s easy to install and gives a chic, modern look for little cost.”
$27.98 at Lowe’s
When space is at a minimum, well, you need to create it out of nowhere. Enter: bed risers! “These are perfect to maximize underbed storage space and put larger items such as duffel bags, luggage, trunks, shoes, etc,” says Harmon.
From $38.25 at Amazon
What does Leigh Goodwyn, founder of dorm decor e-tailer LeighDeux, count among her dorm room essentials? “A long bed skirt to hide all of your stuff under the bed,” she says. This version available on Amazon comes in seven different sizes to fit all sort of different dorm lofting configurations.
$149 $104 at Dormify
Bedding is chief among a college student’s concerns, and we get why… It sets the tone for the whole room! Freling agrees, telling us, “Bedding is No. 1. A good, thick memory foam mattress topper, mattress cover, cozy quality sheets, comforter and study pillow can improve your dorm night’s sleep. I love anything and everything tie-dye, batik or shibori for twin XL college bedding.”
$31.99 at Amazon
A waterproof mattress protector was cited by nearly all of our interior designers as a must-have, and this one from Amazon is a customer favorite, with more than 182,000 positive reviews. Done and done.