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College Dorm Decor Is a Lesson in Creativity

On college campuses, there are certain seasonal rites. Spring break. Freshers week. Rush. Finals. Homecoming.

As my college peers and I migrate back from our summer sojourns, another ritual is about to begin: Transforming the dorm room from gray abyss to a semblance of home.

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College students are not noted for their deep pockets. Thus, if there's an overriding theme to dorm decor, it might be: Cheap is attractive; free is down-right gorgeous.

Flea markets, garage sales, second-hand goods stores and grandmother's attic are prime sources to explore.

"You have to search for the bargains. We found some great wooden beads to hang in our doorway." says Jonathan Lee, a senior at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. "They were only $8 from the local five and dime."

Poverty is often the mother of creativity. Odd uses of everyday objects are a way of injecting individuality into your assigned cubicle.

My roommate at the University of Manchester in England used her Indian sari as a drape. Saris are widely available and inexpensive in Manchester, so you'll often see one hanging over a window or draped across a ceiling.

Mr. Lee and his roommate covered cardboard boxes with sheets and wrapping paper to make tables. "Use what you have." he says "It normally looks pretty good."

If you've got a decorating budget or a sympathetic parent ready to foot the bill, there are certain items that can be considered de rigeur in the dorm.

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"Inflatable and bean-bag chairs are really selling with the college crowd," says Scott Krugman of the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C. Inflatable furniture has the advantage of being deflatable - and therefore easily stored.

Black lights and lava lamps are also in. Plants are perennially popular. Christmas lights can give rooms a year-round festive feel.

In the quest to make maximum use of the shoe-box-size space, some students at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, have built free-standing lofts.

"Lately I've seen a lot of kids build upper-level living areas." says Sharon Blansett, assistant director of housing. "They put TVs, sound systems, and sofas up top, and then leave the beds and dressers below. It makes the room look a lot bigger."

Another way to separate sleeping from living areas is by dividing the room with screens. To create space, trunks can double as storage areas and tables, and foldaway beds such as futons, sofa-beds, or bunk beds can add room to your room.

Making a personal statement is often part of the decorating criteria. For some that means posters of sports heroes or rock stars or political causes. For Peter Cancilla, a senior at Northeastern University, in Boston, it means covering his walls in Warner Bros. cartoon characters.

Mr. Cancilla's walls are now a changing panorama. "I've covered every area of space possible. Every time I see a new picture I like, I cut it out and put it up."

Essentially, that's the bottom line in dorm decor: Almost anything goes - within reason. Before repainting the room, installing built-in bookshelves, or a towering 21-cubic foot fridge, check your residence hall regs. And make sure you get in touch with your roommates before you leave. Find out what they're bringing - you don't want to end up with four refrigerators, or in my case all seven roommates showed up with Chinese cooking woks!

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