College Apartment Decorating Tips

Q. Hi Jordan!

I’m a freshman in college and just found out I’ll be living in apartment-style campus housing next year…we’ve already started planning because we’re so excited! However, we’re limited by budget and the fact that we can’t make any sort of permanent change or provide a whole lot of furniture (the place comes with standard dorm built-ins, couches, etc.).

I love what you’ve done with your apartment and figure the same concepts could apply to our space. Do you have any tips for making it cozy, functional, and cute?


A. This is a great situation to be in: you basically get to do all the exciting decor stuff – playing with color and style – without having to make any major financial investments or long-term commitments…and that is awesome. Always dreamed of having a Moroccan-style living room with tons of pillows piled on the floor? Do it. Fantasize about having one of those net curtains around your bed? Now’s the time to pick one up. Think inexpensive, think adventurous, and think fun. 

Easy Style Updates:

1. Plants. Incorporate at least one bit of greenery into every room. I go for fake over real because I have a Black Thumb, but whatever you choose, it’ll go a long way towards making your temporary rental feel like a for-real home.

2. Soft Stuff. Curtains and rugs provide instant coziness, and are an easy way to add colors and patterns to a simply decorated space. Curtains in particular do wonders to soften a room, and you can find chic styles at low prices (try World Market and Urban Outfitters). You might also want to consider splurging on some pretty rods or tie-backs, which really make a room look finished and can easily come with you when you move (but be sure to fill in those holes so you don’t lose your deposit!).

3. Mirrors. They’re gorgeous, they make small rooms look instantly larger, and they’re fun to hunt around for at yard sales and flea markets. Try either one large mirror in a striking frame above the couch, or a selection of smaller mirrors in mismatched shapes and frames grouped on one wall.

4. Color & Texture. Since you’re probably working with a fairly neutral starting palette, look for creative ways to add interest, like the fabric headboard and “grass” rug in the above photo.

5. Lighting. Lighting is so important for making a place feel homey. In every rental apartment I’ve lived in, one of the things that’s made the biggest difference to me is having lots of good light – at the very least, consider a retro standing lamp to brighten a dark corner.

If You Have A Little Extra Time & Money:

1. Paint or Wall Art. A coat of bright paint on a single wall can make the entire apartment feel brand-new (you may also want to just paint the moldings; this is a quick way to give a room some character). Remember, though, you’ll have to return the apartment to its original look when you leave, so that’s something to keep in mind…and is the reason why you might want to go for interesting wall art (or decals) instead.

2. Ceiling Fan. A ceiling fan makes a world of difference in terms of the feel of your apartment, and isn’t all that difficult to install as long as you already have a central light fixture.

3. Pendant Lighting Fixture. I never wanted to invest in one of these because I thought, you know, how annoying to have to a) install and b) take with you when you move…but I put one in our nursery, and boom: the room instantly looked more finished and like an actual home that actual people lived in. And these can be more affordable than you think: I love the options from West Elm and, of course, the Mason Jar Pendant Lighting Fixture from Pottery Barn (100% putting one in our kitchen in the new place).

You might also want to check out these links:

Rental Apartment Re-Do

Personalize Your Rental Apartment

Small Space Decor

Decorating Narrow Spaces

Getting Back Your Security Deposit

And finally, just because your question got me all nostalgic and sent me rifling through old photo albums last night…

want to see a photo of my freshman year dorm room?

Not terribly homey, but still: memories.

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