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How to Keep Your Dorm Room Clean (Without Annoying Your Roommate)

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I confess. I was the dirty roommate.

I didn’t (and don’t) vacuum, mop or dust. I was (and am) blind to all things smudgy and crummy. My college roommate, on the other hand, did all three and had excellent vision. Imagine her disappointment about a week-and-a-half into living with me.


Still, even when a “clean type” (I like to call them that) finds him- or herself in a single, entirely in control, a dorm room can offer some special challenges. In short: Most dorm rooms are tiny. On average, about 230 square feet (21 square meters), which is smaller than the smallest possible one-car-garage [sources: Dimensions Info, Rees].

This has cleaning up-sides. Vacuuming or sweeping is a 90-second job. The big problem is this: The smaller the space, the bigger the clutter. And when that small space serves as bedroom, study room, entertainment center and makeshift kitchen, it only shrinks. One outfit left on the floor can change everything when the amount of open floor space is about the size of a pair of jeans. Remnants of a microwave breakfast left in the trash can turn a dorm room into nothing but stink in the time it takes to sleep through one class.

For many students, it’s not even just about cleanliness. Stink and clutter can make concentrating on a research paper or entertaining guests somewhat hard.

So students, especially first-timers, can find themselves in a pickle. It’s not hopeless, though. A dorm room can be as clean as you, and your roommate, need it to be. It may take some revision in cleaning habits – and in your needs – but it’s doable.

First step: Look around. What about your room is dirtier or messier than you need it to be? Chances are, what you see is going to fall into some pretty standard categories.


Problem: The Smell

Two of the biggest problems most dorm dwellers deal with are clutter and odors.

Let’s assume, for the time being, you are your dorm room’s only keeper. This probably means your room is even smaller than 230 square feet, but it also simplifies things tremendously.


Standard cleaning tasks don’t change. To keep your space clean, vacuum and dust every one or two weeks. Clean up spills immediately. Wash your linens once a week. If you have a microwave and mini-fridge, wipe them down with disinfecting cloths regularly, and dump old food from the fridge as soon as you know you won’t be eating it.

Here’s where tasks start to change: Unless you want your room to smell like whatever you won’t be eating, don’t throw that food into your little trash can.

Smells can quickly become overwhelming in a small space. To avoid this pitfall, you likely need to alter your habits a little:

Take your old food right to the dumpster. If you’re on the fourth floor, it’s good exercise.

Don’t just empty your trash can. Wipe it down with a disinfectant, too. Or better yet, always use a plastic bag as a liner so trash doesn’t touch the can. Then you only need to wipe it down when something leaks.

Keep sweaty or wet clothing and linens separate from regular laundry, preferably in a bag you can tie or seal in some way (a trash bag is good), and clean that stuff as soon as you have enough to justify a wash on the “small load” setting.

If you smoke, smoke outside. Same goes for any smoking friends.

When weather permits, open a window to air out the room. This is especially helpful when it’s sunny, since sunlight is a natural disinfectant – any rugs or bedding you can hang out the window for an hour would benefit greatly [source: Wieman].

If the room still smells after all that, or you just can’t drag yourself outside for that cigarette, try an air freshener or deodorizing spray. Not everyone likes the scent of these products, but they probably smell better than nicotine and sweat.

Now, onto the clutter.

Odors aren’t the only icky result of leaving leftovers in your trash can and crumbs all over the microwave. Rats, mice, cockroaches and/or ants, depending on your school’s location, might take up residence in your room if you’re offering free food.


Problem: The Clutter

Two things are going to get you most of the way to a tidy dorm room: organization skills and smart storage choices. Together, they pretty much mean that almost all your stuff is tucked away, and it’s tucked away logically. Throwing all your junk in the closet and pushing the door shut doesn’t count.

Once you see your dorm room, make a plan. The objectives here are twofold: Keeping it out of sight, and organizing it logically to make it easy as possible to keep it that way.


Start by dividing what you own into categories, and then assess the volume of your stuff and the storage options in your room. Next, determine the best containment strategies.

Study stuff: Is the desk a table, or are there drawers and shelves, too? If there aren’t, or if the drawers and shelves aren’t enough, invest in a file box, a desktop organizer, and a set of stacking drawers you can fit right next to or underneath the desk. A shelf over the desk can hold textbooks, computer peripherals and other larger items.

Apparel: You probably have a closet and a dresser. If your stuff doesn’t fit, try an over-the-door hanging shoe rack, closet organizers with extra shelving, and over-the-door hooks for jackets, scarves and hats. Shallow under-bed boxes are lifesavers, too, especially for bulky winter sweaters.

Bed and bath belongings: Put all of your bathing supplies in a shower caddy, any makeup in a makeup bag or box, and designate a spot for them. Stacking drawers, a wall shelf, or a crate can hold these neatly.

Whenever possible, go double-duty and/or off-the-floor. Anything you can attach to a wall, hang from a ceiling or use for multiple purposes are space savers. Stacking crates and trunks can double as tables and seating, and a light you can hang from the ceiling frees up surface space for jewelry boxes, tissues and other miscellaneous items.

