Do Not Decorate Your Kid’s Freshman Dorm

Tricked-out dorm rooms with cozy rugs and big-screen TVs miss the point of college.

A young woman in a spartan dorm setting at left, one in an elaborately decorated one at right.
Doris Liou

Put down that faux-fur pillow.

Drop the party lights.

Disassemble that modular storage, too.

Parents of incoming freshmen: Dorm rooms don’t need to be decorated, especially not by Mom and Dad. Ignore the siren song of Bed Bath & Beyond and stay away from YouTube, where you might see this Ole Miss dorm room, transformed into such a sugary confection that Southern Living magazine took notice.

Its adorable inhabitants rolled their eyes at the cinder-block walls and moved quickly to mask them with giant headboards. Of course, the floor was gross, too, and needed to be covered with more than one area rug. Hutches with shelving were custom-made. One of the moms hunted down antique-store finds. The dads moved the beds and got to work. Table lamps were clicked on and drapes (drapes!) hung to make it feel like home.

Dorm rooms are not supposed to feel like home.

They’re not childhood bedrooms. They’re necessarily basic, often threadbare spaces that need to be empty enough to house the hopes, dreams, disappointments, triumphs, and exultations of freshman year. Somehow, in a few decades, we’ve taken the dorm room from Spartan to tricked-out. Milk crates and concert posters are being replaced by giant TVs and gaming systems. Retailers herd students into blandly similar themes like “Glam” and “Cozy Nomad.”


This follows right along the terrible spike in the cost of college. Deloitte estimates $25.5 billion will be spent this year on “back to college” purchases, including $3.5 billion on dorm and apartment supplies. And we know who’s often paying the bill.* Like private school and travel sports teams, the overdone dorm room has become another way for parents to assert their child’s dominance.

“This is the style our child is accustomed to,” the hyperdecorated dorm room says. “This is who our child is.” Or, as the shopping website entices on its front page: “Your dorm > everybody else’s.”

No, no, no. Your kid’s dorm room should be roughly the same as everyone else’s. Though it’s becoming an elite privilege, college can still be a great equalizer. Students come from all over with whatever baggage they’re hauling around and reassemble as members of a new citizenry: Terrapins, Orangemen, Banana Slugs.


The shift from high school to college presents one of the few true reset buttons in life. Underdecorating leaves some oxygen in this pivotal room where your sons or daughters will think about who they were and who they want to be. Your kids can shake off the narrow high school persona that they have probably outgrown and fashion an identity that will fit better for the long haul.


Though there are a handful of outliers, most college freshmen have a personal style best described as “under construction.” Whatever they love now—be it soccer or sparkles—will likely not endure. Living on a raft of faddish doodads soon will feel like occupying the set of a Disney Channel show, a 10-year-old’s idea of college. Instead, nudge your freshman toward independence of all kinds, even when it comes to decorating.

Of course, one reason that parents go overboard on move-in day is to deal with their own churn of emotions. I know—I’ve done it twice. But buying a lot of supposedly unique décor won’t help you handle the experience of leaving a child at college for freshman year. On move-in day, try to put yourself somewhere around a six on the emotional scale. You want to engage with the experience, but you don’t want to be crying at the first glimpse of campus. Even if you hold back on the decorating, you’ll still have plenty to do. Make sure to bring scissors and garbage bags. Work efficiently and know when to go. I recommend you finish your contributions by making the bed. It feels good to do this for them, especially if you have already washed the bedding so those twin XL sheets have a scent of the familiar.

The made bed is enough. Even if you spent all day constructing and designing a dream dorm room, you could never recreate the cocoon they had at home. And that’s the idea. The goal of freshman year is actually to unmake the cocoon, to tear it open a bit so that someone can wiggle out. Hopefully, a grown-up.

Correction, Aug. 20, 2018: This post originally misstated the amount of money spent by Americans on dorm and apartment supplies. It is $3.5 billion, not $3.5 million.