College: Dorm Life

Wondering what you need to do for your first semester in a college dormitory/residence hall? These tips will get you started.

Sharing a room with your kid brother eight years ago might help prepare you for life in a dorm today, but don't bet on it. Things are different now: you've grown up, matured, and - hopefully - learned that sticking carrots into your ears usually isn't a good icebreaker.

First things first: meet your roommates as early as possible. Most schools will mail a contact sheet with their addresses (or more). This should give you enough time to write a friendly letter introducing yourself, sharing your e-mail address if it wasn't provided to them, and letting them know a little about yourself.

However, you can't say just anything and hope to make friends.

GOOD LETTER: "Hi. I'm Jill Doe, your new roommate for the Fall semester. I'm an English major; I think I might try a minor in Creative Writing. I also love watching Must-See TV. My e-mail address is [email protected] - let me know what you're bringing for our room so we don't end up with three refrigerators and no microwave. See you soon!"

It only takes a couple of moments to write. You don't sound like a self-absorbed jerk. The new roomie has just enough information about you to form some sort of a reply if she chooses to e-mail you.

The most important part of this letter, though, is the fact that you asked the roommate what she's bringing. That way you don't end up with two microwaves, no television set, and twenty plastic cups that you'll never use.

Don't worry if you don't receive a reply from any of your roommates. If you miss this opportunity to make contact, you'll get to meet them on move-in day - and that's when you can make your good first impression.

Now, what do you do before you start packing your bags and saying good-bye to your high-school pals?

First, BE SURE THAT EVERYTHING IS IN ORDER. You should have a stack of correspondence from the school's housing office; it'll tower over your head by the time you move in for your first semester. Make sure that your account is paid in full, any financial aid is squared away, and that you know where you're going once you get to your campus. You can check the school's Web site for campus maps, or pick one up at an information center on visiting day. Either way, a general idea of the campus layout will only help you your first few weeks of school.

Pack everything that you know you'll need for the next four months or so. Don't forget that the weather WILL change by the time you take finals: it'll get colder or hotter, depending on where you live and what time of year you leave. Pack the jacket, sandals, sun hat, muffler, and gloves. It's better than having Mom and Dad ship them your way in the middle of a deep freeze or warming trend.

Before you pack the pretty candles and incense sticks, check your contract. Most on-campus housing is candle-free (some students in the past had very bad luck with burning down their whole building and REALLY upsetting everyone else living there). You probably can't have firearms, fireworks, knives, or other weaponry either. Know the rules before you get there so you won't have to waste your time digging through all your bags and boxes to find the banned items to send back home with Mom and Dad.

If you're thinking that nobody will notice, or that it's okay to have just one little banned item, think again: most universities will slap you with a hefty fine - or, worse, kick you out of the residence hall and refuse to let you back in ... ever. It's not worth it, especially if you're trying to smuggle something like a candle.

Also: check to see what's provided with the room. Do you need to bring a mini-fridge, or is it provided? Are you going to need a microwave, or is the roommate bringing one? Be sure to have a contingency plan just in case something falls through: one of the advantages of having Mom and Dad (or friends) drop you off is that you can always send extra items home with them.

If you're on any medications, be sure to register them with your hall director. He or she will need to know what you're supposed to have, especially if it's something a little stronger than Tylenol PM. If nothing else, it doesn't hurt to let someone in charge know what's going on so that he or she will understand your situation if you need help in an emergency.

Once you show up and check in, you can start moving in and setting up things the way you want them. This is when you meet your roommate and decide who gets which bed, what cleaning supplies to buy, and whose CDs to play while settling in the first day you're there.

Unpack and arrange everything, or as much of it as you can get around to unpacking the first day. Say good-bye to Mom and Dad, punch the little brother in the arm for good luck, and go explore your new home. This is your place for the next few months, so be familiar with it. Some of the things you need to do before the first day of classes include:

-Meeting your Residential Assistant. The RA is there to help you out. He or she is a student just like you, who's been at this school long enough to know what's going on. You can usually get questions answered through this person, or at least learn where to go. Good questions include: "Where's the cafeteria?" "How come my cable isn't working - I'm paying good money for this place!" and, of course, "When does my boyfriend have to leave my room?"

-Orienting yourself to the new building. Find the emergency exits and your classroom buildings in relation to your new home. What's the fastest way to reach the cafeteria from your room? Where is the dorm's office?

-Checking out the bookstore, financial aid office, and other important areas of the campus. Finding these places before the first day of classes will alleviate some of the confusion - and give you the opportunity to run into new people while you're out and about.

-Putting up all those great posters you brought from home. Okay, so you brought more posters than you have room for on your half of the room, but you can always put a few on the ceiling!

Above all, do well. This is your opportunity to do great things. Take advantage of it while it's here. And if your roommate is a complete dork, remember: sticking carrots up her nose won't make things any better.

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