College Life

Let’s Break Down the Differences Between Dorm Life and Living Off Campus

published Sep 13, 2023
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When Taylor Swift so eloquently sang, “It’s miserable and magical at the same time,” I know she was talking about being 22 — but she just as easily could have been discussing college housing. 

Living in a college dorm is an experience unlike anything else you will have in your life. At any given moment it might be the most fun thing you’ve ever done, or the hardest thing you’ve ever done (or both). But living off campus comes with its own set of challenges and delights, too. While I can’t say one experience is better or worse than the other, I can say it was a pretty big transition when I went from dorming with one roommate my freshman year to sharing an off-campus house with seven other women my sophomore year. Both of these experiences had their magical moments — and their miserable moments, too. 

While housing situations can look vastly different depending on your location, roommate situation, and the resources available to you, at my school (Rutgers University) it’s pretty common to spend a year or two in the dorms before moving into a shared space off campus. If that’s something you’re considering doing, it’s worth preparing a bit for the changes you’re about to face as you make the transition.

Here are the biggest differences to expect when going from a traditional double dorm room to a shared house, and how you can embrace them, coming from a student who’s done both. 

Credit: Maskot / Getty Images

You have more privacy.

In a traditional double dorm room, you and your roommate are in each other’s space all the time. You’re never truly alone — unless you’ve studied your roomie’s schedule to figure out when you’ll have a free hour to yourself. 

If you lucked into getting your own room in a shared house, you have your own private area to just be. Of course, you still have to share the rest of the house with your roommates.

In both cases, it’s important to set time to be apart from the people you are living with. When dorming, this might have meant spending more time outside of your dorm, while in a house, you’ll probably get your me time within the comfort of your bedroom.

Feeding yourself is easier — but more time-consuming.

One of the biggest game-changers of moving into a house was being able to cook my own meals. While some students choose to stick with the meal plan even after switching to off-campus housing, I was ready to make use of my new kitchen. I loved having my own place to prepare meals because I didn’t have to rely on the dining halls to get my food and I could cook what I wanted. 

That said, you will likely need to buy many more kitchen supplies now that you actually have a kitchen and not just a mini-fridge and microwave. You will definitely need a good frying pan and a cooking spatula. (TBH, if you’re new to cooking, you can get away with making most of your meals with these two items.) You’ll also need storage containers for leftovers (great for meal prepping in a house). 

Of course, it’s way more time-consuming to shop for food, make your meals, and clean up after yourself than it is to just pop into the dining hall for a quick bite — but to me, the trade-off was worth it. 

Yes, you have to clean your bathroom now.

Living off campus means having more responsibility to clean up after yourself than you would in a dorm. Not only do you have to keep your personal space tidy, but you also have to take into consideration the shared spaces such as your kitchen, living room, and the dreaded bathroom.

In your dorm, you may have needed to communicate with your roommate about who would need to take out the trash or disinfect surfaces, but in a shared house, the need to collaborate on chores is much greater. Be sure to pitch in an equal amount — and don’t forget there’s no communal bathroom custodial staff around to fish all your hair out of the shower drain anymore.

Also, don’t forget: With more space to clean up also comes a need for more cleaning products, including a toilet cleaner and scrubber, multi-purpose spray, and grease cleaner. Be sure to stay stocked up on those items you’ll need to get the job done. 

Studying requires more strategizing.

While cohabitating in a dorm room, you probably spent a lot of your time studying in the library, a coffee shop — basically anywhere that wasn’t the tiny box you shared with another human who might be distracting. 

In a house, it’s easier to make your private bedroom a good space to study, but you run the risk of being too relaxed, with your comfy bed right there, just waiting for you to crawl into it. As an alternative, you could try studying in your kitchen or another shared space. (In my house, I loved getting to study in my favorite squashy chair in the living room.) But then, of course, you run the risk of getting interrupted by your housemates. 

TBH, you might end up back at the same study spots you used when you were living in the dorms — if it works, it works!

You have more relationships to manage.

With heightened emotions, stressful classes, and brand-new environments, college drama can be like no other. But dorm life and house life can present different ways for the drama to play out. In a dorm, you live in very close quarters with one other person, so the environment is really dependent on your relationship, level of closeness, and lifestyle preferences. 

This is also the case when it comes to living in a house, except the dynamic changes when it’s not just a one-on-one relationship. When you’re living with a group of people, arguments and disagreements with one housemate can sometimes involve more people than you’d like, or they can become overly complicated when multiple personalities and emotions are involved.

The upside of living with multiple people in a shared house is having a built-in group of friends with whom you can share memories. (I’ll cherish my memories with my housemates forever.) Having a support system in college is so important, and you can definitely find that when you all live under one roof.

Isabella Hussar

Journalism and Political Science

Isabella Hussar is an aspiring journalist at Rutgers University. She is published in Rutgers' Daily Targum and HerCampus, and works for Rutgers' School of Communication & Information. If she's not in her cozy college apartment, you can most definitely find her in New York, where she's trying a new restaurant or taking Instagram photos of her outfits.

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SchoolRutgers University '25
MajorJournalism and Political Science
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