Once you’ve got the means to tuck everything neatly away where you can easily find it and return it, all that’s left is actually using the system – all the time, every day. If you don’t take the two seconds to put your books back on the shelf, you might as well have no system at all.

Now, the harder part: You’re probably not your dorm room’s only keeper.


Problem: The Roommate

My roommate saw me as a spoiled, lazy slob. I know this because she told me. This was likely her first mistake.

How you go about confronting the cleaning conflict makes all the difference in the world, and it starts with realistic expectations. First, your roommate’s 115 square feet (10.6 square meters) is beyond your scope. Focus on the habits that affect your 115 square feet, like throwing stuff on the floor, producing odors and leaving exploded pasta in the microwave indefinitely.


Second, a messy person is not going to suddenly become a clean freak, so your aim here is change, not revolution. Even inspiring change may prove a struggle, but there are ways to both increase and decrease your odds of success.

If you want to live in a constant state of tension (and probably little change in housekeeping habits) try these fun activities:

Yell, “Clean your junk up, you spoiled, lazy slob!”

Make passive-aggressive comments like, “Dirty roommates are so inconsiderate” and “I don’t know how this room gets so messy with just the two of us.” Also, go around picking up his or her stuff as you mutter, “This isn’t mine. This isn’t mine. This isn’t mine.”

Vent to your Facebook friends about the problem before you tell your roommate.

Silently glare at the soda your roommate spilled on the floor whenever you’re both in the room. Is she gonna wipe that up or what?

If want to live in a cleaner space with someone who still talks to you, do this instead:

Share your cleaning habits and expectations on day one. You might avoid the conflict in the first place.

Talk to your roommate as soon as the problem comes up. Festering leads to “Clean your mess up, you spoiled, lazy slob!”

When expressing your displeasure, say “I,” not “you,” as in, “I like my home to be cleaner than this,” not “You’re making our room such a mess.”

Be specific about what bothers you and why. Instead of “Jeez, would you clean up after yourself?” try “Would you please put your leftovers in the dumpster instead of the trash can? The smell of old food really bothers me.”

Set up, together, a cleaning schedule that addresses both of your needs. Maybe you take care of the big jobs on Sunday together so you don’t nag her about them the rest of the week. Rotate tasks, and be flexible about trading jobs if there’s something you don’t mind but your roommate particularly hates doing.

Hopefully, your roommate is someone who knows how to compromise and cares about other people’s needs. If so, you may be able to get a little bit closer to the tiny dorm room of your dreams.

If not, chalk it up to character-building, get the heck out in May, and room with someone more like yourself next year. A “clean type.”

Or, do what I did and beg for a single. Crying can help. Just don’t overdo it.


Lots More Information

Author’s Note: How to Keep Your Dorm Room Clean (Without Annoying Your Roommate)

This article was an eye-opener for me. Both I and my roommate made every mistake in the book trying to address the conflict. Conflict resolution really is an art, and I think I provided here some fairly comprehensive and effective methods of “cleaning up” the issue. I can certainly vouch for the “Don’t” list. Oh, how she annoyed me. And I became even dirtier to annoy her back.

I did e-mail an apology for my filthiness in the midst of my research. She forgives me.

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College Candy. “5 Common Roommate Problems – And How to Deal.” March 19, 2011. (June 12, 2013) http://collegecandy.com/2011/03/19/5-common-roommate-problems-and-how-to-deal/

Dimensions Info. “How Big is a 1 Car Garage?” (June 12, 2013) http://www.dimensionsinfo.com/how-big-is-a-1-car-garage/

eCampusTours. “Dorm Room Cleaning Tips.” Feb. 22, 2012. (June 12, 2013) http://www.ecampustours.com/for-students/campus-life/living-on-and-off-campus/dorm-room-cleaning-tips#.Ubi0tJzNl6M

Rees, Lauren. “Dorm Life: Living in 114 square feet.” The Register-Mail. July 24, 2010. (June 12, 2013) http://www.galesburg.com/newsnow/x479056871/Dorm-life-Living-in-114-square-feet#axzz2W27J78Nl

Solomon, Christopher. “Roommate survival guide: 15 strategies to make it work.” MSN Real Estate. (June 12, 2013) http://realestate.msn.com/article.aspx?cp-documentid=19853321

Tippet, Elizabeth. “The Dirty Roommate.” WORKS by Nicole Williams. (June 12, 2013) http://www.nicolewilliams.com/living/the-dirty-roommate?page=0,0

Walsh, Peter. “Clean Up Your Messy Dorm Room.” Oprah. (June 12, 2013) http://www.oprah.com/home/Clean-Up-Your-Messy-Dorm-Room/1

Wieman, Bethany. “Natural Alternatives to Bleach for Disinfecting.” National Geographic. (June 14, 2013) http://greenliving.nationalgeographic.com/natural-alternatives-bleach-disinfecting-2724.html

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