Whether you are a college freshman embarking on your higher education journey, or a high school student attending Harvard Summer School, living away from home for the first time can be intimidating.

Dorm life is a new and exciting adventure, where you will find new friends and learn to navigate the college experience. There will likely be lots of fun along the way, but also lessons in communal living and developing personal responsibility. 

In this blog, we’ll answer some of your most pressing questions about dorm living and share tips for handling common problems.

What Should I Pack?

You may be tempted to pack everything you own to bring along to college. But dorm spaces are small, so you’ll need to prioritize. There will be opportunities to pick up supplies after moving in, so don’t worry if you’ve forgotten something.

There are many lists of “must-have dorm essentials” available online, but Harvard Summer School offers some key tips and suggestions.

What Can I Expect From Dorm Life?

If you’re feeling nervous about dorm life, you aren’t alone! For many new college students, living in a dorm is their first experience living with people outside their family.


Unless your university allows you to select a single room, you will most likely have a roommate. If you didn’t choose someone to room with ahead of time, most colleges will send a questionnaire with lifestyle questions to connect you with someone you have a good chance to get along with.

Dorm rooms are tight quarters. Along with this limited space come opportunities to develop important skills in compromising, respect, and consideration. 

If you have early classes, be thoughtful of a still-sleeping roommate. Conversely, if you’re spending late nights in the library, be considerate when coming home. Keep your part of the room neat and always ask to borrow your roommate’s belongings ahead of time.

Communal bathrooms

Many university dorms include communal bathrooms, and there will be some residents who don’t clean up after themselves. Be mindful of your own cleanliness and respect this shared space.

You’ll also want a shower caddy to bring all your supplies back and forth — anything left behind in a communal bathroom is likely to be used by multiple people or thrown away. Bring a bathrobe or other coverup for the march back to your room after showering. Lastly, don’t forget shower shoes! 

Dorm rules

Dorm buildings have rules for entry to keep residents safe, happy, and productive. These can include quiet hours, guest policies, and rules about what appliances are allowed in rooms. The rules are usually available on your school’s website. 

Resident advisors will also likely brief all residents on the rules and regulations once everyone is moved in.

New friends

You’ll be surrounded by people your own age and you’ll likely make new friends just by living together. There are many opportunities for connecting with others, including study groups, mealtimes, and social activities. Get outside of your comfort zone and explore everything dorm life has to offer!  

If you live in a single room, consider leaving your door open when you are home. This invites people to stop by and say hello!


It is perfectly normal to feel homesick at times, especially in the beginning. But this will likely pass, particularly as you involve yourself in the social life of the dorm. You can decorate your room with reminders of home and stay in touch with your friends and family. 

While your parents won’t be around when problems arise, there will be a resident advisor, commonly called the RA, to offer support and guidance and to help to maintain a safe environment.

While it may take a little time to adjust and get comfortable, dorm life is an opportunity to have fun and build lifelong friendships.

How to Get Along With Your Roommate

Whether you decided to room with a friend or were assigned a roommate by your college, getting along with a roommate is key to the dorm experience.  

Roommates don’t have to be your best friend — although they might turn out to be! The goal is to have a good relationship with the person you are sharing your living space with. 

Prioritize respect and communication, even with someone you know well. Try to talk before moving day to  learn about each other’s preferences, habits, boundaries, and interests.


Living in a small space with a new person can lead to misunderstandings and petty arguments. It is necessary to talk out problems with a roommate as soon as an issue arises. If someone is being too messy or not respecting someone’s study habits, don’t let bad feelings fester — be open and honest and have a respectful dialogue.


Ideally, roommates would share cleaning responsibilities equally, but it is often more common for one person to be neater than the other. Decide together how you will divide tasks and establish a schedule that both of you can maintain. 


Showing respect and empathy builds bonds. You may be from different cultural backgrounds, and being open to learning about and sharing food, music, hobbies, and personal experiences can go a long way.

Noise is a major issue for some students. Use headphones when you are playing music, gaming, or watching TikToks. If you have an early class and your roommate is a late sleeper, don’t hit the snooze alarm 10 times. And if they snore, pull out those earplugs from your toiletry kit, or invest in a sound machine.

If the door is closed, always knock first. Your roommate might be studying, sleeping, or entertaining a guest. 

Lastly, don’t use your roommate’s belongings without asking; it’s all just basic courtesy.

Have fun!

You are creating memories and making friends you will cherish for the rest of your life. Start with your roommate and invite them to explore the campus and local area, go to a movie, share success stories, and commiserate over tough times.

Addressing Roommate Challenges

Sometimes, despite efforts to compromise and get along, problems arise between roommates. A roommate may be messy, inconsiderate, noisy, take things that don’t belong to them, or regularly have guests who overstay their welcome.

When you are a new college student, your first impulse may be to keep your concerns to yourself to “avoid drama.” But conflict resolution is an important skill to learn to prepare for life after college, and this is a good time to gain those skills. If you find it difficult to bring up your concerns, your RA or resident dean can diffuse the situation, provide support, and offer guidance.

Address issues when they arise

Let your roommate know what is bothering you, rather than letting your feelings of frustration build up over time. Be clear, respectful, and direct —  but avoid personal attacks. The goal is to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, so work toward agreement rather than focusing on the argument.

Ask your RA for help

If talking with your roommate isn’t getting you anywhere, you might want to ask the RA for guidance. They can help you find the right words to use or directly intervene as an unbiased mediator if necessary. Your RA can also help find services and support options.

Don’t involve other people

Venting might make you feel better in the short term, but if word gets back to your roommate, you’ll have another problem to deal with. Try to keep the conflict contained and prioritize potential solutions.

Request a room change

If things really are not working out with a roommate, you can request to move to new housing, if space is available. Your RA can help you with understanding if a move is appropriate, and how to navigate college policy for rehousing. 

Developing Life Skills

The classroom isn’t the only place for learning in college — dorm life is an education unto itself. Just by living away from home with many other people, you will learn:

Independence and self-reliance

You’ll learn how to take care of yourself, do laundry, budget your money, manage your time effectively, and handle your expenses.

Communication and conflict resolution

Living with roommates will teach you how to express yourself and your needs, how to listen to others’ concerns, and how to address them with empathy and respect. 

Community building and social skills

You’ll be surrounded by people your own age in person;  this is an opportunity to build a community and practice your interpersonal skills as you make friends to last a lifetime. 

Adaptability and flexibility

You are going to meet a wide variety of students with different personalities, cultures, and backgrounds and learn how to embrace this diversity in all its forms. 

You are about to embark on a great adventure! Dorm life provides a unique social experience that is unmatched anywhere else in life. Living with fellow students provides many opportunities for learning, growing, and evolving as a human being.

You will be challenged, but you will also make memories that will last a lifetime. This experience will enrich your college experience and give you skills you will carry far into adulthood.

A college summer camp or summer academic program will give you a short-term test-run at living in dorms before you actually move to college full time. Learn more about Harvard Summer School’s college programs for high school students.