How to Be a Good College Dorm/Apartment Host

When I went to Georgia Tech for my first major hackathon, I had the pleasure of staying with an old friend I’d met through a Muslim youth camp the winter before, Waseem Hussain, and he turned out to be the best overnight host I have ever had. I just recently hosted my own friend at my dorm, and I tried to model my hosting after Waseem’s. Having now been on both sides of the equation, I’ve come up with a list of ways to be a good host for your guest (I will refer to your guest as “he” for the sake of brevity, but everything I write can be applied to hosting both genders), assuming that they’re staying at your dorm or apartment (I’ll just say dorm, but this applies for apartments as well) for anywhere between one or two nights and a few hours:

Brief your roommates and dorm mates of your guest’s plans ahead of time. This avoids the following problems:

  • Your roommates disturbing your guest when they are sleeping
  • Your roommates not having the chance to prepare for sleeping with someone different on the bed near them
  • Your dorm mates being ignorant of the idiosyncrasies and date of arrival of your guest. This will also be an opportunity to inform them of any idiosyncrasies of your guest that would change (in a positive way, of course) the way your dorm mates interact with them.
  • Your roommates shocked that you didn’t trust them, and feeling insulted they were denied the common courtesy of knowing someone other than you would be sleeping in the same room as them

This solution also has the chief benefit of getting sleeping equipment that you otherwise wouldn’t have had. Need an extra towel, pillow, blanket, or bed sheet? Letting your roommates know ahead of time will allow them to prepare their rarely used ones.

Your money is their money. While your guest is under your care, obstruct all of his attempts to spend his own money (within reason, of course). Your guest has come all the way from who knows where and has already spent a lot on travel and meals and supplies and bribes and who-knows-what-else along their journey. Allow him to relax and forget about his financial situation by taking care of his expenses while he’s with you. Another way to look at it: when your guest is under your care, he’s “entered your house” – if you wouldn’t expect your friend to pay for meals or amenities when he comes over to your real house, he shouldn’t have to pay when in, to them, an unfamiliar environment, which, to you, is a familiar environment.

Despite your best efforts, however, some cavaliers may insist on paying for themselves in the moment when it’s time to cut the check at the restaurant – to avoid this disaster, take action when you first meet them by laying down the ground rules, the first of which is that they don’t get to spend a single dime while under your care.

Of course, there are circumstances where it doesn’t make sense to splurge on his behalf. For example, you shouldn’t put yourself in the position where you approve their purchases – please allow them to spend their money as they please when they are by themselves. Also, do not offer to reimburse their $100+ cab fare from your dorm to the airport – if you’re reading this, you’re probably a broke college kid too. Lastly, if your financial situation doesn’t allow you to spend as much money as your guest as the most extreme laws of hospitality call for, be the best judge of how to save your money. Perhaps explain the situation – no one wants to be thought of as stingy or selfish simply for being financially sensible. Or just don’t offer – most people won’t have this expectation.

Never allow your guest to feel like he’s imposing on you. You’re a busy college kid, and that’s a hard fact of life. If your guest have awareness about when they’ve arrived and where they are, they will understand that you’re in the middle of an academic period and will try to not take up too much of your time, especially if they believe you would have otherwise used that time to study or catch up on homework. As the host striving for perfection, this is not an option for them. If he arrives at the conclusion that he did impose, he will feel guilty, uncomfortable, and possibly even misunderstood in his intentions for staying with you.

Don’t work on anything major when he’s under your care. Work ahead of time to finish everything you would have otherwise done in the time you spend not them. This will avoid making him a) feel unimportant b) not special and/or c) imposing. But take it one step further  – give the appearance that you’re still productive with him around (regardless of whether you actually are productive around him or not). Work on something minor, but make sure you do it where they can see you.

