If you're planning to attend a medium-sized or large university, you might find that one of the most difficult decisions you'll need to make while still in high school is which dorm you'd like to live in. The dorm-selection process differs with every school, but most schools offer the chance to pick your top two or three preferences for dorm assignments (unless you want to live in an honors dorm, in which case you'll probably have to apply and be accepted). But how are you supposed to decide?
First, consider the kind of dorm you want to live in. It varies greatly from school to school, but nearly all colleges and universities have some variety of specialized dorms — honors dorms, international dorms, single-sex dorms, co-ed dorms, freshmen dorms, etc.
Once you've decided what kind of dorm you want to live in, research the prospects with the admissions officers. They can tell you if certain dorms attract certain students. For example, the journalism students and school newspaper staff might all live in the dorm nearest the School of Journalism; or it might not be a coincidence that most of the football team lives in the dorm nearest the athletic fields. School officials will know these rules of thumb and should be happy to share their knowledge.
Also during your admissions interviews, ask if there's anything special about certain dorms. You might find that the oldest dorms on campus don't have the most up-to-date bathrooms, or that a particular dorm was recently renovated and now offers free Wi-Fi. Or you might find that the dorm with the central kitchen or menu-planning operations has the best cafeteria food.
On your campus visits, keep asking questions. Ask your tour guides, orientation officers, or the older siblings of your high-school classmates where they lived as freshmen and whether they enjoyed it. Pay special attention to students who use nicknames to describe certain dorms — if your campus tour guide calls a place "Disco Driscoll" or "The McAllister Zoo," you might rightly assume it's a party dorm that you want to avoid (or try to get into). A dorm called "The Outback" might be too far from the rest of campus.
If you're looking for something smaller and more distinctive than a dorm, some universities offer a Living-Learning Center. While a major university dorm might house more students than your entire high school population, an LLC is usually much smaller and is divided into programs that bring together students who share common interests, such as music, art, technology, or science. Often in an LLC, each program follows a semester- or year-long itinerary that focuses on a core theme and offers a variety of opportunities for special guest lectures, community involvement, and independent research.
If you're looking to save room-and-board costs, many schools have another alternative to dorm life: a co-op. These residence halls tend to be farther from the academic buildings on campus (or even off-campus), but you get greatly reduced room-and-board costs in exchange for a pledge to do an allocated number of chores per week to keep the co-op going. Depending on the co-op, these chores could be anything from cleaning the bathrooms to growing your own food. (Note that if you don't honor your end of the bargain, you can be voted off the island, or kicked out of a co-op.)
Finally, if you do the research and request a certain dorm but are assigned to live somewhere else, don't panic. At the biggest universities, you might be competing with over 10,000 other incoming freshmen for the same dorm rooms. It's sure to be a minor letdown if you don't get your first choice, but if you've selected your college wisely on criteria that are important to you, you'll find that your dorm room isn't that critical to enjoying your college experience.