Where to Live While Going to School

If you’re working through your college applications right now, the question of where exactly you’re going to live when you get there may not be at the top of your mind.

Still, it’s helpful to give it some thought in advance, especially if you’re making the choice between distant campuses and ones close to home. As someone who’s lived on campus, off campus, and at my family home while going to school, I hope I can help you make a decision that suits your needs.

At Home

If your campus is close enough, you can save a lot of money by commuting from your family home. This option also has the simultaneous pro and con of being familiar; you won’t be going out of your comfort zone, but sometimes going out of your comfort zone is one of the best parts of the college experience.

If you do decide to commute from home, try to stay engaged with campus life by joining a club, playing an intramural sport, or participating in a study group. You can also make the most of a long commute by using the time to study and do course readings, or even to make friends with fellow students on the same transit route.

Of course, if you’re going to a school that’s outside of your home city or country, you won’t have this option; you’ll either need to live on residence or find off-campus housing.

Residence

Why live on residence? Well, it offers a kind of halfway-point between living at home and living off-campus. You’ll have the independence of your own room, or a space you share with one or more roommates, but a wider dorm community close by.

You’ll usually have a meal plan that gives you access to a cafeteria or dining room, and some upper-year dorms may also have full cooking facilities. And the shared experience of living on campus often makes it easy to make new friends.

There will likely be a full range of activities and events to join, and plenty of new people to say hello to while you do your laundry or wait in line for a meal. And going over to a friend’s “house” for a gathering is as simple as walking down the hall.

If you are concerned that loud parties may make it hard for you to get your homework done, your school might offer special “study intensive” floors with stricter rules about noise. If possible, take a campus tour that will allow you to look at the residences first-hand, so that you can try to gauge what social environments are the norm there before you commit.

Why not live on residence? Well, roommates aren’t for everyone. If you like having a space completely to yourself, you probably won’t enjoy having to share one. Even residences with separate rooms for each student will likely still require you to share a bathroom and kitchen area.

The culture of student dorms can also vary from place to place, and if you feel out of step with the wider culture, it can feel lonely at times. This applies just as much to people who want to get out there and socialize in largely introverted dorm environments as it does to people who want to study quietly in more socially-oriented dorms.

Finally, residence can be expensive; in most cities, you can find cheaper food and accommodation off-campus (if you know what you’re doing). The catch is that, if you’re going to school in a new town and living away from home for the first time, it’s hard to know what you’re doing.

Based on these pros and cons, you might find yourself doing what many other students do: staying on residence for the first year of university, and then finding off-campus housing in later years.

Off-campus

Living off-campus is a first taste of independent adulthood for many students. Depending on the rental prices of the area around your school, you may still need to live with roommates. You’ll also need to be on top of grocery shopping and cooking, or at least managing the budget of your eating-out expenditures.

However, if you find a building and an area you like, and are able to save money that would otherwise go towards an expensive residence, then off-campus living will be well worth it.  

If you start looking for off-campus housing before you know your new city well, try to get a sense of average commuting times and neighborhood amenities before committing to a location.

If you come from a big city like New York or Chicago, you’re probably used to extensive public transit networks and commutes of twenty minutes or more. You’re probably also used to low rental vacancy rates that put the pressure on you to choose somewhere fast.

But if you pick a place twenty minutes from campus in a smaller college town—somewhere like Bloomington, Ithaca, Urbana, or Chapel Hill—you might find that those twenty minutes feel much longer. Buses might run less frequently, and there might be fewer stores, restaurants, or student hangouts that far away from school.

I made that mistake in graduate school, paying more for a room very far from campus than I could have for one a ten-minute walk away. For this reason, it pays to slow down, do some research, and take your time.

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