When I stayed over with Waseem, he went above and beyond and faked losing his apartment key so that they’d give him an extra one for a couple of days – and suddenly I had my own in and out to his apartment. I didn’t need him or his apartment mates to be there for the simple task of entering the small living space they’d set up for me in their common room. This definitely contributed to allowing me to feel like I wasn’t imposing on him, and I felt far more free and independent – just like I would at my own suite or back home. This obviously isn’t viable at all universities, but it was a thoughtful touch that truly made my stay extra memorable.

If you can accomplish all this, here’s what will be going through your guest’s mind: “I certainly had a lot of fun here with my host. We didn’t have to worry or stress about any pending tasks, which is exactly what I wanted to get away from when I left on this trip. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I imposed on him – even with me here and spending so much time with him, he still finished whatever they were able to when I was there. I even saw him working on his computer! This has been the best stay ever!!!!11!”

Above all, make your guest feel secure. Showering, using the restroom, sleeping, being in our nightclothes – these are examples of things we’ve always done in the comfortable sphere of our own living complexes. Now, your guest will be doing all of these activities in a place he’s most likely never been to, around people who he’s never met and may be uncomfortable around. He needs to feel like he is the master of his domain, that he knows every nook and cranny of the surrounding 20 feet, just like we know each nook and cranny of our rooms and common rooms. This spatial, self-generated (as opposed to verbal reassurances or persuasion from the host) guarantee of safety is key to his relaxing. Convince your guest he is secure by doing the following things:

  • Educate him on his surroundings. Show him around your living area. Show him the bathrooms and showers. Allow him to know the major components of his surrounding environment, so that in case he needs something important (like a sink or a toilet) he doesn’t need to search for it.
  • Without boring him, educate him on intimate details about his surroundings. Tell him about how the tap in your sink that’s supposed to provide an easily adjustable spectrum between hot and cold is in practice a flip switch between scalding and blood-freezing. Give him stories about major features of your room – the balcony someone threw up over, the dent in the wall when your suite mate got angry. Give him stories about minor features of your room – the small holes in the wall where you’ve put push pins where you’re not allowed to, the incessant blue light of the internet router that keeps you up at night. Tell him about the most mundane things. The more intimate knowledge he has about his surroundings, 1) the more important he’ll feel 2) the more like a member of the dorm he’ll feel and 3) the more he’ll feel at home, for the intimate knowledge you’ll be giving him is usually gained only by residing in the same place for many weeks.
  • Get your dorm mates to interact with him. Fears about security at night stem from humans, rarely from imagination. Your guest hasn’t had the time to build trust with any one of the 5-10 other people in your dorm (and maybe they shouldn’t!) Allow them to judge for themselves what kind of people their temporary dorm mates are. The feelings of security when generated from within are far more powerful than those generated by verbal reassurances.
  • Consistently ask them if you can do anything for them, and actually make them feel comfortable in asking you for something when they need it. The fact that you can get him an item he needs is not what matters – it’s that there is more security in knowing that anything you need is merely a request away. Also, there’s a difference in someone telling you they’re at your service, and feeling like someone is at your service. While you shouldn’t establish yourself as their slave,
  • Verbally guarantee and physically ensure his alone time. Whether it’s sitting down on the toilet, changing our clothes, brushing our teeth, lying in bed – there are just some things about our daily/nightly routines that we just like doing by ourselves. During these times, we are subconsciously “prepping” ourselves for the long period of vulnerability that lays ahead in sleep by processing the events of the day, taking stock of our body, and cleansing ourselves. Make sure they have a comfortable space to sleep. Once you’ve taken your leave of him, don’t keep returning back to him to check up. It feels motherly/fatherly to want to look out for them, but the action reinforces the idea that they are living in your space, instead of having their own space for the night. If you’ve done a good job of the previous bullet point, they will be able to take care of themselves on their own initiative. Make them feel like they have lived in your place for many weeks. This is especially important if your guest is used to having their own room back wherever they live.

If you follow all of this advice, your guest will truly feel at home.

Am I missing anything? Comment with more ideas below!