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What is a Dormitory?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A dormitory, or dorm, is a facility that houses beds for large numbers of people. As the Latin roots for this word imply, it is intended primarily for sleeping, and it is often attached to an institution. Dormitories are used to house prisoners, students, and members of militaries, and they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes all over the world. In some regions, there has been a shift away from the use of this term to describe facilities that are used for mixed purposes, like sleeping, studying, and recreating.

The origins of the dormitory are ancient, as people have always needed a place to sleep at night, and those in institutions have required sleeping space for large numbers of individuals. Housing people this way makes far more sense from an economic standpoint than giving people private rooms and homes, as it allows significant numbers of people to sleep in a comparatively small area. Living this way can also promote bonding, cooperation, and social skills among the residents.

Generally, a dorm sleeps any group of people larger than two, in a variety of configurations. Some have large halls which may have tens or even hundreds of beds where people all sleep together, while others are divided into smaller rooms that sleep two to six people. The space is usually quite utilitarian, with shared bathrooms and limited space, since the primary purpose is to provide sleeping quarters. Some dorms provide bedding, towels, and other supplies to their residents, while others require people to bring their own linens.

In schools, the term “residence hall” is often preferred, as it emphasizes the fact that students engage in a number of activities in their residences, not just sleeping. This is especially true of smaller colleges, where halls may house 25 to 30 students in a mixture of single and double rooms. “Residence hall” also differentiates college facilities from the more spartan institutional dormitories found at prisons and on military bases, and it is viewed as more welcoming and inviting.

Some hostels also offer dormitories so that travelers can get an especially low nightly rate, and public ones are sometimes established to provide shelter for homeless people or the victims of natural disasters. These temporary facilities are designed to ensure that people in immediate need of shelter can access it, and they may have strict rules about check in and check out times, along with regulations about the kind of activities permitted.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By letshearit — On Jun 21, 2011

If you are traveling cheaply, staying at hostels with dormitories can save you a lot of cash. A long time staple of backpackers, most quality hostels keep their dorms clean and quiet. The hostels also provide a safe place to keep your belongings, usually in a locker.

At hostels the dormitories are usually divided by sex, but there are very large ones that have mixed rooms. It is always a good idea to inquire about which set up it is if the idea of sharing a room with strangers of the opposite sex bothers you.

I really recommend choosing a top bunk next to a wall, and in a corner, if you want the best night's sleep possible at a hostel dorm. Having people climb down past you, or always having others navigate past you can be a pain.

By Sara007 — On Jun 19, 2011

Moving away from home and into a dormitory can be a huge step for a lot of people. One of the strangest things for me to get used to was having to share the bathrooms and kitchen with total strangers.

I recommend that if you aren't used to sharing a room with others that you pay the extra to have a single room. I did this and it was a great retreat from the chaos on my floor. I loved meeting all the new people, but it was a bit overwhelming too. This is extra important if you are a quieter person who likes to enjoy downtime.

I remember some of my friends getting stuck with loud roommates and always complaining. I think it is best to either live with someone you know or stick to a solo room.

By Windchime — On Jun 19, 2011

I spent one semester studying abroad and living in a Japanese dormitory the university provided. It took a bit of getting used to, having never shared a small space with so many people before.

There were ten of us in one large room and only one bathroom, so you can imagine that the mornings were a bit stressful. The dormitory furniture would best be described as utilitarian, functional but nothing you'd want to take home with you.

Some people I met said that this style of housing is quite common for single company employees, and that the conditions can be even more cramped! I find that hard to imagine.

It was a lot of fun for a short time, but all in all I really came to appreciate my personal space and own room, which I had always taken for granted.

By mutsy — On Jun 19, 2011

@SurfNTurf - I love those loft bedroom sets. I know that when my niece goes to college in the fall she will have to buy some sheets for her dormitory mattress and they tend to be a little longer than the typical twin mattress.

She said that it is a twin extra long. I am going to wait until August to get some sheet sets for her because that is when they usually go on sale. I want to get her a few of the t shirt sheet sets. They are so soft and comfortable.

I am also thinking of getting her some other dormitory bedding, but I want to see how she is going to set up her campus dormitory before I buy her a bed in a bag.

I know that her school requires incoming freshmen to live on campus and on the second year they can live off campus if they like. I hope she stays in the dorm because at least there will be campus security onsite which does make me feel better about her living in dormitory housing.

By surfNturf — On Jun 19, 2011

I really like college dormitory furniture. These designs save a lot of space and really look attractive. For example, you can get a twin loft style bed on the top layer and a desk underneath it. I am thinking about getting this dormitory design for my daughter’s bedroom because she is looking for a more grown up feel to her bedroom.

I was thinking of incorporating a lot of storage bins and brightly colored bean bag chairs. I really like the hot pink and the lime combinations. They really add a punch of color to the room without having to use any paint.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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